Ah, the New York City sitcom du jour. You know, the one with those four to seven twenty/thirty-somethings and their eons of spare time, kvetching about the thousands of nothings that color an adult life in Manhattan, or perhaps more recently, Brooklyn. That show with the fictional everymen who eke out existential or emotional crises over all too many meals out, who seemingly never work the two or three jobs necessary to afford their somehow operational apartments.
Countless such shows exist, all of which shade different hues of delayed adulthood in the Big City: Friends, How I Met Your Mother, Sex and the City, Girls, Master of None, Louie, and so on, to say nothing of predecessors like I Love Lucy. What these sitcoms share is an evident New Yorkiness, that ambition and amour-propre paling to the bigger ego of an endless city and the bizarre habits of its millions of residents. With story arcs resolving in an hour or less, these sitcoms are the perfect anti-epics. No journey or lifelong quest to speak of, plot stimuli are little more than simple human friction within the fixtures of New York life—cafés and restaurants and bars and isolated apartments. Thus the reigning king—the quintessentially New Yorkiest sitcom of them all—is one whose raison d’être is the aggrandizement of the most trivial aspects of everyday life, a show that embraces its anti-epicness to the nth degree, Seinfeld.
For those who know nothing of this universe, Seinfeld centers on Jerry Seinfeld (a fictionalized version of the real comedian), his schlemiel best friend George, his former girlfriend Elaine, and his hipster doofus neighbor Kramer, all of whom spend their days shooting the shit in and around Jerry’s Upper West Side apartment. A so-called “show about nothing,” Seinfeld reached stratospheric fame during its 1989-1998 tenure and remains one of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows in television history. But this moniker just scratches the surface of the absurd, Beckettian humor of the whole thing. Seinfeld is only “a show about nothing” inasmuch as its focus on trivialities eclipses its story arcs. Its New York exists outside of time, almost outside of history, pinned to an ambience of the nineties with a nondescript, Dalíesque notion of setting. In place of any significant historical context, politics, or even real work is the compulsive observation of everydayness sometimes termed “magical nihilism.” And, as it happens, there is nothing more everyday—and therefore nothing more remarkable in this ludicrous Seinfeldia—than the process and social protocol of eating in New York City.
That food is central to Seinfeld is obvious from a glance at its episodes’ titles; “The Rye,” “The Fusilli Jerry,” “The Calzone,” “The Pie,” “The Non-Fat Yogurt,” “The Soup,” “The Soup Nazi,” “The Chicken Roaster,” “The Pez Dispenser,” “The Junior Mint,” “The Big Salad,” “The Mango,” and “The Muffin Tops,” and those are just the ones with explicit references in the name. Framing dozens of episodes and ubiquitous throughout, foodstuffs in this nebulous version of New York are the hinges on which Seinfeld turns, the unabashed substitute for actual life-altering adventure.
A case study: “The Dinner Party,” in which the four main characters spend virtually all 22 minutes of the episode quarreling and then aching over what to bring to, you guessed it, a dinner party. For his part, George insists that Pepsi and Ring Dings—packaged cream-filled chocolate cakes the size and shape of hockey pucks—make better gifts than the customary wine and cake. Rebuked by Elaine and apparently baffled by dinner party etiquette, he retorts “Why don’t we get them a couch?” On the way, Elaine and Jerry stop at Royal Bakery, a stand-in for any and every Jewish bakery in the premillennial city, where their attempt to pick up a chocolate babka becomes an all-evening affair. Immediately distracted, Jerry waxes poetic about the black and white cookie, that paragon of a New York treat: “Nothing mixes better than vanilla and chocolate, and yet racial harmony still eludes us. If people would only look to the cookie, all of our problems would be solved.” (Famous as that line is, by the way, a black and white cookie is not exactly the paradigm of racial harmony. Seems the two colors side by side is more illustrative of segregation. Babka, on the other hand, with its floury pale tones and caramelized brown honey and deep chocolate all swirled together into a beautiful, gooey, crumbly dough…).
Anyway, while wasting time with the cookie, Elaine and Jerry lose the last chocolate babka. Juggling alternatives—Black Forest cake is too scary, Napoleon too hawkish—they land on cinnamon babka, the alleged “lesser babka,” and then spend another ten minutes whining about the strand of hair on it, replete with tangents on shampoo. Meanwhile, George and Kramer have succeeded in purchasing wine among other pointless tchotchkes, shattering bottles inside the liquor store, and getting the car blocked in by a double parker. When they do finally arrive, the gang hand over their goodies at the door and, in a show of profoundly predictable sitcom humor, take off. In essence, a whole lot of “nothing” happens, an entire episode about food with ostensibly no plot development.
To those uninitiated folk who only dabble in Seinfeldia, this sort of stuff goes on and on through all nine seasons. There is, of course, the renowned Soup Nazi with his stringent ordering procedure, any violation of which brings the dreaded “No soup for you!” Or that time when George, embarrassed of his post-swim problem—ahem, shrinkage— spikes Jerry’s kosher girlfriend’s scrambled eggs with lobster in a classic act of petty vengeance via delectable foodstuff. Not to mention the pie that a different girlfriend refuses to taste, the chocolate éclair George eats out of the garbage, the Jujyfruits Elaine stops for on the way to the emergency room, the Snickers bars everyone starts cutting with a knife and fork, the Junior Mint Kramer drops inside of a man undergoing surgery, the mango as panacea to male sexual underperformance, the veritable stockpiles of cereal Jerry keeps at home, and so, so many more gastronomical musings as substitute for genuine action. The crème de la crème may be the marble rye Jerry mugs an old lady for which George then hooks on a fishing line and pulls up two floors.
All in all, the food in Seinfeld plays a starring role in elucidating the immediate realities and features of the four main characters’ wittingly insignificant lives. The surreal setting, devoid of real time and specificity of place, is not so much a deliberate detachment from sociopolitics but an appropriately miniscule fraction of it, corresponding with the grandiloquent postmodern emptiness that undergirds the series. Still, it just so happens that the show exemplifies the perfect premillennial New York City in its menus. The Jewish pastries, the marble rye, the various soups, the calzones and pizza, even the social constructs and dinner party etiquette—all of it smacks of a certain nineties New York. These little gastronomic frivolities become the stuff of life, pinballing unimportant people through their characteristically boring days, and the show, therefore, is an inadvertent record of a sort of cuisine.
So says William Grimes in the New York Times: “the characters on Seinfeld did not eat well, but they ate very New York.” And yet, for a present-day sitcom fan to take for granted the conflation of these two notions—eating well and eating New York—would be forgivable, however unsound. Recent sitcom Master of None, with its eminent stand-up comedian-as-show runner/writer/protagonist and three varied, whimsical friends exploring emerging adulthood in New York City, is the closest contemporary parallel to Seinfeld. Perhaps the only sitcom in which food plays such a prominent role as in Seinfeld, Master of None nonetheless takes on food as an entirely different animal. Dev Shah, the analogue to Jerry played by stand-up comedian Aziz Ansari, is an earnest Millennial naïf to Seinfeld’s nihilist yuppie, emblematic of the current generation’s foodieism. To be sure, Shah represents a narrow slice of contemporary New York City, but regardless, his obsession with food rivals most. He spends his time either talking about food, talking over food, googling the best food, or in pure Seinfeldian splendor, almost inadvertently breaking up with a girl over the acquisition of food.
Still, Shah/Ansari exemplifies a kind of gastronomic care distinct from Seinfeld. Master of None concerns itself with the taste of its food, the hipness of it, the full package of eating out in New York and the social life of that periphery. Seinfeld, however, uses food as a slingshot for pettiness, something for its infinitely trivial characters to whine about. Seinfeld’s food choices, for instance, would never merit an Eater or Thrillist or New York Times article guiding viewers to places like Marlow & Sons, Hotel Delmano, Mission Chinese, or Parlor Coffee, as has happened with Master of None (Seinfeld does have a New York Times food guide, but laid out purely for nostalgia’s sake, and twenty years late). Even when Jerry Seinfeld the real curmudgeonly person appears in some hipper establishments in his new show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, he seems surreally out of place watching a barista spend five minutes making him a pour-over, flummoxed as to the point of it all.
No, Seinfeld points to a somewhat bygone New York, one in which the decidedly unsexy cuisine at the apex of the utilitarian century dominates. A quaint, pre-internet life, where tunafish and tuna denote two wholly different foods, where the residually Jewish and Italian and proletariat everyman kind of New York was not yet outshined by a sort of global Millennialism or Brooklyn palate, where people still ordered Russian dressing. Not that the food back then was any good, by the way. But the television it accommodated certainly was.