Pondering the purpose of the food-travel show.

I started to watch Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy last week despite not thinking Italy had to be found. The actor doesn’t particularly charm me when being himself, but when I put on one of these food shows that are being discussed on the internet, I’m not particularly interested in entertaining myself. I’m simply on my own quest: searching for the reason why other people love them and, in this case, don’t find Tucci’s pronunciation of “zucchini” wildly obnoxious.

That’s not to say I don’t have my favorites in the food-travel realm. Despite the lack of sensory information available via watching something through a screen, it is a great vehicle for passing along tidbits about what we eat and who cooks it. How many episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s shows have I watched? Every single one, lapping up reruns like it’s Law & Order. Same for Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, of which I sing endless praises to anyone who expresses a vague interest in olive oil or miso or traditional corn tortilla technique. 

The truth, though, is my brain is a sieve when the television is on, seeking only pleasure and not knowledge. Most of what I watch and hear goes right through my brain, and I retain only bits. I would never want to be quoted about anything I have seen on television, unlike what I’ve read. I think this is the way to watch television, but there’s more to it, and I’m a food writer. I must watch. I must think.

I’ve written explicitly before about Taste the Nation’s nationalism and the poor job the steak episode of Ugly Delicious did with the tropes and politics of meat. I’m not going to watch Waffles + Mochi because it’s for children, and that is where I draw the line. When it comes to Italy, we can of course state the obvious: People miss travel, so let’s watch this Negroni-shaker go all over a beautiful country with rich cuisine and history eating pizza and pastry we can only currently dream of. In a time of global strife and fear, let’s go to the most comforting food there is for those in the Western world. (Though I suppose even that statement is debatable—remember, I’m from Long Island. The Italian influence is strong, at which my fiancé will guffaw and remind me that Spain exists. I also am constantly arguing the significance of non-European cuisines during our wine-soaked dinners. Basically, my life is a food-travel show.)

Do we learn anything from Tucci on this show? That depends on your experience with Italy and interest in learning while watching TV. If anything, it made me miss Bourdain something awful. I apologize for the obviousness of that feeling. This can be chalked up to personal taste, as I myself am far more leather jacket than navy blazer. I was also reminded of how Bourdain really did try, though he also failed, to bring political context into the food, into the meals and the drinking. This became very clear to me recently while chatting with our leftist tattoo artist as he permanently etched a mermaid into my arm: When I talked about not wanting to write for food magazines, he said, “But Bourdain did it differently.” He is the ur-food tour guide, to whom all will and should be compared.

Tucci tries to mimic his approach, and I appreciate his clear antifascism, but he doesn’t get dirty. His empathy is there but muted: He’s in on the reality that he’s not a normal dude doing normal things. We meet the leader of the left-wing Sardine movement and he’s too quick to say, “Let’s eat mortadella!” Bourdain’s power was in being a normal dude, always shocked at his circumstances and leveling with people. And his voice-over always felt like a writer reading their work. Tucci’s voice-over is a recitation.

The fact of their cis straight white maleness is not to be overlooked. Only Nosrat has been able to do something similar—and she was always in the kitchen, too, showing the viewer a cooking lesson. That was both the point and is clearly gendered. Padma Lakshmi, in Taste the Nation, is similarly tasked with explaining the United States; she can’t simply eat and let conversation naturally pass. Were we not in a pandemic, we’d have certainly seen more comment on the ongoing phenomenon of constantly seeing the same type of person do this same type of work focused on gluttony (not that there’s anything wrong with gluttony—I’m not the Pope). This is the market; this is the culture. Watching a woman eat means something, represents something—speaks to beauty culture, fatphobia, “wellness,” and more—and so we must have her teaching, we must have her giving, whereas a man can just eat and talk. When that happens, we will, excuse the pun, eat it up.

For now, everyone just wants their views of Italy, their gratuitous visions of cheese and pasta. I get it. It’s true, though, that if this prolific genre would like to keep people’s attention, perhaps we really need to demand something different than dudes who love Massimo Boturra and Francis Mallmann. In this Tucci show, I will give him that there is a clear focus on showing us young women in kitchens that hadn’t always been present, but there is still such a vast void when it comes to recognizing how most people experience the world. Bourdain was good because he could be the Everyman. Are we not, as a culture, ready for the Everyone Else?

I feel it necessary to keep up with whatever food show everyone is talking about because it’s how most people engage with food, travel, and restaurants. A videographer came to my house recently to shoot a video where I discussed food and sustainability. Before it began, he asked what the whole thing would be about, and I gave a brief overview. “I just watched Cowspiracy,” he told me. I had a vague sense of what it was about, as I’m used to people replying to what I do for a living with the names of various Netflix documentaries, but I hadn’t yet seen it. I still haven’t. If I am to talk to people about myriad issues in food, though, I have to know what they know.

Food TV is a powerful tool because of how mollifying it generally is: Even all those documentaries about animal cruelty or our heavily polluted seas provide the feeling of having learned something, done something, without getting up off the couch. How many people’s approaches to eating do they really change, though? For food-travel shows, how much do they change perceptions on people and cuisines around the world? Do people travel differently, thanks to their influence?

I once was on a press trip with a fellow freelancer who said Bourdain got access that no writer would get, much less any regular person, and thus he didn’t like his shows. But to me, the takeaway from his influence is “be cool” and everything else will fall into place. I learned how to get the story. What did everyone else take away? Is a takeaway necessary? No. This is television, and what television does mostly is regurgitate our existing ideology back to us. We get out of it what we want to get out of it. We get what we’re looking for. (The most-watched comedy in the U.S. is Young Sheldon. Have you ever seen an episode?) That’s why its content is significant, even when we just want to chill out.

What will Searching for Italy do but entertain, and perhaps bring new clientele to the restaurants featured once we are allowed to travel again? Nothing, and that’s fine, but new perspectives in food-travel TV just might adjust people’s consciousness in a way that hasn’t been tried at such length and depth. Food-travel TV will always be about pleasure, not learning. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it is something to take seriously because that pleasure also leaves room for propaganda, for passive influence and understanding. Especially when watching a show in which the host is comfortable everywhere, because he’s the type of person who’s never known real discomfort.

Thus, I will keep watching every food-travel show. But if I actually like what I’m watching, my brain will shut off, and I’ll have nothing new to say about it, really. By this standard, yes, we have come to the conclusion: I liked the Tucci show, and I learned from it that I want to go to Italy to eat the pasta myself.

This Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature Badia Ahad-Legary, professor of English at Loyola University-Chicago and author of Afro-Nostalgia: Feeling Good in Contemporary Black Culture. We will discuss the role of food in her excellent book.

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Nothing, really—some research, as always, but I’m really STARVED for literature!

Eggplant parmesan for Easter, along with coconut cupcakes with lime aquafaba icing and almond shortbread cookies for decorating.