Tony's I-75 Restaurant in Birch Run, Mich., is proud home of what might well be the nation's largest BLT. Each sandwich contains a pound of bacon — about 25 to 30 deep-fried strips — stacked about 8 inches high between two slabs of white bread. On a recent visit there, Todd Fisher, host of the new series "United States of Food," was invited to sample one. "I'm not gonna lie, I was scared," he says. "I took two bites and was like, OK, I'm good."
"United States of Food" premiered Sunday on Destination America, the latest member of the Discovery Communications stable of networks. With its patriotic red, white and blue logo and self-declared mission to "celebrate the stories of America's past, present and future," Destination America offers up a vision of a land where everybody barbecues, no one eats greens, and there's a 36-foot-long Winnebago in front of every home.
Ironically, the network dedicated to the bigness of America in all its forms replaces Planet Green, an eco-friendly network that failed to find an audience over its five-year run. Destination America is leading off with a slate of original programs that includes series about fast food ("Fast Food Mania"); comfort food ("United States of Food"); Winnebagos, Corvettes and John Deere combines ("American Factory"); and extreme roller coasters ("Super-Duper Thrill Rides").
"It's a challenging time right now in this country, and we're looking for things that will unite people and bring them together," says Marc Etkind, the network's senior vice president in charge of content strategy. "You can be left or right, rich or poor, if you look at the Grand Canyon, your jaw's gonna drop."
Few things epitomize Etkind's vision of America better than "BBQ Pitmasters," a series about the high-stakes world of competitive barbecue. It had been a success on TLC, where it spent its first two seasons, but Etkind felt the show, with its mix of smoking meats and down-home combatants, would be the perfect centerpiece for his new channel.
Though the series' second season on TLC was marked by nutty food challenges (rattlesnakes, alligators, turducken) and judges with questionable barbecuing pedigrees (former NFL defensive tackle Warren Sapp), the third season got back to basics, with champion barbecuers as judges and nary a smoked reptile in sight.
"Nothing is more American, nothing is more our birthright, than barbecue," says "BBQ Pitmasters" judge Myron Mixon, a Georgia native and three-time world champion. "And this season we're staying with barbecue items. We're not trying to sensationalize with damn rattlesnakes trying to bite you and all this kind of stuff."
A lot of the credit for the channel's homespun feel goes to Etkind, whose love of America borders on the boosterish. While his friends at Brown were doing their semesters abroad in places like London and Paris, Etkind happily spent his in Fox, Ark., population 300. "I took a trip to Graceland, and you realize that you're standing in a very special place," he says. "And I think that's true whether it's the site of the first McDonald'sor Kentucky Fried Chicken, or Graceland, or Thomas Edison's home."
And the network's emphasis on calorie-laden food, grilled, deep fried, or otherwise? "Food is enjoyable," says Etkind. "You think about baseball, hot dogs and apple pie, two out of three of those are food."
"United States of Food," a three-episode series from Manhattan-based producer Sharp Entertainment, began life with only the simplest of concepts: One lone guy travels the country looking for meats.
"We just called it 'The Man Meat Show' for the longest time," says Fisher. The first episode of the show focuses on bacon, with spots about bacon milkshakes, bacon Reubens, a grilled cheese sandwich with bacon and bacon jam, and "The Bacon Bomb," a Chicago creation constructed from five pounds of sausage, pork and ground beef rolled inside thick cut strips of, you guessed it, bacon.
While Fisher's series focuses on one-of-a-kind dishes and regional eateries, "Fast Food Mania," hosted by Jon Hein, is all about the chains, the bigger the better. Hein, 44, clearly loves everything about fast-food culture, from the culinary tricks of the trade (White Castle's "steam grilling" techniques) to the ingenious ways that franchises have streamlined their drive-through service (Wendy's network of wireless headsets). The birthplace of KFC, in Corbin, Ky., is revered as holy ground, America's own Our Lady of Lourdes; franchise chief operating officers and spokespeople, whom Hein enlists to flip burgers and hand-bread chicken breasts, are treated like heads of state.
In a different world, Hein might have liked to have been a burger flipper himself — at least for a day. "One of the biggest challenges was when they had me work the window at Wendy's for a good 15 minutes," says Hein. "I was exhausted, but God's honest truth, they had to pull me away from there because I was enjoying it so much."
Destination America is forgoing a big launch, opting instead to release a series at a time and seeing what sticks. Its splashiest promo to date is an "Apple Pie Dive," which took place on July 4, piggybacking on the international hot dog eating contest atNathan's Famousat New York's Coney Island featuring Olympic diver Greg Louganis and former New York Mets player Mookie Wilson as "competitors."
The event marks one of the rare moments in the network's short history when a non-meat dish — albeit a sugary, lard-filled one — took center stage. When asked whether there would be anything for vegetarians to watch on his network, Etkind had to think long and hard.
"If we can find something that's going to appeal to everybody that's vegetable-based," he says, "by all means, we'll do it."
Mixon is equally unapologetic about the meat-centric offerings on his own series, "BBQ Pitmasters" — and bewildered by the peculiar things he's seen on rival cooking shows.
"How many actual, everyday blue-collar Americans can go home and do that crap they do over there at Food Network?" says Mixon. "None of 'em! Who is gonna make foam and gel, and then string that crap across the plate to make it look pretty? But everyone can go out and grill a burger, they can go do pork chops, they can do ribs. And they do it."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun