Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bourdain on Baltimore: My Thoughts

The short version:
Not the show I hoped to see, but (unfortunately) the show I expected to see.

The much, much longer version:
From the time I heard Anthony Bourdain was visiting Baltimore, I was concerned that the show would fail to capture the whole personality of the city. I'm sure everyone thinks this about their home, but to me Baltimore seems like an unusually difficult location to sum up in just a few words. The charm in "Charm City" comes from a quirky diversity, a great sense of humor and some serious resilience. That's a tough thing to capture quickly.

Back in January, when Bourdain first blogged about his visit to Baltimore, I had this to say:

So it sounds like he understands at least one part of the city. I'm sure it'll be a great show. And I know I shouldn't really complain until I see it, but I will anyway. How come Cleveland got the quirky, artsy, foodie edit, while Baltimore gets the "The Wire is real" edit?

I said that as someone who's a fan of The Wire. I don't pretend that what the show depicts doesn't exist. But it's only one part of the city.

My concern doubled when I heard that Baltimore would share an episode with Detroit and Buffalo. A) that's less time to delve into quirks and b) those three cities don't match. I've been to both Buffalo and Detroit. Detroit was one of the saddest places I've been and Buffalo is great except for the unrelenting cold. But the three cities don't naturally fit together.

Unfortunately, now that I've watched the episode, I see that my fears played out. After a quick perusal of the internet, I see that I'm not the only one who feels this way, either - there are tons of comments on Bourdain's blog that echo my sentiments.

In the interest of keeping it short(ish), here's where I think the episode got it wrong:

  • Baltimore isn't a Rust Belt city, and the episode didn't even try to portray it as such. It wasn't about the disappearance of industry. To be fair, Bourdain's blog post addresses this issue. But it still got in my way.
  • The Baltimore segment of the show only included individuals associated with The Wire. That's going to skew the edit no matter what. Plus, I couldn't help but think that there's at least one blue collar musician in Baltimore as entertaining as the Buffalo guy. And it was largely thanks to him that Buffalo got a good edit.
  • That crab cake at Mo's was a travesty. So was the drink. Which Bourdain called "an indigenous beverage." It was blue. BLUE!
  • I agree with one commenter's observation that there's a big dissonance between the show's dialogue about hope and improvement (Snoop specifically mentioned that the city is less dangerous now than it used to be) and the visuals (all boarded up row houses and run-down streets). Similarly, Bourdain gives a little lip service to John Waters, who's version of Baltimore is just as real and as entertaining as the one on The Wire, but doesn't back it up visually at all.

While I don't think it would've been interesting to just show Baltimore's nicer food scene - every city's got a Cindy Wolf, right? - many of my issues with the show could have been resolved with about one minute of b-roll showing the different areas of the city. The run-down west side plus a bit of Fells, downtown, Little Italy, Hampden, maybe a market, Hopkins and, say, Roland Park. Add some voice over addressing the importance of neighborhoods and the overarching quirkiness Baltimore offers and you've painted a much more honest picture of the city without masking the problems, but putting them in larger context.

All of this said, there were some things I liked about the episode. Both Snoop and Jay Landsman made it clear that Baltimore's their home because this is where they come from, and where their families and friends live. It's a hometown. That's very true. And the pride and humor that Bourdain references (though more clearly on his blog than in the episode) are real.

Also, though it glossed over in the episode, I thought it was interesting that all the food shown was, at its core, southern - lake trout, greens, pit beef. Add in the seafood and you've got something uniquely mid-Atlantic that really does belong to Maryland, but it was an interesting reminder that our culinary roots are southern.

Of course, that's just one more reason that the tie-in with cities like Buffalo and Detroit feels forced.

Overall, I'm sorry that the episode disappointed me, especially since I don't expect that we'll get a chance for a do-over. But, hey, you never know.

[Photo from the Travel Channel website.]

Update: Thanks to Andrew Green and Justin Fenton at the Sun for the links, and for two articles that capture both the problems and the hope in the city.


TheSlapster said...

Have no fear. it seems that Man vs. Food has a Baltimore episode airing in October, and I think it's at Chaps Pit Beef on Pulaski Hwy. And another show this week I can't remember for the life of me filmed there a few months ago.

Kit Pollard said...

Well, that's good. I love that guy.

TheSlapster said...

A little late, but FoodNetwork's "The Best Thing I Ever Ate" is the other show with a segment at Chap's BBQ. The episode is titled "Between Bread" but not sure if it airs again after Tuesday night. Got the TiVo catching it, since one of my work guys was there during the taping, hoping to catch him!

Kit Pollard said...

I'm SURE it'll be on again at some point. I'll DVR. Thank you!


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