This post originally appeared on July 20, 2018, in “Eat, Drink, Watch” — the weekly newsletter for people who want to order takeout and watch TV. Browse the archives and subscribe now.
Welcome to your weekend, a time of unlimited possibilities. We’re a little more than halfway through a year that’s seen a number of exciting food TV shows hitting the airwaves and streaming services. As a summertime special, here’s a look back on the highlights of the year in food television so far, with episodes ranked from great to truly exceptional.
Five Excellent Food TV Episodes From the First Half of 2018
5) The Goldbergs, “Dinner With the Goldbergs”
Watch it on: ABC, Hulu, Amazon, iTunes
The gist: No matter how obnoxious you think your family members are at restaurants, they’ve got nothing on the Goldbergs. This episode of the ABC sitcom is a small masterpiece of cringe comedy, full of hilarious details culled from real-life family dining disasters.
The episode takes place at a location of now-defunct chain Beefsteak Charlie’s, where three generations of the Goldberg clan are meeting to celebrate the birthday of college-age daughter Erica (played by Hayley Orrantia). “You’re going to break up with me,” Erica tells her boyfriend, Geoff (Sam Lerner) right before they walk in. “You’re never going to want to stay after the horrors you see tonight.”
The meal begins with Erica’s mom Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey), haggling for a better table, and dad Murray (Jeff Garlin) asking the family to remember the rule of, “no prime cuts, no fancy sides, no out-of-season vegetables, no ‘market price,’ no salad bar, no items in French, no dry-aged anything.”
A lot of food is sent back, and someone nearly chokes to death. But arguably the best moment comes during the credits, when you see actual home video footage of showrunner Adam F. Goldberg’s family performing all of these bizarre ticks and routines during meals from his childhood. It’s the perfect kicker to a riotous 22 minutes of television.
4) Dirty Money, “The Maple Syrup Heist”
Watch it on: Netflix
The gist: In the first half of 2018, Netflix released a handful of compelling documentaries that show how people in the food and restaurant industries got entangled in the criminal underworld. The series Rotten examines fraud in the farming business, while Evil Genius focuses on the tragic case of the Erie, Pennsylvania “pizza bombing,” and the incredible docuseries Wild Wild Country explores how the followers of a sex cult orchestrated the greatest case of food poisoning in American history. But it’s an episode of the corruption-themed series Dirty Money that gets my vote for most compelling food-themed true crime tale of 2018 so far.
“The Maple Syrup Heist” looks at how 9,000 barrels of sticky, sweet stuff were pinched from a federal reserve in Québec between 2011 and 2012. The robbers had such an intimate knowledge of the reserve system and the black market that they were able to move nearly $20 million worth of product without the authorities noticing that anything was amiss. To understand how such a thing could happen, the crew from Dirty Money interview independent harvesters, as well as the reporters who covered this bizarre crime. The result is a nuanced portrait of a regional food economy that was exploited by a handful of devious criminals.
If you’re a fan of the movie (or TV series) Fargo, this tale of a big crime in a small, wintry town will likely be right up your alley.
3) Chef’s Table, “Corrado Assenza”
Watch it on: Netflix
The gist: A recurring theme throughout David Gelb’s celebrated Netflix series is chefs serving food that has a “sense of place.” And in this lovely episode from the show’s recent pastry-themed season, Gelb and co. fix their lens on a pastry chef in Noto, Sicily who has devoted his life to making gelati, cannoli, and granite that represent the flavors and spirit of his homeland.
Although he’s been making destination-worthy desserts at Caffè Sicilia for decades, Corrado Assenza didn’t always want to be a pastry chef. And, at one point in his life after he’d taken over the cafe, he even rebelled against the traditional recipes that his family had used for generations. This attempt to take the menu in a different direction completely alienated his customers, but the failed experiment ultimately helped Corrado approach the traditional style with a renewed sense of purpose. “I’ve chosen my path, and I’ve followed it,” Assenza says. “Now I have no ambition. A life of simplicity, of quality, and my family makes me happy and satisfied.”
Even if you’re burnt out on high-minded chef documentaries, this one is worth watching if only for the gorgeous pastry-making sequences and glimpses of the life in a small Sicilian town.
2) Parts Unknown, “Armenia”
Watch it on: Amazon Video, iTunes, Google Play
The gist: Last month, food lovers around the world grieved the loss of Anthony Bourdain, a visionary author and TV host who rewrote the rules for culinary TV shows. This episode of his hit CNN travel show, which aired two weeks before Bourdain took his own life, is a good example of how he used his perch to tell stories that you don’t often see on television.
Bourdain and his crew spend this episode recounting the story of the Armenian genocide and its aftermath, with insights from historians and relatives of the people who lived through this brutal time in the nation’s history. The episode also explores the Armenian diaspora, and all the ways the country is currently encouraging children to embrace the arts and sciences. Along the way, the host eats in both trendy restaurants and home kitchens with his tour guide for this trip, System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian.
At one particularly memorable moment, Tony ventures to a disputed territory, the Republic of Artsakh, in a helicopter, a move that would make headlines in a neighboring country. “Simply by coming here, I’ve become, as I read in the papers a few days later, officially persona non grata in Azerbaijan,” the host explains.
Bourdain became famous for serving up insights about kitchen life with his razor-sharp wit, but as this installment of Parts Unknown proves, he was more than just an author and entertainer — he was a passionate journalist, too.
1) Ugly Delicious, ”Tacos”
Watch it on: Netflix
The gist: David Chang’s Netflix series is a hybrid travel show, culinary documentary, and Vox-style explainer program, imbued with the exuberant energy of the chef’s now-defunct magazine Lucky Peach.
The taco episode is arguably the most entertaining and informative of the bunch. It begins with a late-night tortilla crawl through the streets of LA where Chang and his onetime Lucky Peach collaborator Peter Meehan are joined by food writing legends Jonathan Gold and Gustavo Arellano. Later in the episode, Meehan ventures to Puebla to track the origins of tacos Arabes, and he later connects with chef Rosio Sánchez as part of a research mission for Noma Mexico. And in a particularly inspired part, Arellano visits Mitla Cafe, the Southern California restaurant that a savvy businessman by the name of Glen Bell basically ripped off to create Taco Bell.
Like all the best chapters of this show, the taco episode offers myriad perspectives on a wildly popular dish that is somehow undervalued in American culture. “I do think people don’t realize how much time goes into a lot of Mexican food,” Sánchez says. “Especially like tacos and moles, people will just eat it and go ‘Oh, okay.’ It’s a huge effort, and I think sometimes it gets lost.”
Have a great weekend, and if you’re looking for something refreshing and exceedingly summery to make, consider whipping up Fanny Gerson’s spicy watermelon sorbet.