I hadn’t even gotten ten pages into this book when I decided I liked this Anthony Bourdain person. I had no idea what kind of person he was, no idea what to expect from him. He was a random face on the cover of a book. But then I started reading. He was blunt, in-your-face and completelty honest, sometimes using words other than what I might in the same situation, but what I got from that was that he gets it. Food, I mean. He understands it. Not cooking—anyone can cook, even if it’s just a freaking grilled cheese sandwich—but food. He says “Of course, I knew already that the best meal in the world, the perfect meal, is very rarely the most sophisticated or expensive one. I knew how important factors other than technique or rare ingredients can be in the real business of making magic happen at a dinner table. Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life” (6). I read this and I wanted to jump up and down and do a dance, thinking oh my god, it’s a miracle. HE UNDERSTANDS! He doesn’t discount ingredients, which I like because the quality of the ingredients does not a perfect dish make, but at the same time quality ingredients are an important part of every dish. My favorite part, though, is his writing style. The way he writes—at least to me—feels like he’s sitting on a three-legged stool next to a restaurant prep station topped with stainless steel after everyone else has gone home, sharing a glass of wine with me like we’re old friends. It's a very up-close and personal tone, and I don't think I've ever read anything quite like it.
As for the book itself, on the one hand I’m not sure I like this sudden and complete immersion into a whirlwind tour of a mad conglomeration of foods and culture. There are just so many different things that he mentions; things I’ve never used while cooking, things I’ve never eaten, things I’ve never even heard of, and they all just fly by in quick succession, which is something akin to having only fifteen minutes in a giant Ghirardelli chocolate store and having no freaking idea where to look first because I want to get everything but I know I have no time to go through and examine them closely. I did think it fit Bourdain’s style to simply throw the reader straight into the middle of a rural Vietnamese meal within the first sentence on the first page, but I admit that it took a few paragraphs for my brain to start processing the idea that he was talking about real things that had at one point actually been caught and cooked and eaten by both him and his ever-present film crew. (Oh, that poor film crew. I wonder if they knew what they were getting into when they agreed to do the show.) On the other hand, I think the total immersion is fantastic. He is getting adventure as an appetizer and magic for dessert with a large helping of exploration with food and culture and far-away places as a main course, so I basically have jealousy coming out my ears.
The scene with the pig and the lesson he learned about “the seemingly casual cruelty that comes with living close to your food” (28) really stuck with me not because of the fact that they killed the pig—it was gruesome, yes, but as Bourdain points out, it was doomed anyway—but because I can relate. My mother buys all our chicken fresh from the same dairy where we get all our milk (whole milk, so fresh you have to skim three inches of cream off the top before you can drink it). She usually buys the chickens ten at a time right after the dairy has a butchering day, then we bring them home and we have massive chop-fests where the chickens get turned into breasts and thighs and drumsticks and wings and their carcasses go into my mother’s massive stock pot to get boiled and turned into chicken stock that she uses for soup. So while I might not be there for the butchering, I understand what it’s like to have to stick your hand inside a dead animal and rip its guts out. It is not one of my favorite pastimes. (Fun fact: For those of you who are wondering, with a sharp knife I can have a whole chicken cut into its various parts in less than ten minutes, but with my mom helping me, we can do all ten chickens in something like forty five minutes, which breaks down to about four and half minutes per chicken.)
Also, did anyone else nearly cry during his trip to France with his brother Chris? Because I almost cried when he figured out that he hadn’t gone back “to see a house in which strangers now lived, or to climb a dune, or to find a perfect meal. [He’d] come to find [his] father. And he wasn’t there” (46).
I’m also becoming a fan of his random tangents having to do with television, especially the one where he got food poisoning from the foie gras (or maybe it was the tête de veau). Something about it just struck me as absolutely hilarious. I completely understand how miserable he was—I’m going to bet it’s quite similar to having a really nasty round of flu—but the actions of the cameraman made it hilarious. At least to me, but, then again, things are usually funnier at two in the morning for some strange reason.
Also, being a coffee lover myself, his description of Vietnamese coffee was nothing short of mouthwatering: “The proprietor [of a coffee shop], a toothless old woman, has a suggestion. She brings out another coffee, this time with a tall glass of ice and a can of condensed milk. When the coffee has filtered through, it’s poured over the ice. Mingling with the milk below, it’s a slow, strangely mesmerizing process, delightful to watch and even better to drink” (59). He continues with “As the black coffee dribbles slowly through and around the ice cubes, swirling gently in dark-on-white wisps through the milk, I feel Vietnam doing the same thing to my brain. I’m in love. I am absolutely over-the top gonzo for this country and everything in it. I want to stay forever” (59). Add to that the fact that he actually uses the word “gonzo” (which immediately makes me think of the Muppet named Gonzo), the paragraph those quotes come from is just the most fantastic thing ever.
Overall, I like this book, I just wish he’d take a freaking breath and give us a little bit more of the connecting bits between the places he visits. Okay, so he went Morocco, he went Vietnam. Big deal. Why did he go there? Why those places? Why France and Spain and Russia but not Germany, or Bulgaria? I wish there was a little bit more of the getting there along with the fabulous amounts of eating that go on once he gets to whatever random place he happens to be going to next.