The first episode of Street Food: Latin America begins with shots of a soccer game in a Buenos Aires arena. Between enticing flashes of cheese oozing from potato tortillas and empanadas, we see people dancing close together, crowds marching through festivals, and massive food halls packed with diners. The thrill of these once mundane commotions quickly turns to panic, as — in a COVID-19 era — you realize you’re watching what’s, at best, the types of experiences you can’t wait to get back to and, at worst, a memorial to something now gone.
I thought I was going to spend all six episodes of Street Food in a spiral about the pandemic, moaning over how I’ll never get to go to these places or try these foods, and wondering if these celebrated cooks got sick or lost their businesses. But the second season of the Netflix show, with its quiet focus on the life of street food purveyors in cities around Latin America, has more to say than just pointing you to where you should be eating (or where you may never eat again). By being as much about the people as the place, it’s a calming reminder that people are resilient and, even if the pandemic takes away their business, they, and others, will still be out there trying and cooking.
Travel shows, especially those focused on food, exist for two reasons. They’re escapism for those who can’t travel and aspirational for those who can.. Aside from the stories, fascinating in their own right, each episode of Street Food could easily serve as a vacation mealtime itinerary. But obviously that’s not possible right now, especially if you’re watching from the U.S., which weirdly makes Street Food’s message even stronger. It is easy to watch a show like this and only value the purveyors for what they produce. But without the temptation of trip planning, the only thing we can do now is pay attention to the people, not the product.
The show follows the formula of its previous season in Asia. There is no bombastic host, or fetishistic view of “rustic” foods, or much English. Instead, each episode is a small documentary of a street food purveyor, mostly narrated by the purveyor themselves, with some other cooks, friends, and experts thrown in. The show sometimes touches on systemic influences, like global warming or discrimination, that affect how everyone does their job, but mostly it sticks to the chefs’ processes of making dishes and building their businesses, many of which have earned international acclaim.
We also learn why these street food masters were driven to set out on their own,, whether it’s because they were driven out of their previous vending spot, stood up to a controlling husband, or they were just determined to prove a woman could thrive in a man’s world. In five out of this season’s six episodes, the “main” vendor is a woman. Sometimes the show comes close to weaving a romantic fantasy about the hard-earned wisdom of the sassy grandmas of the world, but narrowly avoids it. Ultimately this isn’t a show about traditional women making traditional food for the love and comfort of others, and I’m thankful for that.
Street Food could also fall into the food show trap of making sweeping generalizations about a country or a culture’s cuisine. On the surface, the generalizations exist: Interviewees explain the traditional players of street food — ceviche in Lima, Peru, memelas in Oaxaca, Mexico, ajiaco in Bogota, Colombia. But in each episode, the show focuses instead on what makes this specific version atypical . Whether it’s ham in a potato tortilla, or the spin a Caribbean chef puts on Colombian food, or Emiliana Condori creating new types of salsas for her rellenos in La Paz, Bolivia. The point made is that there is no “traditional” or “authentic” version of anything. It’s what these people bring to it that makes it special.
I never quite excised the pandemic-inspired panic and regret I had at the beginning of the first Street Food episode, and throughout the series, I continued to worry that I might never get to visit these places. No joy was taken in the realization that I should have worked less and traveled more before COVID-19 changed everything. But at least Street Food provides the satisfying experience of watching someone thrive in creation, as no one featured is satisfied with status quo. The show is also a reminder that while street food will always be there, any individual vendor is always living their own fleeting story. They’ll change a recipe, or grow old and retire, or be kicked out of their spot and have to find a new one. I may never visit the version of the cities presented by the show, but eventually I’ll visit a different version. Maybe all these places will exist, or maybe they will have changed, or maybe they’ll all be gone and new ones will have taken their place. Which is what makes the marriage of food and travel so bittersweet to begin with.