Where Can Food Travel Shows Take Us Now?

Padma Lakshmi’s new show debuts on Hulu on June 19. Photo: Dominic Valente/Hulu

A few months ago, I was planning a trip to Taiwan. I am using “planning” loosely; what I was doing was looking at pictures of noodles. Also, I read extensively about the president’s cats. I booked nothing, and now I have no plans to go anywhere for the foreseeable future, and mostly that is fine. “People in the olden days never went anywhere!” I tell myself, ahistorically, and then I get back to knitting, and subsistence farming my scallions.

In fact, nobody is going anywhere, except on TV, where, according to a couple of newly released travel shows, everyone is going everywhere. The uncanny reality of reality television is that it is always slightly out of date by the time it airs. Usually, this doesn’t matter, but now episodes shot even a few months ago are artifacts from another time. Food travel shows, which are about people going other places to eat things, depend on the basic premise that it is possible to go places and eat things — or even that people want to do that in the first place.

I am sure that the people who made these shows would like you to think of them as summer vacation by proxy. In the third season of Somebody Feed Phil, released on Netflix Friday, you can watch Phil Rosenthal go on vacation five different times. He goes to nice places and eats nice things. He goes to all the places the in-flight magazine would tell you to go to, and he is delighted by every single one. It is like traveling with an uncle, or a somewhat-close family friend. The episodes are surprisingly long.

Padma Lakshmi is the host of a new show, Taste the Nation With Padma Lakshmi, which will begin streaming on Hulu on June 19. The series follows Padma Lakshmi on a quest to uncover the meaning of American identity through immigrant cooking. She eats burritos in El Paso and pad Thai in Las Vegas. In what is by far the best of the five preview episodes I’ve watched (there are ten total), she turns the camera on the evolution of her own identity, making Indian food with both her mother and Madhur Jaffrey. It is all pleasantly low-key.

So I watched Phil get fed in Marrakech, and in Chicago. I abandoned him soon after we arrived in London, but then backtracked, to accompany him on his trip to Vietnam in season one. I went with Padma to Milwaukee to eat Germanic bratwurst, and then we went to Gullah country where she made red rice with Michael Twitty, and I sat on my couch. Then I watched several episodes of Parts Unknown, which is not new, but remains the paragon of the form, and so I followed Anthony Bourdain and charismatic friends through Myanmar and Kenya and Charleston and Libya and Laos.

In many ways, food-and-travel television is always aspirational. Even when the world was mostly open, food TV was built on fantasy. Most viewers couldn’t actually go to Libya and eat “Uncle Kentaki Fried Chicken” at an imitation KFC with one of the rebels who helped overthrow Qaddafi the way Bourdain did (or at least, the State Department does not recommend it). Sean Brock probably will not curate a tasting menu for you at Waffle House. You will not trundle your way under the wing of kindly local celebrities, like Phil. You remain not Padma, and you do not have access to the professional fixers at each destination whose job it is to point opinion leaders to the absolute best places to eat while filming a TV show, and help find you wise local friends.

Even with everything happening now, it shouldn’t really be all that different, watching famous people go places and eat stuff. It was always trivial, and it still is. Most of the time, it is alarming how normal it all feels to watch these shows now. I was not going to Libya, and I’m still not!

But there are moments. There’s an episode where Padma gets a dosa from NY Dosas in Washington Square Park, and I thought, “I would also like a dosa from NY Dosas!” and it seemed attainable before I remembered that it wasn’t. They’re closed. We don’t do that anymore. Then I thought about how much I love dosas. I thought about how much I love parks.

When I am not filled with rage, I feel unbearably tender toward everything.

In the middle of Myanmar — Anthony Bourdain was on the train from Yangon to Bagan, and appeared to be having a harrowing experience — my boyfriend and I had a minor fight about my handling of our kitchen sponge.

I like to think, in these moments, about blowing up my life. I don’t actually want to do that, but it is soothing to think about it for about three seconds, during a heated discussion about sponge placement. It is important, in these fantasies, that I blow up my life spectacularly and internationally. So, fine, I thought, I’m moving to Myanmar.

Then I remembered that I didn’t want to do that.

But then, I don’t actually want to do a lot of what’s on food-travel television. I am not, on most days, desperate to cruise through Milwaukee in the Wienermobile like Padma, although I guess I’m not opposed. What I used to like was knowing that I could.

Travel shows offer now what they’ve always offered, which is thrilling reassurance that in fact the world is very, very big. Lately, my life has shrunk down to the six-block radius surrounding my apartment. Food and travel shows aren’t aspirational anymore. Their appeal is more elemental now. They are a comforting reminder: In some form, at least, the world still exists.

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