I’m a sketch comedy junkie. There isn’t a sketch show I’ll turn my nose up at. I grew up absorbing everything from Kids in the Hall and Upright Citizens Brigade to The State and SNL. So much of what I think if funny stems from that era of sketch. While I love modern sketch shows like The Kroll Show and Key and Peele, I have a special nostalgic love for those 90’s era troupes. In fact it was Fred and Carrie’s playful skewering of 90’s nostalgia that endeared me to Portlandia.
One thing that creates great sketch comedy is character depth and Portlandia has this in spades. Characters and memes recur, crossover between sketches, and pop up at unexpected moments. Characters like Toni and Candace from the Women & Women First bookstore, Nina and Lance, and Spike are fan favorites because their personalities under-gird the Portlandia universe.
Portlandia is also a foodie’s sketch comedy show. There has been so much food related comedy even from the very first episode about a couple going to great lengths to make sure the chicken humanely raised. You also have the recurring Portland Milk Advisory Council, 911 Beets Emergency Hotline, and my recent favorite the Celery Salesman with Steve Buscemi.
A television show/cookbook crossover is a really innovative idea and if there was ever a show made for it, it’s Portlandia. I was excited about the opportunity to review this book and, as a fan, I had hopes that the show would gain greater depth because of it. And I mean that in most hipster way possible. (e.g. ‘Oh my gosh, you don’t know about Lance and Nina’s birthday cake recipe? How can you even suggest you love Portlandia?’)
The Portlandia Cookbook: Cook Like a Local has all the common ingredients of a modern cookbook from sections for main dishes and brunch to sidebars with jokes and recipe related diversions. The secret sauce is that every recipe is related to a sketch, character, or some other facet of the show. For example the appetizers section is sprinkled heavily with references to Nina’s birthday party and the Around the World in 80 plates sketches. Remember the “Brunch Village” finale from season two? There are recipes for Marionberry Pancakes and Cup ‘o Joe, Side of Dough in the brunch section of the book.
It easy to see that there is a ton of potential for an amazing goulash, unfortunately the result was a let down. The sections failed to add anything new and instead just served up old Portlandia moments. For example Malcolm’s recipe introduction Puree Home Comp-Onion soup is just a rehash of the jokes from the sketch.
Another quickly apparent shortcoming is how poorly characters translate into text. The book opens with authenticity sticklers Kath and Dave stressing the importance of having the right tools, techniques, and ingredients. This kind of thing has potential in my opinion. It’s not repeating old jokes and it’s in the spirit of both the cookbook and the show. But Kath and Dave work as characters because of their entire delivery. Their magic in their interplay and facial expressions. Unfortunately those things get lost when it’s just text on a page. The reader is left working with awkward segues like “Dave here!” or “Kath is nodding her head in a way that means: ‘Agree with Dave: Do Not Bother.”
It would be unfair to judge a sketch show crossover cook book by its comedy alone, so how were the recipes? Well, Danville, Kentucky is a long way from Portland, Oregon. (2,419 miles to be exact!) Many of the recipes called for ingredients that were hard to find like wild produce, non-standard spices, and even durian fruit. However, I think people in a more metropolitan area would have no trouble at all finding the correct items. At any rate, substituting a few premium ingredients for some from Appalachia’s finest “supermart” seemed to work okay. The dishes we tried turned out very tasty. My family especially loved the Bbussel sprouts with bacon. The french onion soup and Sichuan chicken wings are still on our list to try.
As a companion to the show, The Portlandia Cookbook was a little bland. Rather than adding freshness to brand it served reheated comedy with a side of awkward presentation. However, As a recipe book it does it’s job well. It offers some interesting and very executable twists on well-loved dishes. It also pushes the boundaries with some uncommon things like borscht, durian sofrito, and kappa jui jui tea. As a cookbook there is definitely something here for everybody from hipster foodies to sketch comedy loving home cooks. If you’re looking to geek out on Portlandia, you can safely skip this one.