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.
Annual subscriptions are $30 and provide access to nearly a year’s worth of interviews. This summer, I’ll be adding twice-monthly recipes for paid subscribers.
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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.
I screamed with 'Negroni Shaker!' God!
But for real, Tucci is a gently raised, well bred, well educated Italian American in the same vein as de Blasio and de Niro (seriously), in which indulging in voluptuary delights comes with a elegant veneer of well born European panache. Part of his success with this show is this sense that the mostly White, mostly female American target audience gets to have an imaginary Italian American boyfriend, elegantly dressed, to show them around an ancient land.
Tucci is being sexualized, Italy is being sexualized. CNN couldn't do that with Bourdain, who was a 'bad boy' and did have the looks or mien to be sexualized and objectified. But they can with Tucci.
There was this show with Bobby Flay and Giada de Laurentiis (it's on the Food Network) in which they act as queen and king of Rome, and everywhere there are LOADS of screaming (white) American women. They are eating, laughing, talking, drinking- and while we do get a minute with some of the hardworking people in these cafes and restaurants- it is all glossed over.
And you see this with many British company produced shows- a British host, elegantly tanned, touring some part of Tuscany or Umbria or Sicily, eating a lot, making some dishes and VOILA! they are now a 'expert' on regional Italian cooking.
(Weirdly, it's never Eastern Italy, which borders Adriatic Sea and has a lot of ethnic diversity, or deep in the boot, which has both the Mafia and deep, ancient, pre Christianity roots and thus food and scenery to match. It's rarely African American/Black hosts, even though African Americans go to Italy all the time as students of art and music, and Italy has always had an African presence since, I dunno, FOREVER. And it's never an East Asian host, even though there are now tiny but significant communities of Chinese and Japanese people who live in Italy, usually as workers in the luxury houses)
So (takes breath) part of the purpose of the Anglophone food travel show is to literally consume other countries. Yes, there is a an education component, and it there is a fun component as well. But shows like Shaking with Tucci renders a country 'safe' for acceptable means of consumption.
In my opinion.
Alicia, I was the woman riding in the g-d wienermobile with Padma Lakshmi for the "German" episode of Taste the Nation. I read today's post then clicked back to your piece on Taste the Nation. If you're interested in learning more, I'm happy to share. Suffice to say, I talked for FOUR HOURS about immigrant foodways, white supremacy, colonialism, notions of whiteness, the effing Bund being headquartered in MKE, and kept circling back to the inherent class issues in trying to define "American" food. The episode's total running time is 22 minutes. Your critique of the series is fair based on what was projected. But I do want you and your readers to know that I was there, fighting a more correct narrative. In the end, its commercial television produced by a wealthy company to generate more wealth while entertaining a status quo viewer. And maybe a few of those folks whose generalized interest in eating were pushed to think just a tad more about how what food ends up on their plates. Happy Monday. Christina Ward