So much to identify with, so little time. Bear with me, I’m reacting to things as I’m reading, so if it sounds like random bits from different parts of the book, there’s probably a good reason. Okay. First, my dad has been to China twice on business trips, and his tales of the Taxi Drivers from Hell pretty much match Tony Bourdain’s. After their near-death encounter with the water truck, Bourdain says, “Philippe just looks at me, shaking his head, says ‘Are we still alive?…I…I was sure that truck went right through us.’ He’s not joking” (129). That paired with the description of Philippe’s whiter-than-white-knuckled grip on the armrests of the seat matches my dad’s description of attempting not to show just how terrified they are almost word for word. His description of the Japanese toilet on page 147 was also exactly as my dad described the ones in the Japanese airport to be when he stopped there for his layovers on his way to China.
I was glad I wasn’t eating when Bourdain and Philippe (and, I’m sure, the ever-present camera crew) got dinner at the restaurant that lets you look your food in the face before you eat it. I might have turned vegetarian. (Not that I have anything against vegetarians, mind you, my mother and my older sister are both vegetarian and I happen to think tofu is delicious.) I think the idea that food—especially meat—was once alive is very foreign to a lot of Americans, as Bourdain points out rather graphically in the first part of the book. I’m sure that to a large number of Americans, the only way meat comes is in a Styrofoam tray covered in clear plastic at a store. In a phrase: "It's so...depressing." (Marvin, from A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.)
On a lighter note, I was fascinated by the description of the river traffic near the city of Cai Rang. Starbucks boats, pho boats, baguette boats; pick a food, any food, and there’s probably a boat that has someone on it making that food. In a way it reminded me of this book, with its long lists of delicious foods that remind me of something out of a Redwall feast scene; umpteen different foods and cultures crammed together in one enormous, glorious mish-mosh. Bourdain’s writing is so chaotic and stream-of-consciousness that the reader stops and takes note when he says things like: “A hundred years from now, the Commies will be gone—like us, another footnote in Vietnam’s long and tragic history of struggle—and 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. I like it here. I like it a lot” (135). I thought the juxtaposition between his love of the chaotic market and his admiration of the fact that the lives of the Vietnamese have been mostly the same over a large portion of history despite varied attempts to change it was interesting. It’s like he’s taking a step back from all this wine and fish and sheeps’ balls and veal-face and overfed-goose-liver to get just a mouthful of plain, cold, water. I think I like it. It’s…refreshing.
Moving on to Japan, I have to admit I laughed at Bourdain’s description of “the awe-inspiring, life-changing mother of all fish markets” (139) and his expert guide, Togawa-san. Also, I had to go back and read that name twice. The first time I read it as “Tokugawa-san,” as in the Tokugawa shogunate that ran Japan from 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. (WOOHOO!! FRESHMAN SEMINAR REFERENCES!!!) Now I am forever going to be thinking of this chef as “Mr. Tokugawa” and picturing him as a ruthless shogun in some great shadowed hall, clad traditional Japanese samurai armor but wearing a toque instead of a helmet.
After the epic failure that was the episode in Cambodia (I still can’t figure out why he actually bothered to go there) the switch to England was abrupt but also a rather welcome relief. Especially after Cambodia. Note to self: do not ever visit Cambodia. The subjects Bourdain uses to start off with were in a style I’m beginning to think of as uniquely Bourdain. He grabs the reader’s attention at the very beginning of the chapter with one of three things: something gruesome, something having to do with sex, or something having to do with food. Sometimes, as with the England chapter, it has to do with all three, going from mad cow to hoof-and-mouth disease, from that to a random food war with two vague factions that apparently “already have their operatives in place…They want to take your meat away. They even want your cheese” (187). Honestly, the first time I read it I thought he might have been smoking some funny cigarettes during his recovery from his Cambodian misadventure. Then he went into the differences between Japanese, German, American, and British porn, stating that he’s “leading up to an allegory” (187), but honestly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know this allegory. I was relieved when he ended up simply comparing English chefs who work in actual restaurants to the cheesy TV-chefs. I did like the part where Bourdain reveals his deep and abiding respect for Fergus Henderson and his “nose-to-tail” menu. I think Bourdain’s respect of this man says a lot about what he values in life: hard work and ingenuity, but also courage to proclaim who you are and where you come from to the world in general. Bourdain likes Mr. Henderson because he’s got guts—literally and metaphorically.
The one and only time I have been jealous of Tony Bourdain while reading this book was during his trip to Oaxaca, where he ate Mexican food with Eddie and his family plus a whole bunch of their friends. I would have paid a large amount of money to be able to go with. That scene made me hungry. None of the others did.
Then abruptly Bourdain takes us back to Vietnam for something like the second or third time—of course, he didn’t get enough the first two times he went there—and then poof! We’re in the French Laundry in Napa Valley. One of my favorite lines showed up here, while he is talking about the possibility that Chef Keller will be coming to New York: “I’m afraid. I’m afraid he’ll fail…but more, I’m afraid he’ll succeed. I like the idea of having to travel to experience a French Laundry meal. The journey is part of the experience—or was for me—an expression of the seriousness of one’s intent, and the otherness of everything Keller” (251). That last part about the journey being part of the experience made me want to do a dance. If I had to sum up in one sentence the reason why Bourdain wrote this book, that would be it.
The jump to Scotland really brings home the fact that this man is a professional chef, at least for me, especially when he says things like “The fish was great, the chips, as everywhere in the UK, were needlessly substandard, limp and soggy. Few chip shop owners bother to blanch their fries in low-temperature oil before frying, so they are never, ever, crisp” (252). It’s something in the diction, or maybe something in the tone I’m imagining him saying that line in, but for some reason that just really strikes me as something a chef would write. His other comment of “if haggis, right out of the oven didn’t look the way it did, we might all be eating it in America” (256), made me think of how in America we are horribly obsessed with appearance and being beautiful. Not everything ugly is bad, especially when speaking about food.
…And back to Vietnam. I like his running commentary on Madame Ngoc, who I keep seeing in my head as something akin to Mulan’s grandmother (forgive my complete and total cultural ignorance). She also understands food, I think. “’You must give love. Give yourself to be success. You love people. They love you back’” (265). The woman knows her stuff. Food is love.