Portlandia, the IFC series created by and starring Saturday Night Live alum Fred Armisen and punk rocker Carrie Brownstein, returns for its eighth and final season this Thursday, January 18. Since its debut in 2011, the series has served as a mirror for its audience, depicting every aspect of modern, hip culture and poking fun at the sorts of people who make their own pickles, patronize fast-casual restaurants, get restaurant recommendations from alt-weeklies, and drink craft cocktails made with entirely too many ingredients.
Anyone who has been out of the loop and wants to know what’s been going on in the world of food over the past seven years can look back on Seasons 1 through 7 of Portlandia to get up to speed. Here’s a look back at Portlandia’s greatest food moments.
The farm-to-table movement
Portlandia got right into it by sending Peter and Nance (characters played by Armisen and Brownstein, respectively, that would go on to become iconic regulars) to a farm-to-table restaurant in the series premiere. Not only does this yuppie couple inquire if the chicken on the menu is free-range and locally raised, they want to know the name of the person who raised the bird and the name of the bird itself (it was Colin). Only a journey to meet their would-be meal — that takes Peter and Nance across well outside of Portland and into a relationship with a charming cult leader — convinces them the poultry is an acceptable, ethical order.
Specialty foods going mainstream
There was a time when pour-over coffee was found in only the trendiest of cafes, and now the method has become so ubiquitous caffeine fiends are growing tired of the wait required to get their “manual” beverage. House-made sausages used to be available in quality butcher shops and nowhere else, but these days, a mass-market processed sausage is the rare bird on an independent restaurant’s menu.
In Season 3, Episode 7, a group of baristas decide they can no longer abide by the behavior of the basic idiots who have begun patronizing their coffee shops — talking on the phone at the counter, orders that are deemed to be inferior. So, they decide to form a union, creating a manifesto that establishes barista rights.
Two episodes later, Brownstein and Armisen’s recurring frizzy-haired movie theater employees attempt to sell moviegoers on a new “artisan, rustic” menu at the concessions stand. “Artisan” popcorn is served in a cone of newspaper. Instead of Diet Sprite, there’s a thimble of Italian soda. The combo box comes with arugula salad with fresh cheese, sausage panini, sun-dried grapes (also known as raisins, but that doesn’t sound as good), and salted ice cream.
At some point since the turn of the century, American restaurateurs decided Spanish-style dining on lots of small plates instead of traditional entrees would attract customers. They were right. The phenomenon has expanded far beyond tapas, and new restaurants now feature menus of “shareable” dishes more often than not. A birthday party in Season 3, Episode 2 shows how, actually, this is an incredibly annoying way to dine. It’s hard to figure out how the check should be split, and the final bill is going to be expensive because all of those little bites cost the same as traditional entrees. If you’re at the wrong end of the table waiting on plates to be passed down, you can plan on going home hungry.
Anyone thinking of opening a restaurant should watch this episode and take it to heart.
Thanks to publications such as this one, chef and restaurant culture has never taken up a bigger chunk of the worldwide consciousness. That being the case, chefs are taking themselves way too seriously. In a segment from Season 1’s sixth episode, Armisen and Brownstein portray a couple of industry pros posing for a photo shoot for the local dining guide. Twenty or 30 years ago, these two might have offered a simple pose and gotten on with their meal prep, but these celebrity chef wannabes take the opportunity to act like rock stars.
Season 7, Episode 7 opens with an on-point parody of Chef’s Table, the Netflix series that attempts to convince viewers that people who cook food for a living are actually the most important people in the world. Instead of a South Korean nun who is praised for her temple cuisine, Armisen is a shitty airport sushi chef who wants to serve “unifying sushi that anyone can eat, but nobody wants to eat.”
The eternal search for alternative milks
For the lactose intolerant and dairy allergic, finding a good milk substitute can be a challenge. Fortunately, Alicia (Brownstein) and Royce (Armisen; he’s her boss) make up the Portland Milk Advisory Board and appear throughout the series with various alternatives such as berry seed milk, zucchini milk, and water milk (it’s water).
Fad diets and health foods of the moment
What’s the best thing a person can eat in order to look great and feel great? That all depends on the specific moment in time. Well-balanced, well-proportioned meals seem simple enough, but the dieter wants to work a little harder. This can result in some interesting nutritional plans. Here now, a few ways Portlandia’s residents try to stay healthy throughout the first seven seasons:
- In the Season 3 premiere, Peter attempts to give up pasta, which turns out to be just as difficult as giving up heroin.
- Peter and Nance decide to try an all-raw, all-vegan restaurant in Season 3, Episode 6. The food fills them up — “it’s not just a snack,” Peter is surprised to learn — but it leaves them awfully gassy.
- Brendan (Armisen) and Michelle (Brownstein) discover raw milk is a magical cure for their general malaise in Season 5, Episode 3. Unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration comes after them when they start their own company, Rah Milque.
- Peter and Nance — these two are particularly susceptible to the fad diet — go for the low-carb, high-protein plan in Season 7, Episode 4. It works like a charm, and the two become grotesque skeletons with no strength or energy.
- In Season 7, Episode 6, a character goes on an all-banana diet because she has seen some nimrod on YouTube star recommend it. It’s no surprise that serious gastrointestinal issues ensue. (This premise is based on real-life events, by the way.)
Bacon turning up everywhere
Bacon is no longer a side at breakfast. Whether as a garnish or a main protein, it’s used as an ingredient in as many dishes as possible. People love bacon, and folks who have trouble choking down green vegetables often use the salty, fatty pork as a masking agent. In Season 4, Episode 3, Steve Buscemi, a produce representative down on his luck, finds that bacon is so good it can be used to make celery the most popular vegetable in the country.
The inability to comprehend foods from elsewhere
When eating cuisines that come from places outside the United States, Americans typically fall into two categories: those who obsess over authenticity and those who are just too exasperated by traditions that seem “weird” to them.
Take the durian, for example. This produce is readily available in Southeast Asia and is even considered to be the “king of fruits” in its home territory. But when one shows up in a CSA box delivered to Michelle and Brendan in Season 2, Episode 8, the couple has no idea how to crack it open, much less eat it. They soon discover the fruit is actually an alien life form, and it departs for its home planet at the end of the episode.
The final episode of Season 6 tells the story of Peter and Nance’s attempt to eat tsukemen at a local Japanese restaurant. Tsukemen isn’t like ramen, a noodle soup dish that’s pretty easy for uninformed Americans to understand. Its ingredients are kept separate, and the diner is required to dip noodles into broth. Peter and Nance can’t comprehend this idea, and Nance decides to mix everything together before leaving the leftovers in their refrigerator at home. Her mistake creates a noodle monster that threatens to destroy Portland and can only be stopped by eating the tsukemen in the correct way (consultation of a YouTube video is required for Nance to pull this off).
In both Portlandia examples, the strange food in question evolves into something that is typically featured in horror films. For well-off yuppies who consider themselves to be progressive, discovering their own xenophobia can be the scariest thing of all.
Brunch, for the most part, is not good. Trendy restaurants use it as an excuse to get rid of leftovers on Sunday by smothering them in eggs and Hollandaise sauce and charging $16.99 per plate. Carefree and/or hungover customers ensure that hangover will stretch into the work week by starting their Sunday Fundays with bottomless orange juice- and tomato-based cocktails. Who can say no to bottomless mimosas? Instagram feeds are flooded with bird’s-eye views of Benedicts, and hours upon hours are wasted in queue as the hungry masses crowd dining rooms and overwhelmed hosts slowly cross names off lists.
There is a better way to get weekend-morning sustenance. A low-key breakfast spot might not have trending ingredients and craft cocktails, but the kitchen will be able to make eggs for any preference. The prices will be much cheaper: A cup of coffee with a doughnut on the side might run 99 cents, for example. A table is ready right now; no waiting necessary. No, those marionberry pancakes aren’t on the menu, but they do have blueberry, and don’t they taste just the same?
“Bunch Village” is not Portlandia’s best episode to date (that honor goes to Season 6’s “Breaking Up,” which ends with the only sweet and tender moment of the series). However, the Season 2 finale can’t be matched in the context of accurately displaying what makes an element of popular culture so prominent and ridiculous, so enjoyable and loathsome, at the same time. That’s what makes it peak Portlandia.
Portlandia Seasons 1 through 7 are now available on Netflix.