Since it first aired in 2011, Portlandia has been taking satirical stabs at a buffet of cultural trends with alarming astuteness. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s all-too-accurate portrayals of everything from hipster archetypes to tech obsessions have been placed in a burning spotlight, leaving viewers laughing but probably also reflecting on their own culture conformities.
One of the most biting of these recurring themes is food fads. Portlandia has served up numerous sketches ripe with ridiculous food culture clichés over the years that are organically great due to their “funny ‘cause it’s true” depictions. Here are 10 of the best the show has delivered so far.
The surging artisan movement is a wide target for Portlandia, and the show has taken a handful of opportunities to poke at it. A particularly salty poke was this sketch, which features Brownstein and Armisen as a frizzy-haired pair of movie theater employees pushing their new artisan concession menu on customers. The two boast about the “rustic” qualities of the theater’s Tuscan popcorn, diet Sprite (which ends up being a shot glass of dark Italian soda) and arugula salad with fresh cheese, which as Armisen’s character points out, “stinks, and that’s good.”
Beets are just one of the many health foods seen as a savior by some these days — but they can have an unfortunate side effect. This cold-open scene from Season 4 shows concerned 911 callers having their seemingly bloody bowels dismissed as beets by Brownstein and Armisen’s operators. The final punchline is Portlandia absurdity at its best when Jeff Goldblum calls in from a car accident only to realize he hit a beet truck.
This recurring sketch has no tolerance for lactose, taking aim at the rise of milk alternatives. Brownstein and Armisen pose as UC Davis alumni educating the masses on their latest dairy-free concoctions, which range from the possibly-okay cashew milk to the definitely-gross zucchini milk. Eventually, the two introduce “water milk,” which they admit is truly just water.
If you’ve ever strolled through a local co-op, you’ve probably had to do a double-take while wondering aloud, “Pickled what?!” This Season 2 kickoff features recurring characters Bryce Shivers and Lisa Eversman gleefully pickling everything from bandages to broken high heels as a solution for anything excessive. “Pickle juice tastes like garbage — it sucks,” chirps Armisen’s Shivers before the duo suggest pickling CD jewel cases to boost sales.
The ingredients of this sketch are as follows: Jim Gaffigan, Matt Lucas and a food cart with a name so punny, the subsequent jokes inevitably sell themselves. Problem is, the stews at Stu’s Stews aren’t actually selling despite the winter weather, leaving Donald (Gaffigan) and Stu (Lucas) looking for ways to boost business. This results in Donald standing out front of the cart offering stew samples before realizing how unappetizingly similar that sounds to “stool samples.”
This special episode that concluded Season 2 puts an amusing spin on the frustrating reality many of us have endured: the agonizing line for brunch. As some of the show’s main recurring characters all plan to visit the new popular brunch spot in Portland, it becomes apparent that everyone has the same idea, as the line to get in stretches across the whole city. There’s a particularly absurd turn of events when Nance finds herself being held captive by a Clockwork Orange-style character who attempts to torture her by force-feeding pop tarts and yelling “Eat your brunch!”
Raw and vegan diets are prime fodder for Portlandia, but the direction this sketch goes in isn’t the most likely of routes. Rather than creating vegan characters reeking of pretentiousness, Brownstein and Armisen instead play college professors dining at a raw/vegan restaurant for the first time. As soon as the two finish their food, their conversation becomes punctuated by flatulence and comedically quick mid-sentence admissions of “I’m farting right now.” Eventually, they’re directed to the restaurant’s fart patio, where they fart freely amongst other patrons with bubbling stomachs.
There’s a delicious daily threat that many of us struggle to deal with responsibly, and that threat is carbs. As part of the “Winter in Portland” themed episode that aired as a pre-Season 3 bonus, Peter realizes he’s fat, which leads to Nance deciding that the two of them will quit consuming pasta for the entire winter. This brings to light Peter’s severe pasta addiction, evidenced by his perusing of pasta photos like porn and voyeuristic attempts at watching people eat pasta in restaurants and homes. He relapses, hard, eating raw spaghetti on the street and freebasing a pot of rotini before being caught by Nance on the verge of carbicide in a motel room. Fortunately, a brief stint in food rehab allows Peter to recollect himself and he’s able to leave happily with Nance in hand.
In this Season 4 highlight, Steve Buscemi plays Marty, a celery salesman desperately trying to match numbers with the other vegetable sales staff at his company. That brief synopsis alone should probably be enough to illustrate the absurd hilarity of this episode, but it doesn’t even cover it. Just as Buscemi’s Marty is at his wits’ end trying to make celery as sexy as the likes of kale and Brussel sprouts, he’s given the contact info for someone who can help: Bacon. Marty visits the home of the brooding Bacon Guy (Armisen as sort of an evil Andy Warhol), who decides he’d like a night with Marty’s wife in exchange for his help. The FBI finds Marty afterward and gets him to wear a wire for his next visit with the nefarious Bacon Guy, but it turns out that the FBI had ulterior motives as they’re revealed to be working for Corn. Marty and celery emerge victorious in the battle for vegetable supremacy in the end, marking this as one of the most wonderfully wacky Portlandia episodes of all-time.
The first food-related sketch from the very first episode of Portlandia set the satire bar pretty high. In their debut appearance, Peter and Nance are at a restaurant enquiring quite a bit about the chicken on the menu. Being assured that it’s local and free-range isn’t quite enough for the couple, prompting the server to provide a photo and documentation for the chicken, whose name is Colin. Just to be sure that Colin was truly treated ethically, Peter and Nance drive 30 miles to the farm he’s from to scope things out (while having the server save their seat at the restaurant, of course). There, they meet the elusive, soothingly seductive farmer, Aliki (Jason Sudeikis), and things get quite strange. It’s a perfect example of how Portlandia can take something as simple as a food phenomenon and brilliantly steer it in the weirdest directions.
Trevor Courneen is a freelance contributor to Paste. He was tempted to eat a bacon-wrapped kale and french fry Hot Pocket while writing this, but refrained. Tweet funny food things to him @trevorcourneen.
Screengrab via YouTube