Like many people, being forced to “shelter in place” has made me realize a lot about myself, my entertainment habits, and my hobbies. Most notably, being forced to stay indoors has made me realize that I don’t really have too many hobbies. I’ve never taken up knitting, I don’t love working out, and I am definitely not the craftiest person you’ll ever meet.
Most of the things I do for fun — seeing live music, going out, and trying new restaurants — were shut down in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. And though it may seem counterintuitive, I’ve been finding a lot of comfort in watching food and travel shows. The one I’m finding the most soothing? Somebody Feed Phil.
Somebody Feed Phil is a Netflix travel show hosted by Phil Rosenthal, the Jewish creator of Everybody Loves Raymond. In each episode, Rosenthal travels to a major food capital in order to eat his way through the city along with friends, food writers, and local chefs. Though Rosenthal is a self-proclaimed “foodie,” many of the episodes find him in places he’s never been before, trying cuisines that are mostly new to him.
The show sends Rosenthal all over the globe, from Bangkok to Mexico City to Tel Aviv. In each city, he takes in the culture and the sights while sharing his affinity for public parks as well. Watching Somebody Feed Phil, you can experience the cities through his eyes as he makes friends with locals and cracks jokes that only land half the time.
Is Somebody Feed Phil as hard-hitting and nuanced as an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown or even David Chang’s Ugly Delicious? No, definitely not. This is not a show that will dig deep into the nuances and complexities of a city’s food history. If that’s what you’re looking for, I’d recommend the aforementioned shows. However, there is something about watching a wide-eyed Rosenthal be amazed by every bit of food he eats that’s just so lovely. Rosenthal’s face is so expressive; with every bite, you’re getting his full range of emotions, from surprise to contemplation to bliss.
Sometimes, the best moments come not when Rosenthal is being adventurous and eating exotic foods, but when he’s right in his element, talking about the Jewish food he knows and loves. In an especially delightful scene in the New York City episode of season two, Rosenthal is joined by comedian Judy Gold on a romp through the iconic Zabar’s grocery. The two go through the aisles commenting on all the iconic old-school Ashkenazi foods. They discuss popular favorites such as rugelach and lox, but also reminisce about oft-forgotten classics like Fox’s U-Bet Chocolate Syrup. Later, Gold and Rosenthal eat bagels and dance at the deli counter (to the annoyance of some fellow shoppers). It’s deeply entertaining to watch these two peruse the shelves and talk to the older Jewish ladies about their shopping habits. I would honestly watch an entire series of just that. (Netflix: Make it happen.)
Near the end of every episode, Rosenthal video calls his elderly parents to tell them about all the food he’s eaten while traveling. Despite the fact that Rosenthal hosts a food show, his parents still ask if he’s eating well — a question that could haunt any Jewish child. The show maintains the awkwardness of video calls, with their glitches, misheard words, and interruptions. Rewatching these scenes hits different now that pretty much all our interactions are mediated by video calls, but Somebody Feed Phil brings a humor to these situations. The show has made me realize that while Zoom calls can be frustrating, if I can learn to make light of the glitches and awkward pauses, rather than letting them ruin my mood, it becomes a lot easier to manage.
Somebody Feed Phil does sometimes make me miss being able to go out, travel, and eat at restaurants. But more than that, it has highlighted the importance of sharing a meal. The ability to eat together with friends and family is one of those base pleasures that I didn’t appreciate until it was gone.
Plus, the show — and watching food TV in general — has made me appreciate the cooking I am able to do within my apartment. After rewatching the Mexico City episode, I got a major craving for tacos. So, I gathered the ingredients I had access to and decided to have my own taco night in my apartment. The act of cooking was the creative outlet I needed; at the end, I had a meal I was proud of. I’ve been pretty skeptical of anyone who touts a need for productivity during isolation. However, putting together a thought-out meal was just the sort of productivity I can get behind.
Somebody Feed Phil has been how I keep calm. The show is a combination of travel escapism and a gateway to exploring the opportunities that I have within the confines of my apartment. And since isolation is only temporary, I’m now looking to the future when we’ll be able to gather in real life again. I know I’ll appreciate it a lot more.
How I Keep Calm is our series featuring different ways people manage anxiety. If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with “How I Keep Calm” in the subject line.