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GBH’s ‘Roadfood’ highlights the Portuguese culture of New Bedford and Fall River in upcoming episode

In downtown New Bedford, Collins stops at Base Seafood auction and wholesaler. He boards a fishing boat, chats with fishermen, dines al fresco on pasteis de nata — Portuguese custard tarts — at Tia Maria’s, and tries shrimp Mozambique at Whaling City’s Ocean Star.

Next stop: Fall River’s Portugalia — a grocery store inside an old mill building that sells just about every-Portuguese-imported food you can imagine.

Michael Benevides, a vice president at Portugalia whose father, Fernando, came to the United States from the Azores, explains a bit about both the “blue collar” community in Fall River, and Portuguese food like salt cod, “which becomes almost a different fish the fresh cod.”

Misha and Benevides then dine on Portuguese steak and shrimp Mozambique at Fall River’s Liberal Club, something of a Spindle City institution.

This is not a “let’s go find the best burger” type of food show. Collins is clearly more interested in exploring the cultural fabric of each location.

“I grew up with bohemian parents who moved a lot, who were transplants themselves — neither one grew up in Massachusetts. It never occurred to me that I was from a place and was going to stay in a place,” the California resident tells me in a phone interview. “It’s been eye-opening for me — and maybe this is naive — the extent to which people feel like their community roots are part of their identity.”

I caught up with Collins to see what he liked, and what he learned, about southern New England.

A dish at Fall River’s Liberal Club, as seen on “Roadfood.”

Q. So how did this show come about?

A. I’d wanted to do something like this for a long time — to travel the country and use food as a window into worlds. I’ve always been interested in exploring off-the-beaten-path communities and subcultures, so this was an excuse to have that sort of adventure. There’s a bit of a perspective to it, which is, I believe, if we sit down and talk to people from different walks of life, and develop empathy, we end up making a more compassionate, less divided country.

Then I was approached by Cliff Sharples, an executive producer on the show. He said: Would you have any interest in bringing to life Jane and Michael Stern’s book for PBS? It felt like a bit of kismet.

Q. Why that book?

A. The Sterns left Yale in the 1970s with the idea to try every restaurant in America. And they simply failed to do the math — no human in a lifespan could achieve that goal. They were going to seven or eight restaurants a day. Ostensibly, they were writing about food, reviewing off-the-beaten path restaurants — but they were really doing little ethnographies of America and American subcultures. They were getting to know people, what made them tick. It offered a window into their world. There’s something about breaking bread with people that’s disarming. People reveal parts of themselves.

They were also reviewing American cuisine — at the time, the only restaurants being reviewed were fine French and Italian restaurants. The idea that America had any kind of homegrown cuisine that merited critical exploration was new territory.

Q. You were born in Boston. Where did you grow up?

A. We lived in Somerville a couple years, then Billerica. Then my parents separated — my dad went to Newton and Cambridge; my mom went to Western Massachusetts. I spent most of my childhood in the foothills of the Berkshires. I went to Northfield Mount Hermon, then to the University of Chicago.

Q. What are some favorite dishes you’ve discovered so far on this show?

A. I really loved this Vietnamese/Cajun mashup we came across in Texas. And some incredible tacos in Brownsville, Texas. Some of the ethnic foods that have been slightly fusion-y have been some of my favorites.

[In the “New Bedford” episode,] we were looking at Portuguese influences, specifically. I had no idea how intense the Portuguese culture is there.

Q. Oh, yeah.

A. Ironically, shrimp Mozambique is not ubiquitous in Portugal. But it’s become the dish in New Bedford that every restaurant has to serve otherwise people won’t take them seriously. There are deep and strong ties to Portugal, but at the same time, it’s its own version now. It’s evolved as its own thing.

Q. You went to Fall River, too.

A. Portugalia was pretty awesome. It’s like the Whole Foods of Portuguese imported cuisine.

Q. It is.

A. [In New Bedford] Tia Maria’s had incredible Portuguese pastries. We also went to Izzy’s; it’s Cape Verdean. That was another interesting part of the exploration in this episode. New Bedford has a fascinating economic history. At one point it was the richest town per capita in the world, the whaling industry was booming. Then there was a period when it was a thriving industrial town. Then a lot of those factories and jobs went away and New Bedford fell on harder economic times. They’ve been going through a renaissance and recovery in recent years. Talking to the Portuguese immigrants, or descendants of immigrants, they were talking about back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, everyone had jobs and everyone was working. The community was booming. And then I had a conversation with Cape Verdeans or descendants of Cape Verdeans, who were saying: Yeah, that’s interesting, that’s white privilege for you. That wasn’t our experience in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It was really [expletive] hard to find a job.

So it was really interesting to have these different perspectives on the same small town. For me, that’s a driving force behind the show: to learn and glean those things. Food is the gateway in.

Q. If you could recommend one dish from Rhode Island, what would it be?

A. The warm squid salad.

Q. What about from New Bedford?

A. I’ll go with Izzy’s shrimp Mozambique.

Interview was edited and condensed. Both episodes are available to stream on PBS Passport: “New Bedford” episode airs Feb. 19 at 1 p.m. on GBH 2; and Feb. 20 at 3:30 p.m. on GBH 44. “Roadfood” is also available via AppleTV and Amazon Prime.

Lauren Daley can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.

Lauren Daley can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twiiter @laurendaley1.

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