Posted on April 4th, 2011
Whenever I watch an episode of Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie I remark how Americans must be the happiest people on earth, for they are always on vacation. Certainly I don’t mean that each one of us is right now carrying a fresh passport, sitting at the lobby of a terminal with a manila folder of tickets to commonplace destinations (oh, say, Oaxaca for mole negro oaxaqueno, Thailand for congee…)—at least I don’t mean this literally anyway. I suppose I’m simply trying to say that we are, all of us, travelers.
Now, tell me if I’m wrong, but I’m under the impression that no American wants to fly thousands of miles to a bed of mosquito nets, to be called a traveler. The term evokes the brutality of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: to the American this is the worst insult; to the local this is pretty much an accurate statement, but no one wants to say for certain, and I think if we were to ever have this dialogue in a broader, public space, most of us would not be pleased. But it seems to me that there’s no use denying that the term “traveler” applies to sycophants of epicurean pleasures, those of us with appetites so insatiable that an evening of watermelon and heirloom tomato salad, followed by lobster in a syrah reduction, aromatic grits (…platter of smoked ocean trout, brûlée of miso black cod, spotted prawns with white soy…)— is not enough to satisfy our desires completely, so we chase our meals with the dream of travel. No one says this more succinctly than the voiceover of Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie: “What is it about food that consumes so many of us? The search for that one great meal, that brilliant bottle of wine, that flawless kitchen knife. What is this hunger?”
What this tagline implies in the context of food and travel is that we are restless—perpetually moving in an attempt to appease a hunger that will outlive us all. If you’ve been following the Gourmet series like I have perhaps you are getting to the point where you are sick over it, not only because repetition leads to banality, but because the foodie reminds us that perpetual travel is troubling, symptomatic of a desire that is impossible to feed, an unhealthy appetite.
However much I’m bothered by aspects of this show, I continue to watch it, and I recently discovered that sometimes I need to remind myself that as I’m watching it, I’m not inhabiting a native body: I’m staring at my television screen. Last week I traveled backwards to unearth from Gourmet’s vaults an episode from season two: “Southern India: The Spice of Life.” The episode invited me to join acclaimed food writer Shoba Narayan in her Bangalore home, as her sister-in-law slid slippers of dough into a pot of bubbling oil and watched them float and puff into the crisp hollow shells of Panni Poori. Panni Poori seems to be a stuffed vegetarian item filled with spiced potato and an aromatic sauce, a golden, messy snack that cracks apart after one bite, drizzling sauce on the cheek and shirt of its recipient. There was a lot of hand-holding and hand-feeding in the episode, which made me uneasy: mothers feeding children; women feeding husbands; husbands feeding wives to whom they have commited their lives to. Wholesomeness is something that I don’t see outside the posters of Whole Foods, but somehow I managed to be touched. The squeals of children and the way the adult conversation twisted among ideas of family and food, made me, well, lightheaded and happy. At the time I felt I had retrieved a long lost memory with the heightened intensity that a child must feel when witnessing the magic of an unleashed balloon. What I discovered, or thought I discovered, in this hour-long episode, was my heritage of food.
Unlike earlier versions of food-travel programs, the formatting of Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie is different, and is so evolved that one often forgets that there is ever an exchange between the viewer and the viewed. Although food and geography are inextricable, somewhere along the way television producers decided to build an industry around this relationship. One might recall a pre-Anthony Bourdain period, when fresher-faced guides like Samantha Brown swept viewers through the dotted landscape of Western Europe. These earlier guides unveiled breathtaking vistas and crumbling buildings drenched in the light of Rome—then, after glancing at a watch, they beckoned us with a theatrical hand wave, and showed us where to eat. Try to recall the humor of these scenes: a cheerful, ruddy-cheeked American sitting alone at a table, face turned to the camera while sitting before a plate of food. Depending on the location, there might be a plate of spaghetti, or a bowl of snails or a pile of blistered gray sausages in front of her. Before the credits roll our guide is kissing the camera with a flick of her hand. “Bon appetit,” she says, or whatever it is that was written for her. Try to recall the costumes: in France, a beret is fashionable; in Germany, our guide wears thick braids and raises before a frenzied crowd a large glass boot. One might be appalled by such buffoonery, but to me this represents good hearty fun because here, the spectacle of the tourist is so stylized, so exaggerated with gaudy props and badly-disguised American accents, that it feels like we’re all in on the joke. What has changed since then is that our food-travel programs are making invisible the wall that once divided tourist and native, consumer and factory: what is left on the screen is a ghost.