You Had to Be There

Travel shows are the epitome of food pornography. Consider the sight of steam rising from a freshly delivered bowl of pho, or the crinkle of perfectly roasted pig skin, or the slow drizzle of lemon juice on a bed of oysters.

What makes those shows even more salacious than say, a perfectly styled blog or Everyday Italian with Giada De Laurentiis, is seeing it all in technicolor. The camera pans out and the viewer is subject to sights and sounds completely appropriate for the dish in question. It’s easy to imagine the relief brought upon by a dirty water hot dog, savoury and succulent, in light of Times Square cacophony. It makes sense. They correlate. Together, they’re greater than the sum of their parts.

But as anyone whose hometowns have been featured in these televised exploits can attest, it’s pure show. Most of it, anyhow.

For those who can’t escape geographical confines, these edutainment shows are the next best thing. We live vicariously through Andrew Zimmern’s reckless curiosity, Guy Fieri’s garish exuberance, or the unapologetic raconteur that is Anthony Bourdain, and take their proclamations as gospel. We listen to the hosts converse with the locale’s appointed spokespeople – chefs, journalists, musicians – about the qualities of their abode, in between bites of appointed spokesdishes. The people and institutions chosen for these shows are consistent to a particular vision. Montreal is porcine indulgence and tough-talking libertines; San Francisco is locally sourced greens and friendly hipsters; Moscow is vodka and little else. Meanwhile, trends are born, lines are formed, and the cultural evolution of a city becomes just a little more uniform – to both collective chagrin and cheer.

In the chagrin camp, are the locals. The sham-declarers. Exasperated and indignant, they’ll halt your uninformed salivating with a single remark. Variations of this reaction happen all over the globe. “Nobody dips fries in mayo.” “Rice? In a burrito?” “CHEDDAR?”  An especially particular friend in Hong Kong had to be talked off the proverbial ledge because of the inclusion of pineapple in a fried rice dish, televised for all to see and take as culinary standard: “a sin,” he said. The locals will disparage any attempt to innovate, flee neighbourhoods, and find comfort in the yet-known.

You’ll hear cheers coming from those who got it right: the trendsetters chosen to star in the televised representations of the city and those who already frequent them. The Kogi trucks, the Japadogs, the Au Pied Couchons and Black Hoofs; united in their ability to fuse the new and old, weird and wonderful, disgusting and delicious. They’ll pepper themselves all over the city and beyond in forms of either collaborations or imitation. Their old regulars will vanish, but who cares when their new clientele is armed with fannypacks full of cash?

Forget cultural tradition as a reason to travel places. Quirk and reinvention will prevail because of the convenience globalization has granted traditional region-specific cuisine. The shareability social media has offered food cements the reign of attention-grabbing dishes; the gastronomic equivalent of a kitten in a teacup. The inherent limitations of describing in-mouth goodness make the eccentricity of a dish a far better marketing tool than its quality. And of course, it is the chef’s prerogative to be creative.

It’s a strange world we live in: where what’s cool is not popular, outsiders determine what’s ‘culturally authentic’, and it is your fellow patrons, not the food, that decide the quality of a place. A review of the San Francisco episode of No Reservations reflects a local’s musings on House of Prime Rib, renowned not for its meaty offerings but for its status as a “classic San Franciscan institution hearkening back to the old days of San Francisco before vegans and organic free range locally grown cruelty free everything took center stage.” The food was wonderful, but that was peripheral to what it offered: authenticity, marinated in time and stamps of approval. World-famous restaurants, by definition, imply both betrayal and endorsement of locals. Consider what a business – or television producer – might do to enchant an ignoramus from abroad.

Therein lies the impossibility of cultural education through such shows. What’s seen is choreographed, rehearsed, and staged to perfection in the eyes of someone much like yourself: a well-intentioned outsider, looking in. So next time you tune in, arm yourself with a grain of salt. No pun intended.


the author

Caroline Leung