Oct. 13, 2009
I'm wondering if some a mad coked up, emotionally challenged wrestler runs the Travel Network. Don't expect to find any real food shows there, or anything that remotely resembles a civilized experience in which you, civilized reader, would like to partake. What you get is Man Vs. Food, Mad Adventures, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmerman, and yes, No Reservations, featuring the handsome, charming, talented, ever predictable Anthony Bourdain.
I had to see these shows to believe them. Now I do. I really, really do.
In case you thought otherwise, none of the shows I just mentioned is about eating. They are all about the blood sport that used to be civilized dining. They're about grossing people out, about primitive man against the elements, about animalistic contests in the arena.
Last time I switched on 788, I happened on Mad Adventures, just as some guy was cutting off a live snake's head and pouring its blood into a glass. Then the heart was excised, left to quiver in a basin. I switched channels at that point.
I was really anticipating not just travel, but watching cooks respect something foreign, but not that foreign. But what you get on Channel 788 is a killing field, guys closing in on prey, as if the world itself and everything in it -- live, quivering and vulnerable -- is theirs for the taking.
The last Bourdain episode I saw -- and, I hope, it is the last -- was on the Philippines, and once again, its emphasis wasn't so much good or rare cuisine as it was the gross-out -- "See big, fat pig roasting on a spit." "See goat we are about to kill, whose entrails we are about to eat." "See what a big brave macho man I am going down on this."
I would love for time to roll forward about 10 years so Travel TV watchers could glimpse what becomes of the hosts of these shows -- if they are even here then. I wonder what X-rays of their stomachs and colons look like. How much money does it take to buy a blown out gut or an overextended colon? How much are these guys getting paid so they can commit suicide on air?
Maybe someone can ask Bourdain or Zimmerman or that poor oaf who's always belching and gagging over giant pizzas, omelets and unwieldy stacks of pancakes. Really, how much money does it take to not care about yourself at all and launch on the suicidal journey that hosting one of these shows is?
Someone somewhere must think that all women want to see on television is Oprah. I wonder where the really cool food shows are, where a camera slowly, thoughtfully pans a happy cook stirring something healthful and delightful, brought out of the earth with respect for what it yields -- rather than out of a poor animal's gut -- something that will be properly cooked, served, eaten and appreciated. Where is the show starring the gourmand who respects what she eats and expresses curiosity rather than bravado over the elements that constitute a good meal?
Indulge me this mental stream: Outside of thinking, that most precious activity that distinguishes us as humans, the most important things we do are breathe and eat -- in that order. Wouldn't you imagine then that we would strive to do both as well as possible in order to live as happily and as long as possible? Wouldn't you imagine then that breathing right and eating well, in the best sense of what the latter means, would matter to most people?
You would think....
I don't think most people have the slightest idea of how to eat properly anymore. Most of the time, even though I know better, I forget too -- the way we live keeps us from being our better selves. We're wound up, speed addicts and our culture demands we go on to the next thing before we even know what we're experiencing in the moment. Maybe we binge just so we can capture the moment whole. But it's really too bad, cause we'll killing ourselves that way.
Years ago, aware of my own predilection for hastiness, I took time out to study yoga at an ashram in Lenox, Mass. and took part in a workshop there that directed us to spend 40 minutes eating a bowl of rice, properly chewing and appreciating the process at hand. I can tell you I learned a few things-- mainly, how much better it feels to eat something mindfully than without having the slightest regard for what passes through my mouth.
Vietnamese monk and peacemaker Thich Nhat Hanh spent an entire 20-minutes eating an orange mindfully in a video he put out in the 90s. Some people have been enlightened on this subject for years.
In the late 90s, as an educational coordinator, I once spent an entire afternoon showing kids in an afterschool program how to eat a piece of fruit -- quietly and with respect for the thing being eaten that was providing life and nourishment. Believe it or not, the kids, middle schoolers, participated, amazed at their own powers of attention, their own ability to do this. Maybe too, they were trying to outdo one another with the new challenge of mindfulness-- but they put aside rowdiness and got into it. These kids who used to spend snack time tossing food at one another, got into it. And maybe, sometime in the future, when they get sick enough and bored enough with bad habits and the unhealthy routines propagated by the culture, mostly through TV, they'll remember eating properly and how it felt better.
So, it's time to switch off all the visual tripe of the Travel Channel. Time to put to rest the culinary adventures I took up to read -- mostly Bourdain's -- in the wake of that experiment.
Michael Ruhlman introduced me to great chefs, and got me yearning to eat at some of the finest eateries around the country; and Bill Buford's writing demonstrated how demanding the cooking passion can be. But it's time to put the big boys and their adventures to bed.
I'm going to break out a biography of Genet -- the journalist Janet Flanner-- and another of Clarice Lispector, the Brazilian writer.
No apologies. I'm going back to my roots, my way.