A CookĘs Tour:|
In Search of the Perfect Meal
by Anthony Bourdain
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|A Cook Scours the World
by Leanne D'Antoni
Anthony Bourdain, the author of A Cook's Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal, poses on the cover, lean and dangerous-looking in a camouflage tank-top with a tattoo around his bicep. This, his follow up to the much-acclaimed Kitchen Confidential, is less a cook's tour and more a cook's tour of duty; a sort of extreme sport of the culinary world. That said, A Cook's Tour is not simply a testosterone-heavy romp through a gastronomic freak-show of beating cobra heart, calf face and sheep testiclełalthough it is that too.
Read past the first few pages of gore, alcohol and vomiting that introduce the bookłthe opening letter to his wife describing a hotel room in Khmer Rouge territory, replete with bloody footprints up the length of one wall and "arterial spray"; the drinking contest with "Charlie" deep in the Mekong jungle; the words "blowing chunks" on page three. What follows is a philosophical, cultural and political rumination about how and what we eat, written by someone who has been thinking about these things for most of his life.
"The Perfect meal" is not, according to Bourdain, "the most sophisticated or expensive." The perfect meal is more elusive than that, he tells us, and has more to do with place, context and memory than the kind of "food as entertainment" that takes place in a restaurant. In his search for the perfect meal, Bourdain hopes to experience the same kind of wonderment and awe he not only found eating his first oyster, beluga, o-toro, and truffle, but the simple joy of eating a "dirty water" hot-dog, cold take-out, a wild strawberry. He attempts to find the kind of "firsts" one can only presume led Anthony Bourdain to be a chef in the first place (and his writing proves to be most engaging when doing just that).
Since "the perfect meal" is the impetus behind Bourdain's travels (and he intends to travel in the manner of his literary heroes; Graham Greene among them), this necessitates a lot of theorizing on what makes food good. "Food magic," Bourdain tells us, was created out of necessity. Most of the world had to make do with "calf's face, pig's feet, snails, old bread, and all those cheap cuts and trimmings." And so, osso buco was born, pot au feu, coq au vin, confit de canard ("I got no refrigerator and no freezer and all these damn duck legs are going bad!") Bit by bit, Bourdain tells us, these scraps and leftovers, came to be loved, even cherished, and the French, Italians, and Moroccans (among others) continued using them long after there was any need. All this only serves to illustrate the woeful state of food in North America, and the reasons why we have come to eat, with shocking regularity and privileged squeamishness, food that no longer resembles anything near what it was originally intended to be.
Americans, Bourdain argues, eat "plastic-wrapped fluffy white chicken breastsą secure in the certain knowledge that sirloin, filet mignon, and prime rib were really the only 'good' parts." We have created a big business conveyor belt approach to farmingłchurning out cheap chicken in mass quantities that is "bloodless, flavorless, colorless, and riddled with salmonella." North America has become a food culture that eats wastefully, oblivious to the fact that most of the world is hungry. The refrigerator is another impediment. If everyone in the world had one, salsa, for example, would be made in huge vats weeks in advance, and it would cease to be the marvellous thing that it is (which is exactly how salsa is prepared, bought and eaten in North America). There is very little "food magic" to be had in North America. When coerced by his television producer into a vegan potluck, Bourdain tells us:
The vegetablesłevery timełwere uniformly overcooked, underseasoned, nearly colorless, and abused, any flavor, texture, and lingering vitamin content leeched out. ąmy hostsą seemed terrified, even angry, about something nebulous in their pasts. ąSomething had soured them on the world they'd once embracedłand that they now sought new rules to live byą These people in their comfortable suburban digs were ąsuggesting that everyone in the world ąstart buying organic vegetables and expensive soy substitutes. To look down on entire cultures ąseemed arrogant in the extreme.
If having not enough food and money makes great cuisinełand having too much does notłthen having nothing at all looks very much like Cambodia. Bourdain tells his readers, "Once you've been to Cambodia, you'll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands." Bourdain eats Durian in Cambodia, but the food is mostly a poor rendition of Thai. Everything about it reflects the country's misery. Bourdain writes, "the difference between this market and markets in Vietnam was like night and day. But then, the Vietnamese have the luxury of pride." Pride, it seems, is another ingredient necessary for great food.
There are altogether four chapters devoted to Bourdain's time in Vietnam. A Cook's Tour could very nearly be an ode to it. The author is taken with absolutely everything about the country, so clearly enamoured with the people, the customs, and the food. One passage in particular sums up Bourdain's fondness for Vietnam:
Spend some time in the Mekong Delta and you'll understand how a nation of farmers could beat the largest and most powerful military presence on the planet. A hundred years from now, the Commies will be gonełlike us, another footnote in Vietnam's long and tragic history of strugglełand the rice paddies of the Mekong Delta, this market, and this river will look much as they look now, as they looked a hundred years ago.
Anthony Bourdain writes well. He is funny, insightful, convincing, his passion for food, infectious. He writes, at turns, poignantly and thoughtfully, especially of Vietnam. Reading about his eating experiences in Japan, I decided that one day, I would lavish the entire contents of my life's savings on a kaseiki dinner. And Anthony Bourdain does not always make himself look like the good guyłrather, a somewhat difficult, self-absorbed perfectionist. I understand, despite the hard time Bourdain gives them, why vegetarians like him. He respects his food. He is willing to kill it. He even, on occasion, looks forward to its death, and yet, while visiting a zoo cum restaurant, Bourdain is sickened. "No one should come here," he tells us.
That said, I have to admit that Bourdain's banter sometimes feels forced, and even gets in the way, as when he explains the mating patterns of oysters: "Picture the swimming pool at Plato's Retreat back in the 1970s. That fat guy at the other end of the pool with the gold chains and the back hair? He's getting you pregnant. Or maybe it's the Guccione look-alike by the diving board. No way of knowing." Sometimes, I wished that Bourdain would get back to food, place, and people and ease up on witty and wry. I could not help rolling my eyes when reading, "a few beads of caviar, licked off a nipple." And while none of the slaughtering, nor eating of lambs' testicles made me the least squeamish, I can't say the same for the following passage: "We work in aprons, for fuck's sake! You better have balls the size of jack fruits if you want to cook at a high level, where an acute sense for flavor and design, as much as brutality and vigilance, is a virtue."
A Cook's Tour did not make me want to eat calf's face, but I am relieved that someone does. It did make me want to travel to Vietnam, Mexico, and Japanłanywhere Anthony Bourdain finds a perfect meal, because, according to Bourdain, context is everything, and food is inextricable from place.
Leanne D'Antoni lives in Montreal.