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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bourdain vs. Baltimore: "No Reservations" takes on the Rust Belt

Last night's episode of Anthony Bourdain's show "No Reservations" didn't feature broiled iguanas or nomadic natives, but the Travel Channel host's visit to three cities in the "Rust Belt" was about as exotic or foreign to some people as Fiji. Like it or not, people aren't flocking to Detroit, Buffalo or Baltimore on their vacations. Foreigners skip over these locations and few Americans can admit they have a deep desire to visit these places. For Midwestern native Thomas Rozwadowski and Honorary Midwesterner Malavika Jagannathan -- who has a soft spot for the Motor City and the many falafel sandwiches she consumed in her five months there -- Bourdain's exploration of these "Rust Belt" cities rang true.

Not everyone agrees. Baltimore Sun critic David Zurawik writes in his blog today that he was troubled how Bourdain lumped Baltimore with the true Rust Belt cities of Detroit and Buffalo, characterizing the portrayal of Baltimore as "a hot dog host acting like he was getting down with the nitty-gritty, hardcore reality of urban America." Zurawik's issue was that Bourdain saw Baltimore through the lens of "The Wire," inviting not one but two "Wire" alums and Baltimore natives to show him the ropes.

Malavika: Sure, we saw Bourdain trekking past the boarded-up rowhomes of Baltimore -- so ubiquitous on the "The Wire" -- and, sure, he happened to be in Buffalo during a blizzard, and, sure, he had to hang out with a recently laid-off blue collar worker in Detroit. You could nail Bourdain on the cross of stereotypes, but isn't every stereotype he portrayed somewhat true? The theme of last night's show wasn't Baltimore, Buffalo or even Detroit. Perhaps Bourdain's mistake was taking too abstract a theme in exploring those decaying manufacturing cities and the proud inhabitants (and local cuisine) who thrive even in the hardest of times. As he explains in his blog, the episode doesn't explore "what the respective chambers of commerce of these three fine, noble and deeply troubled American cities would like us to see right now. Baltimore, arguably, isn't even really a "Rust Belt" city. I like to think that tonight's episode celebrates that particularly American character -- who proudly survives and thrives in places like late era Baltimore, Detroit and Buffalo."

I'm not a native Midwesterner, but having spent some time now -- almost 9 years -- in places like Green Bay, Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit, the episode resonated with places I've been and the visions I have in my head of the Rust Belt cities that stretch from Duluth east to Jersey/Baltimore. Baltimore would prefer to be compared to its southern cousin DC or perhaps even to the revival taking place north in Philly, but it's much closer in temperament to cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee in the heart of the "Rust Belt" than it is New York City. Bourdain's never been one for tourist traps, so there are no visits to the Baltimore Inner Harbor or the Motown Historical Museum on his show. Instead, he tries to get a flavor for those places that visitors don't always hit up, like the oh-so-delicious Middle Eastern restaurants that line the suburban enclave of Dearborn outside Detroit and a taste of the "lake trout" in Baltimore. Again, Bourdain does a better job of explaining the reaction a lot of the Baltimore press (read: Zurawick) has had to the episode: "I think that troubled cities often tragically misinterpret what's coolest about themselves. They scramble for cure-alls, something that will "attract business", always one convention center, one pedestrian mall or restaurant district away from revival. They miss their biggest, best and probably most marketable asset: their unique and slightly off-center character."

I love Bourdain, so the man can rarely do me wrong, but this was actually one of my favorite episodes. I liked the theme, and I felt each city got a pretty decent depiction that went beyond the obvious here's-a-five-star-restaurant-and-here's-the-museum routine that other travel shows sometimes employ. In fact, I've never wanted to visit Baltimore even more than I do now.

Roz, as a native Midwesterner, I know you have some thoughts on the episode. Let's hear 'em!

Thomas: OK, I love "The Wire." I'll tell everyone in the free world this if I have to. So the prospect of seeing Bourdain and Snoop Pearson side-by-side was enough to make me tune in last night. I'm not a Bourdain apologist, however. I enjoy the guy, especially during his "Top Chef" appearances, but I'm just a lover of food TV in general. And I have to say, his visit to the dilapidated cities of America proved far more fascinating to me than any trip about cuisine in Ecuador, Cambodia or freakin' Afghanistan.

It seems to me that Zurawik -- a Wisconsin native -- is just taking up the cause for his adopted city. You and I both know that local columnists usually fly the flag for community members by claiming they were somehow wronged by a warts-and-all portrayal of "insert city here." The same thing happened a few months ago when Conan O'Brien made his fat, white joke about Green Bay on "The Tonight Show." In our case, we just have to laugh a little because NEWSFLASH, we're known for being fat and white. That doesn't mean locals are holding KKK rallies outside City Hall and no one in the city limits has washboard abs. It just means that Green Bay is overwhelmingly viewed one way (and rightfully so as a beer-swilling Packers city) in the eyes of the public. Right or wrong, you have to accept that fact just like Texas gets tagged for having too many cowboy Republicans. It's not offensive. It's not incorrect. It's several grains of truth that could turn into a more well-rounded experience if you actually visited or lived in these places.

So Baltimore isn't exactly like "The Wire." Yes, we all know that. But those rowhouses do exist. And that's what Bourdain happened to be fascinated by with his catch-all episode. Conversely, Baltimore isn't all about the inner harbor or Camden Yards either. So would it have been nice of him to strike a balance between rich and poor neighborhoods, to visit the BEST restaurants in Baltimore as rated by Zagat? Yes. But that's not what he was shooting for with the episode. I think his intent was to capture the essence of the people there, the forgotten Snoops of the world, and I think that really came out in his Detroit visit. These are people who know they get slagged for being the murder capital of the U.S., who have repeatedly been left for dead as a populace and get made fun of for it. Yet they say "F--- it. We're from Detroit." They wear that badge with pride.

Now as someone who has been to Baltimore, I have a solid impression of the city -- even through the prism of "The Wire" years later -- and would definitely visit again. In fact, I'd love to visit those places Bourdain checked out in Detroit and Buffalo, as well. These are places that tell stories, that don't typically get face time on the Food Network or other travel shows because they aren't the most camera-friendly. What's wrong with that? I love learning about fine dining and frou-frou, too. But isn't that what we always hear about in big cities? Shouldn't there be pride in some of the more intrinsically local joints, no matter the projection far and wide to people in other parts of the country?

Ultimately, I think you have to go back to Bourdain's Chicago episode -- which aired before the Rust Belt one last night -- to see how he can really capture the essence of a city. He went to Moto. He ate deep dish pizza and an authentic Chicago dog. He ate at a south side smoked fish shack that looked like it could have doubled as a crack house. He got the best of both worlds. But he did it for an entire hour.

Yes, maybe Bourdain tried to make three cities feel one-dimensional for the sake of economic sympathy. But I loved every minute of it. As a native Midwesterner -- one who repeatedly wishes Wisconsin (particularly Milwaukee) received more credit in the national media -- I was proud to see our Rust Belt brethren get significant airtime. We've long had inferiority complexes here about everything cool happening on the coasts. Screw that. I'm tired of Cali, New York City and Florida. The Midwest breeds character. I think Bourdain nailed that.

If you want some more entertainment, check out the comments on Zurawik's blog post. They're very revealing, thoughtful and reflect why people care about the cities they live in. All I know is that I wouldn't be offended if Bourdain came to Green Bay and only ate cheese curds, bratwurst and fried perch. Yeah, it's not the only thing people should know about Green Bay. But having been here my whole life, I embrace that part of our culture and feel its my job to push the lesser known stuff a bit more. That's all.

Malavika: I don't have much to add, but I do find it interesting that while people from B'More are all up in arms about the episode, there hasn't been a peep of vitriol from the Motor City or Buffalo about their portrayal (at least none that I can find with my handy-dandy google skills). In fact, all that I found was a piece from the Buffalo News critic Alan Pergament who writes that "There’s a "perverse joy" in watching the duality of Bourdain praising our town and detailing its familiar problems and stereotypical image." Again, not to pick on Zurawik, but he did get pretty defensive over something that wasn't wholly inaccurate.

Bourdain has yet to visit my home state of Texas for a full-on episode, but if he treats it with half as much respect or enthusiasm as he did with these cities, I'd be more than happy. Perhaps Tony should consider a Rust Belt II: Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Milwaukee. If nothing else, it gets people talking about places that normally end up in stories about murder rates, fat people or sports.

A repeat of the "No Reservations" episode featuring the Rust Belt airs on the Travel Channel on Thursday July 30 at 10 p.m. New episodes of the show air Mondays at 9 p.m.

-- Malavika Jagannathan, mjaganna@greenbaypressgazette.com and Thomas Rozwadowski, trozwado@greenbaypressgazette.com

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2 Comments:

people aren't really up in arms, just this one columnist. I just searched for this controversy because I'd been hearing how stupid Zurawik's column was. Came across your blog. Don't take the comments of one columnist (and his inevitable internet follower-commentators) as representing the reactions of everyone.

By Blogger Kara Mae, At July 29, 2009 at 12:38 PM  

Thanks for that perspective! I do agree. Other than Zurawik's column and a blog entry from the Baltimore Sun opinion desk, I haven't found a lot of people from Baltimore screaming about it. In fact, most people seemed quite happy about it. As you said, just seems like a small faction of followers.

--Malavika

By Blogger Press-Gazette blogger, At July 29, 2009 at 12:43 PM  

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