Posted on April 7th, 2011
( ed: continued from Part 1, found here)
It’s not just that the American palate has become bored with the offerings of Western Europe. Much has been said about how travel shows reveal the same narrative that Conrad explores in his 1902 novel: if one conjures a story about an arrogant white man seducing his own imagination with the perfumes of an Other culture, doesn’t one automatically assume the protagonist is No Reservations’ Anthony Bourdain? For some reason this story has become a lullaby, and now Gourmet has appropriated it. Proof? Episode 24: “Hidden Hong Kong.” The website’s description reads, “We’ll take you on a tour of Hong Kong’s private kitchens, hidden storefronts, and other secrets known only to the most devoted foodies in Hong Kong. We’ll meet chefs at these hideouts and discover the experimental approaches that make what they do seem extraordinary.” This makes world-class chefs sound like gangsters and all that’s missing is an opium den. Perhaps it is that once a culture conquers a prize like Africa’s brutal dark heart, the next-to-most thrilling subject is exotic food. Alterity and Otherness have always intrigued the Western imagination, so if a culture appears to be different, we will invade their land; if a food is made exotic, we will eat it. So much has been said about this that I feel like a very small fish against a school of anthropologists, and I’d rather not enter into their conversation, because what I would say has already been said, and to repeat what has already been said is to perform a parody.
What I will talk about are maps: they are one of my favorite subjects, and one of my favorite maps is Fra Mauro’s 1450 World Map. Mauro’s map is a crumbling artifact with bold turquoise oceans and rivers, forest green bridges, and towering castles with candy-colored spires. Mauro, the great cartographer, painted the world as one monstrous expanse of land, with the edges of a jigsaw puzzle; his ocean is a nest of wiggling lines expressing roiling waters. In his waters are ships—miniature ships discovering exotic coasts of land. And the day I first encountered it, there were so many ships before me on that map, that I had to squint my eyes to count them, and as I was counting I noticed the poor cartographer had made a mistake!
It turns out Fra Mauro only painted three continents, which is astonishing to me. I suppose that everything I love about this map is also brutal and ugly. Only three continents exist (Africa, Asia, Europe) because Frau Mauro drew his map in 1450, before the discovery of Australia and the Americas. But another reason why is because he had filtered the world through the European gaze. Without sounding like an academic, I want to point out that this gaze is the central power ghostwriting the map’s narrative, determining which continents exist, and which continents recede towards foggy oblivion. While a modern reader will want to scold poor Fra Mauro for his careless mistake, I might point out that he was not the only cartographer, and that the writers of Gourmet have been drawing maps of their own for the last three seasons.
From its inception Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie has been a live geographical map of continents and food. Every week viewers are led across the small towns and villages of Vietnam, New Zealand, Tasmania— making frequent stops to appreciate and loot the native offerings. As in Mauro’s map, it’s interesting to chart out the places that actually get remembered: there’s India (spices), Morocco (Turkish delight), China (suckling pig), to name a few, but our own continent has more or less vanished. Except for a few episodes on old-timey southern barbeque and tropical luaus—episodes that feel obligatory the way that women of color are obligatory once a year for Cosmo’s covers—Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie doesn’t seem interested in remembering the geography of America. Not only is the U.S. not a travel destination, its permit as the tourist’s point of origin and departure has also expired.
Remember that in earlier travel programs, the moment of departure is essential to the expedition: the tour guide, strapped with a fanny pack, will wave his plane ticket near the boarding gate, will charm a young, impressionable airline receptionist, and wink at the camera, shouting, as if his viewers were deaf, “We’re going to India. I’ll meet you there, see you soon.” Travel programs commit themselves to this structure because the bookends of departure and arrival are necessary to telling the narrative of a journey. If you didn’t leave your home, if you didn’t return to your home, can you really say you traveled? Traveling implies movement and sometimes this movement is circular, but nowhere is movement to be found in Gourmet’s travel show. Had the producers wanted to trace a journey, with a beginning, middle and end, they would have included a thirty-second shot of an American airport. But they didn’t. And this is how the program distinguishes itself from other travel programs: it has removed the element of travel.
Let’s step back for a minute. Why is this so hard to believe when the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and his partners at OMA took the Prada flagship store in Manhattan and showed the world how a retail experience could be transformed by erasing it entirely? For the first time customers were so distracted by towering stairs, lighted glass booths, and an expanse of floor that rose up from the ground like a monstrous sea-wave, that they had forgotten they were shoppers. Not that they didn’t shop; they shopped, but without taking home the cold empty feeling that arises when people are estranged. Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie is hardly different: in its glass display case are the products being offered to us: the history of spices, the narratives of peasant farmers, the heritage of food. Rather than being a straight educational and travel guide, the show is a QVC of phantoms: food, culture, heritage, memory all fall into this.
Gone too are travel guides. Our travel guide, remember, is a nameless, bodiless Foodie. We’ll call him Mr. Foodie, since the program is aptly titled, Diary of a Foodie. The only substantial thing about Mr. Foodie is his voice; his body literally recedes into the background: we never see him, though we get glimpses of his hands, hands typing furiously away at a typewriter, we are to believe, preparing the written contents of the show. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of people on the screen, but they are mostly natives. The two or three representatives of the show, like Shoba Narayan who greets us before a segment’s opening, are natives who happen to speak the colonizer’s language. Thing is, we’re not supposed to identify with these figures (we’re supposed to identify with Mr. Phantom Foodie); our relationship to these minor field guides is analogous to experiencing a chance exchange with a stranger while foot-traveling, a stranger who happens to speak English, knows a lot about the regional culture and is happy to explain it to you. Meaning, they are human foot-notes. In the context of the show, They are not the same as Us—We are invisible.
The tourist’s invisibility is a strange concept, but not so strange when we consider Gourmet’s agenda: to sell images of food. With an objective like that, all the program asks of its viewers is to consume. Like the Prada store, the architecture of this television program is so sophisticated that we are convinced we are not shopping, when that’s all we’re doing. And we’re not only shopping for food and recipes; we’re shopping for memories too.