One day in the early 1980s, British radio star Tom Vernon hopped on a bicycle he’d dubbed the Roman Philosopher and hit the road with a BBC sound crew. No matter how far he biked, from Italy to Edinburgh, he found that he never met a boring person — and he never lost weight.
Vernon, now 52 and hovering between 250 and 295 pounds, had discovered his life’s work. He loomed still larger when his accomplices began trailing him with TV cameras instead of radio mikes. In a series of philosophical travel films cosponsored by Boston PBS station WGBH and Britain’s Channel 4 Television, the Fat Man on a Bicycle has rolled across the globe like a pedal- pushing Charles Kuralt (whom Vernon says he’s never heard of).
In 1987’s Fat Man Goes Norse, he visited spots like Hell, Norway, and gamely ate what was put on his plate: smoked reindeer fat, for instance (”It tasted globular and slimy,” says Vernon). In 1990’s Fat Man Goes Gaucho, he cycled a thousand miles and chowed down on the Argentine cowboy’s most cherished delicacy, fried bull’s testicles (”Rather granular and bland,” he recalls).
Now, at last, Vernon has landed in Louisiana, a place noted for more pleasing cuisine. While shooting Fat Man Goes Cajun, Vernon chomped sausage, crayfish, and alligator (”It’s sort of porky,” he mused), but it’s the local folk who won him over. Kibitzing at a cockfight, an ax-tossing contest, and a riotous wedding near Lafayette, he vividly portrays Cajun culture with the enthusiasm of a Cambridge alum discovering North America for the first time. He is utterly open to experience. ”On a bicycle you’re not insulated,” he explains. ”You’re in contact with the landscape and all manner of people you’d never meet if you were in a car. A fat man on a bicycle is nobody’s enemy. All I do is pay a country the compliment of not passing too lightly over it.”