Baltimoreans fool another out-of-towner

Ever since stumbling across chef/author Anthony Bourdain's hedonistic food/travel show "No Reservations" on cable a couple of years ago, I've imagined him taking on Baltimore. Clearly we'd see him elbow deep in crabs, Old Bay and Natty Boh; talking shop with the young owner of any of the myriad hip new restaurants that have sprouted up in town in the last few years and maybe visiting the bakery where they make the world's most calorie-dense food, the Berger Cookie.

In retrospect, though, I'm not sure why I was surprised to learn that Mr. Bourdain went on a "Wire"-tastic tour of some of Baltimore's most depressed neighborhoods, feasted on lake trout and paired the city with Buffalo and Detroit in a Rust Belt-themed episode. The man goes nuts for Cleveland, and this is the treatment we get?


Writing about his Charm City trip on his blog, Mr. Bourdain tries to pre-empt my civic dudgeon:

"There has been predictable apprehension about this show on blogs and in the Baltimore press — from the same folks, I suspect, who were less than pleased with The Wire's portrayal of their town. They probably don't find much to love in the early, hilariously funny works of John Waters either. Like it or not, I would say to them, those are your ambassadors. You made them. The greatest dramatic series in the history of television (whose subject, to be fair, is really much larger than Baltimore), and a great, filthily funny auteur—the John Ford of the American underbelly. Neither could have happened anywhere else. ...

"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 arrived in Baltimore apprehensive. I left a fan."

And that's when I figured it out. Mr. Bourdain, like so many out-of-towners, has been snookered. David Simon and John Waters are not Baltimore's greatest ambassadors. They're our decoys. They are like the magician's gesticulating right hand that distracts the audience from the work being done by the left, their flashy quirkiness making visitors think this might be a charming place to visit for an afternoon and totally masking the fact that Baltimore is, actually, a truly fine place to live.

I've witnessed this phenomenon before. A couple of years ago, mystery writer Laura Lippman took an NPR reporter on a tour of Baltimore, and she pulled the same trick. (Full disclosure: Ms. Lippman is a friend and a former Sun reporter and, perhaps not coincidentally, is married to Mr. Simon.) Her tour stops included a viewing of a giant ball of string constructed from Haussner's twine napkin ties, crab cakes at Lexington Market (natch) and the end of I-70 where it fails to connect to the highway to nowhere (and where it was, apparently, once fashionable to dump bodies.)

"How cute and charming," the listener would be bound to think. "Maybe we should check out that ball of string next time we're driving from New York to D.C.!"

In her books, Ms. Lippman slips a bit, for example in her description of the house where her most famous character, Tess Monaghan, lives: a cottage nestled in the woods along Stony Run, where she can wander outside and walk her dogs, or stroll a couple of blocks to a charming, locally owned coffee shop. Fortunately, the books are fiction, and readers might imagine that such a place can't possibly exist in Baltimore, and that if it did, a private investigator couldn't possibly live there.

Mr. Waters has occasionally winked through his Baltimore weirdness porn, too. The central joke of his movie "Pecker," for example, is about New York hipsters discovering the quirky charms of Hampden. To the rest of the world, he may be the "John Ford of the American underbelly," but the last time I saw him around town, he was browsing, unmolested, through the produce aisle at Whole Foods.

Baltimore has its problems, no doubt. It's hard to consider Mr. Bourdain's portrait of the place unflattering, airing as it did the night after 12 people were shot at an East Baltimore cookout.

But the Baltimore the world sees on his show and elsewhere is either the Inner Harbor or the 'hood. You'd have no idea that the city is full of wonderful neighborhoods of all shapes and sizes, how easy it is to live here or how frequently you're bound to run into people you know. (One of the truest Baltimore scenes of "The Wire" came in the third season, when a pair of teenage drug dealers and their girlfriends ran into a trio of cops and their girlfriends at the movies. That probably happens here all the time.)

So, Mr. Bourdain, next time you're in the neighborhood, give me a call. I'd be happy to make you dinner, mix you a martini the size of a swimming pool and show you what we mean by the land of pleasant living.