March 6, 2010
"Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one's life." Anthony Bourdain
I've had a slip and must now confess. I've been at it again -- reading Bourdain. A Cook's Tour. I can't help it. The guy mesmerizes me. I want to live like he lives -- if, indeed, he does do all he says he does.
Of course he does.
All the meals, travel, drinks, late nights, exotic locales, amazing diversity of people.
But no live cobra hearts, thank you. I appreciate Bourdain's gusto, but don't need or want to savor his experience killing beings or watching them be killed, or even eating them. No thanks, not for me. That part is an ugly stain in an otherwise lovely relationship -- hard drinking without the hangover; gluttony without indigestion; endless travel minus jet lag and nausea. It's a present he gives a lot of people, who, like me, live vicariously through him.
I am loving A Cook's Tour. It was written in 2000, when Bourdain was still fresh off working the grill at Les Halles, a hunk of a cook stepping out into the world, trying on the hat of a traveling food journalist, and getting high off his experiences. That high rubs off on the reader, just like it does those who view his show, No Reservations. The man was at his peak then, enjoying his new life to the utmost.
He was peaking regarding his perceptions too, even his view of humanity, appreciating his amazing strokes of good fortune, primed to notice those not in a place of such luck. In Saigon, after seeing a toothless man with a face burned beyond recognition by napalm, Bourdain retreated to a hotel to stare up at a ceiling, transfixed, in tears, unable to eat "for the next 24 hours."
It was a glimpse of the sensitive guy, as opposed to the macho dude that usually wins out in his narratives.
There have been many other trips, meals and drinks since Bourdain produced A Cook's Tour. By his own account, he'll never work in a kitchen again, in this lifetime anyway. He tried going back. No Reservations captured that painful moment in which you saw Bourdain completely out of sorts in his old mold, barely able to get up off his knees, really struggling. His time was up.
Bourdain need not have regrets. He's found a better life, and one that I'll bet is feeding him a lot better financially than the one in the kitchen did. He has found better stories out in the world and more memorable personalities -- the wild success of his books and his show would seem to attest to that.
But I wonder if Bourdain still remembers that moment in Saigon. I like that sensitive guy. But you can't separate him from the dude who loves to watch a sheep killed and stripped and gets a maudlin thrill out of hearing its carcass thump in the back of a truck. No, you can't take that out of him, much as some of us would like to.
"Something Very Special," a chapter in A Cook's Tour, follows Bourdain's adventures in Morocco, and pretty much sums up his style. The chapter is short and bumpy, and like it or not, you get the good, the bad and the ugly. You'll oooh and aaah at the beauty and grit and wince in disgust, all in the span of a few pages.
There's an angelic Tony that flashes in cartoon form alternately with the Tony with horns at a corner of the screen at the start and in-between commercial breaks on his show. Here's a sample of the "good Tony" in A Cook's Tour:
"From the mosque next door came the nuezzin's call to prayer -- a haunting chant, beginning with 'Allahhh akbarrrrr' (God is great), which occurs five times a day all over the Islamic world. The first time you hear it, it's electrifying -- beautiful, non-melodic, both chilling and strangely comforting. Upon hearing it, you understand -- on a cellular level -- that you are now 'somewhere else.'"
And the "good Tony" vying with the "bad":
"I watched the poor sheep's eyes -- a look I'd see again and again in the dying -- as the animal registered its imminent death, that terrible unforgettable second when, either from exhaustion or disgust, it seemed to finally decide to give up and die. It was a haunting look, a look that says, You were -- all of you -- a terrible disappointment. The eyes closed slowly, as if the animal were going to sleep, almost willfully.
"I had my fresh lamb."
Along with this, you have sublime descriptions of shopping in Fez, a hysterical anecdote about being struck dumb before the camera and his host while high on hashish, all in one chapter about one place.
The man lives precariously on some indefinable edge, satiating himself from table to table, place to place while his eyes roam the horizon, longing for what lies around the next corner. I'd like to be in his flip flops, but with some sense of measure, equally transfixed, struck with awe and wonder, but compassionate too, and accountable.