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The Bear: a perfect drama for the Biden era Carmy's kitchen is a microcosm of the nation

Carmy's emotional isolation in a walk-in fridge. (The Bear)

Carmy's emotional isolation in a walk-in fridge. (The Bear)


June 26, 2024   6 mins

Tomorrow’s menu of television broadcast will deliver an onslaught of anger, argument and forceful articulation of two distinct visions of America’s future. No, not the presidential debate on CNN, but the season three of The Bear, on Hulu. For The Bear depicts the kitchen as a microcosm of a nation that has reached its boiling point, where the slightest grease spill may spark an all-out brawl.

The show creator, Christopher Storer, has managed to turn a show about food porn into the sort of thing that now qualifies as a “cultural phenomenon” — for a moment last season, The Bear was the most watched television series across all platforms. The Critic’s Choice, Golden Globe and Primetime Emmy award-winning dramedy stars the quintessential rat-boy Jeremy Allen White (whose fame has landed him on billboards wearing nothing but Calvin Klein underwear) as chef Carmy Berzatto, and Ayo Edebiri, whose portrayal of the earnest if overly-ambitious sous chef Sydney Adamu has propelled her to the cover of Vanity Fair.

In many ways, The Bear is a drama for the Biden era, delivering the hope that the melting pot can once again congeal its acids and bases into a piquant whole; that the Tao of gastronomy can bring us together in order to realise a collective dream. The quasi-religious transformation of Carmy’s restaurant from drug-addled sandwich shop “The Beef” to the disciplined sophistication of “The Bear” dramatises the dream of reaching America’s promised land — the place where if you contribute you can be successful, where the finance bro in the zippered vest is not the only winner, where we can all become worthy of Sydney’s idol, Duke University’s legendary basketball Coach K.

“The Bear is a drama for the Biden era, delivering the hope that the melting pot can once again congeal its acids and bases into a piquant whole.”

As always, the American Dream comes with its trials. The final episode of season two reached its climax with Carmy locked and raging within a walk-in fridge, which was of course a grand metaphor for the emotional isolation, thwarted ambitions and deep-seated wounds of addiction, mourning and loss that had been baked into this reluctant anti-hero. Despite a brief romance, he is unable to escape his own miasma of self-doubt, attention deficit and over-arching dysfunction.

Carmy’s refrigerated dungeon was the final brutal slapstick in a series that revels in all that is beyond the control of the most obsessive control freaks, from unforgiving profit margins to exploding toilets to the inescapable crazy of a nicotine-and-alcohol addicted mother (perfectly channelled by Jamie Lee Curtis) whose toxicity precludes her from attending the most important night of her son’s life, the grand opening of his re-vitalised restaurant in gritty Chicago. Such are the mummy issues that Carmy’s memories of lemon piccata and Christmas Eve branzino cannot resolve, and they pale alongside the haunting tragedy of his brother who, like the patron saint of foodie martyrs, Anthony Bourdain, committed suicide.

That said, there’s a lot more than psychic catastrophe being cooked up in this restaurant, at once a hot box of despair and an intoxicating land of opportunity. The Bear tells a Horatio Alger story of an emerging girl boss, Sydney, who embraces her power and authority even as Carmy collapses like a failed soufflĂ©. If the industrial ruins that frame Lake Michigan (at which Carmy all-too-often casts his rueful gaze) loom as the omnipresent reminder of kitchen casualties — from the ghost of Bourdain to Bobby Flay’s infidelities, the rage of Gordon Ramsay, and the brutal aftermath of the sexual misconduct of Mario Batali — Sydney’s Chicago River is like Huck Finn’s Mississippi — the promised path to the frontiers of eating, where she can dare to imagine the freedoms of fusion cuisine. And while Carmy’s father remains absent and unaccounted for, Sydney’s single African-American dad embodies the post-Covid wish fulfillments of emotional and financial support, promising his daughter that she can live with him forever and follow her dreams.

The Bear, then, delivers a potent sweet and sour: irretrievable loss alongside the renaissance of American can-do — the sense that we can pick that raw chicken off the floor and serve it triumphantly, just as American chef Julia Child did in an earlier age of food media. Perhaps it will be possible to regain our long-lost optimism, and rediscover the time when the sublimities of French cuisine comprised something more than memes on TikTok.

The show’s extraordinary popularity rests on its re-workings of such hoary depictions of democracy’s promise, and the notion that the restaurant business may be the vehicle for the redemption of working-stiff America — the place where we may once again come together in the united colours of beef bourguignon. It’s fantasy, of course. The series would have us believe that given their druthers, all those veteran grill scrubbers of Chicagoland might truly desire to become full-fledged sauciers and bouchers, don white double-breasteds and join the kitchen brigades of Chez Panisse and Noma.

All of which is to say that The Bear is not really about the food, but food as a metaphor. As Carmy pounded the steel door of the walk-in fridge in vain, only to end up slumped among the vegetables, I was reminded of a vision of the role of cuisine in American life proposed by Marx Edgeworth Lazarus, a lost figure of 19th-century American food culture, and author of the 1852 bestseller Passional Hygiene and Natural Medicine. “The science of gastrosophy,” Lazarus wrote,

will place epicurism in strict alliance with honor and the love of glory.
Of all our enjoyments, eating being the first, the last, and the most frequent pleasure of man, it ought to be the principal agent of wisdom in the future harmony …
A skillful gastrosophist, also expert in the functions of culture and medical hygiene, will be revered as an oracle of supreme wisdom.

For hundreds of years, Americans have looked to food and food culture as nothing less than redemption; not philosophy, but gastrosophy, will light the way to the city on the hill, and make this land of plenty, at long last, yield its fruit. What gastrosophical wisdom can we garner from The Bear’s obsession with scarred Hobart mixers, sadistic high-end chefs and the veritĂ© of over-soaked panzanella? The advent of seasons three and four may herald the long-awaited arrival of Passional Hygiene’s skillful gastrosophist, he who will lead us to future harmony and wisdom.

At the centre of this hope stands Carmy, a ripped and inarticulate Rocky for our time, a busted-up American male, a Christ-like figure who will sacrifice himself for his brothers and sisters and deliver us from self-inflicted wounds. “I felt like I could speak through the food,” he confesses, and it is this sort of speaking in tongues that tempts us to believe that all his searing and slicing may actually result in a miraculous feast of nouvelle loaves and fishes, not to mention a smorgasbord of second acts and 12-step-inspired apologies.

For while Carmy’s fall from the grace of Eleven Madison Park to a sandwich shop in Chicago clearly portrays American downward mobility, it also hints at the promise of redemption. If Carmy is iconic, so is his dream of a kinder, gentler restaurant run alongside the “cousin” who isn’t really his cousin, in which the “family dinner” (that doesn’t include your family) may transcend all economic, social and ethnic bounds. It’s the post-Trump promise that in a time of crisis everyone might actually have each-other’s back, a sublime hope accompanied by the gentle choruses of Sufjan Stevens.

Unfortunately, such transformations can occur only if all that mopping of floors and scrubbing of stainless-steel pots and countertops can wash away centuries of anger and injustice. Carmy may find temporary respite for the loss of his brother in rolls of hundred-dollar bills he secreted in cans of tomato sauce, but the redemption will endure only if it leads to a level of self-sacrifice and gravitas last seen in ancient Rome — except that here the highest praise for a citizen of the kitchen is conveyed by the phrase, “you carve vegetables like a bitch”.

Thus do the pollutions and perfections of restaurant culture mirror the fate of American family and society, and illustrate the variety of traumas that have turned this country into a mĂ©lange of Dr. Phil and My Six-Hundred Pound Life. Only here, among the rice and pasta, can we believe that the hyper-kinetic Ebon Moss-Bachrach — whose portrayal of the gun-toting maĂźtre d’ Richie Jerimovich garnered a Primetime Emmy — might earnestly ask, “You feel me?”

Seasons one and two invested a great deal of time and effort working the suspense of whether or not the motley crew will pass the fire-suppression exam, a clever way to suggest both the literal and metaphorical path beyond the holocaust of social combustion. Season three promises no end to the outbursts of rage followed by anger management, the delicious juxtaposed against the undigestible, and no doubt a baker’s dozen more cringey confessionals. If the peevishness and penitence get old, there’s always those glistening closeups of T-bone steaks and lamb ragu, the glory of chopped daikon, the perfect geometry of tweezed micro-basil, and the exquisite paradox of a savoury cannoli — all of it infused by the question that boils at the centre of our post-traumatic historical moment: “Are you OK?”


Frederick Kaufman is a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine and a professor of English and Journalism at the College of Staten Island. His next project is a book about the world’s first political reactionary.

FredericKaufman

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Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
25 days ago

Maybe this article makes perfect sense to an American who has watched the show.

Liam F
Liam F
25 days ago
Reply to  Malcolm Webb

let’s wait- it early in US still. i’ll be interested to hear what some have to say

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
24 days ago

I don’t know… If I never watch another “foodie” movie or show again I’ll consider it a win. I am very tired of this metaphor and the whole “skilled consumer” aesthetic it promotes and appeals to. Samurai chefs. Trained noses and palettes. Who cares? Self-absorption, all of it.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
24 days ago

Makes it sound like an inferior “Boiling Point” stretched into a boring series. But who am I to judge? Despite my boring life, I’ve got better things to do than watch streaming series.