September 28, 2009
At the end of Heat, you finally get to find out why Buford wrote the book. But it's a perplexing explanation. "...I didn't want this knowledge to be a professional; just to be more human."
How has the butchering of pigs and cows, attempted "respectfully" by the author, necessarily made him more human? How does one kill respectfully? Respectful to whom or to what -- One's own fingers, limbs and belly that could be gouged in the process? What does "respectful" mean here? And what does "human" mean?
Let's get back to excess, that being the real art these dudes wish to perfect. Heat begins and ends with a baccanal with Batali, the great chef and mentor that guides the book and Buford's efforts. At first, Buford is taken aback by Batali's excesses. Batali is, after all, a guy who has been known -- in the company of just one -- to polish off a case of wine, and whose idea of contributing "a little something" to a party at Buford's is bringing a slab of pig's lard to share. His "bigness" is in everything he does and he shocks at every turn. He's made a name in part due to his reputation for excess. Just like Bourdain, just like most of the guys on the food programs on the Travel Channel. At the end of Buford's adventure, the two, Buford and Batali, dine again, this time polishing off 15 bottles of wine and a meal that kicks off with 35 dishes as starters.
Wow, what a couple of real men, and hasn't Buford come a long way!
I feel gorged in more ways than one at the end of this book. I expect gorging and excess from the foodies on the food programs on the Travel Channel, but you know the trends aren't just low brow when a guy from The New Yorker hops on the train. Batali suggests that Buford start a little restaurant in New York, to put to the test what he has learned of Italian cooking, but Buford demures. He has more to learn. French cooking is next.
It's not just food, foodies and their opinions that fascinate me. I'm interested in how our relationship to food can make us better, richer, more alive, not just gorged, and big-headed cause we got to eat the best stuff. The world that Buford, Batali and Bourdain (the latter too, more often than not) inhabit, is one reserved for the elite, those who not only can never get enough, but can afford to keep on trying.
I resent that the baccanal is associated with the heart of good cooking. I resent the fact that while more than half the world goes hungry, people who can afford to help, spend all their time hanging out in Italy, elbows deep in slimy guts so they can learn the bucolic trade of ages. Sure it's an engaging story, but where's it taking us? Where's it taking poor Shmo who doesn't have such privileges, who reads well but doesn't have a lot. It's elite stuff, unabashed about being elite. Sorry, I can't afford even the time to read it.
I admit, I knew I was indulging myself -- a little -- what with the Bourdain crush and all, which is now over. I've seen enough of his shows to get what the fun is all about. I don't like watching crusty geezers or even virile young men slaughtering and vivisecting animals just to eat them, talking about "making love" and eating the way they do, like it's the same thing, like the reason they are here at all is just to pillage and take.
I don't have two weeks to spend neck deep in this shit. I have better things to do.
Where are the cooks interested in cooking for and feeding people who don't have didley squat? I'd like to read about what they do and how they do it.
When I write about those who write about food, and crave it -- as most of us do -- I am prone to examining too, erotic morality and the history of my own craving. What do I want? Why do I want it? Why not indulge? How do I deal with my insatiability? Food, excess, pleasure -- all in moderation.
Can one be moderate with one's own excessive tastes?
I'm not talking about being perfect, just responsible. I've run the gamut -- junk food junkie, faster, vegetarian, espresso addict. At 12, I got so thin from fasting, I had to see a doctor, who told me I was "skinny as a reed." His noticing me was enough to recall me to the importance of eating. Conversely, when I stopped drinking at 24, I weighed 180, and it was all booze, I swear, because in the first month of not drinking, while eating whatever I wanted (just not drinking), I dropped 40 pounds. I should note that the funny farm where I dried out served only vegetarian fare, so it wasn't just due to not drinking alcohol, but also to not eating meat or fish, that I dropped the weight so fast. In my first year of sobriety, I ate only nuts and cheeses, about a pound of each a day. I didn't know how to eat, and if I did, was only following my own prescription of want and need.
Eating is a constant test. How much do I want? And of this, how much will I take? I can never get enough.
I want to be happy. Stuffing myself with food, even quality fare, doesn't do it.
Scratch an itch, what happens? You gotta scratch some more. And so it goes.
What do I do with my insatiability, my lust for all the things I can't have -- for oysters, salmon, steak, roe, vodka, cognac, saki (that I never had)? I want to explore these inside out, outside in, taste and engulf them with my mind, then just let them go. They are toxic loves for me. I want not to lust, but to explore the lust and the logic of not eating, to consider abandoning myself to these things, then simply abandon them, relegating myself to catalytic emptiness.
It has been said that one way to let go an obsession is to dive deep into it. Only then can you let it go. If I were to indulge in these things I can't have, what would happen? Would I be spared a sudden death? A DWI? I don't want to go down hard, just float out easy.
I don't lust for what I can't have in any other arena but this. Some of those foods -- salmon, for instance -- are like lost companions. I miss them like that.
I have to remember what the decision not to indulge is about. For me, it's part of a lot of things. My mother and her mother died of stomach cancer. The H pylori bacteria, present in chicken, started everything off with my mother, and had x-rays detected it early, she might not have died so young.
Looking back, I realize I was following an instinct early on -- not eating fish or meat -- that was right for me. At a certain point, I couldn't eat lobster, even when it was right in front of me. I just couldn't. It was something my body couldn't bring itself to do even before my mind understood why not to do it.
As a drunk, at 20, I remember eating a burger that it took my stomach three days to digest. Something that took that long to digest couldn't be good for me. I stopped eating burgers first. It took a few more years to stop boozing.
There is of course a spiritual side to this that I'm loathe to mention, well, because people tend to resent it. They think that if you say what you're into that you are proselytizing or selling something that they should be into. That's not so. It's each into his or her own thing.
The point is I discovered that when I stop eating or eat lightly, I felt better. I feel quieter inside, calmer, clearer too. It's a fact about me that others have appreciated as well.
What's kept me from eating as little as I'd like of late is living in New Jersey -- no kidding -- Bourdain country, a town away from where he grew up, actually. It's a world where everyone eats heartily and eats out all the time, and I'm a part of that scene.
My friends are intimate with the art of excess. They've been known to order several dishes per course, they drink and dine out constantly. The pigging out I've watched has been on TV, in my reading and in the flesh, and I've had just about enough of it.
I don't want to grow old and fat. But it's a test sometimes. It's a test, pulling back my consciousness just when I want to lose it. There's that moment at the height of the night when everyone is buzzed and laughter is at its loudest when I ask myself, "Couldn't I do that? Just a little?"
Then I remember the reason I stopped drinking and hate gorging -- A little is never enough.