A Cook’s Tour -Anthony Bourdain

It has been a while, folks. No, I’m not dead. I have, however, been traveling quite a bit. I have a much longer blog (probably set of blogs) for the academic text I was reading on American tourism in the first half of the 1900s, but that’s going to wait until I’m back home.

Right, forgot to mention. I’m going to be running around England for the next three weeks. Going to try to do reviews from the road, but that seems more than a bit unlikely given my posting track record when traveling around my own country.

See you in June!

This week’s read has been a long awaited one (for me), Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour.

I’ve never read any of Bourdain’s work, fiction or non. I’ve seen plenty of episodes of his various shows over the last few years, as my husband is a fan of his and I’m a fan of watching TV with my husband.

I did not expect the translate from Bourdain’s TV hosting to his books to be so seamless. It’s the same voice, same look, same approach, same style, same attitude. And you think, of course it is. It’s the same guy.

But that’s not how things happen all the time. Things don’t translate that well. You have the TV side of things where everything you do is going to be process through god knows how many people before reaching its audience, then you have the book side of things that is going to do the same. It gets watered down, it gets presentable, it gets screened for time or content. Other people edit it. You don’t necessarily get a final pass on what’s released, even if your face is on it.

Even in this book, Bourdain was pointing out moments where the TV crew was making him do things he had no desire to do, the multiple takes, the walking into the same restaurant again and again, interviewing people awkwardly, etc.

But still… it’s all Bourdain in the end.

Bourdain’s language is violent and vibrant, rushing at you with intense speed, aggressively pulling you along in his frantic world. There’s adjectives spewing out every orifice, but it adds to the richness of the text rather than detracting from it.

I loved it.

I mean, the stories were fine. They were interesting, but not over the top. It was the language, his voice and personality, that made this book what it was.

Now, my husband suggested that Bourdain didn’t write any of his books, that it was a ghostwriter. I have a hard time believing that, given what I said above about the translation from television to print. It’s too clear a relationship.

Reading this book felt like a validation or, rather, a (hard) nudge to embrace my less than traditional voice. To allow myself to daydream along the road, to acknowledge those tropes that drove me to the places I landed. To be frantic when needed, to fall into emotional pits in front of the reader.

I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.

Here are far too many quotes for your reading pleasure:

“I have been treated, in the last few hours, with never-before-encountered kindness and respect. Uncle Hai gives my knee another squeeze. The old man across from me smiles and raises his empty glass to me, summons a younger man to refill it, gestures that he should do the same for me. A swollen moon appears from behind puffs of cloud, hangs heavily over the tree line beyond the river. Other guests are arriving. I can hear them in the distance, their sandals and bare feet padding softly along the hardened silt, emerging from the darkness to take places around the tarpaulin.”

“I wanted adventures. I wanted to go up the Nung River to the heart of darkness in Cambodia. I wanted to ride out into a desert on camelback, sand and dunes in every direction, eat whole roasted lamb with my fingers. I wanted to kick snow off my boots in a Mafiya nightclub in Russia. I wanted to play with automatic weapons in Phnom Penh.”

“But you want to know what it’s like making television? Even a completely nonscripted, cinema verite, make-it-up-as-you-go-along travel and food show, where you do whatever the hell you want and hope the cameras can keep up? It’s being poked in the head with shotgun mikes so often, you feel like the leading lady in a late 1970s Ron Jeremy flick. There is no halfway. You don’t, it turns out, sell out a little bit. Maybe you thought you were just going to show a little ankle — okay, maybe a little calf too — but in the end, you’re taking on the whole front line of the Pittsburgh Steelers on a dirty shag carpet.”

“What arrived in my kitchen, however, is not the bleeding, still-warm body of my victim, eyes open, giving me an accusatory look that says, ‘Why me, Tony? Why me?’ I don’t have to see that part. The only evidence of my crimes is the relatively antiseptic boxed or plastic-wrapped appearance of what is inarguably meat. I had never, until I arrived on a farm in northern Portugal, had to look my victim in the face — much less watched at close range — as he was slaughtered, disemboweled, and broken down into constituent parts.”

“Why was I not having the time of my life? I began to feel damaged. Broken. As if some essential organ — my heart perhaps — had shriveled and died along with all those dead clumps of brain cells and lung, my body and soul closed down wing by wing until on the lobby and facade remains.”

“I blame my first oyster for everything I did after: my decision to become a chef, my thrill-seeking, all my hideous screwups in pursuit of pleasure. I blame it all on that oyster. In a nice way, of course.”

“Oysters, by the way, are bisexual in ways undreamed of by career-minded actors. They actually change sex from year to year. If you were to tell an oyster ‘Go fuck yourself,’ it would probably not be offended. The males of a particular year spew their reproductive juices into the water in a generalized, omnidirectional way — a ubiquitously impregnating cloud fertilizing whatever’s female that year. 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.”

“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. 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.”

“I’m unable even to give the man money. I stand there useless, hands trembling, consumed by paranoia. I hurry back to my refrigerated room at the New World Hotel and sag back onto the still-unmade bed, stare at the ceiling in tears, unable to grasp or process what I’ve seen — or to do anything about it. I go nowhere and eat nothing for the next twenty-four hours. The TV crew thinks I’m having a breakdown.”

“My most terrifying nightmare scenario is that I might someday be trapped on a desert island with only a troupe of cabaret performers for diversion — and menthol cigarettes to smoke — doomed to an eternity of Andrew Lloyd Webber and medleys from South Pacific.”

“I envied them that they were so good at what they did, that they were so firmly grounded in a culture, a place, an ethnoculinary tradition, that they were surrounded by such limitless supplies of good stuff — and the clientele to appreciate it fully. Would such advantages have, in my time, changed my own trajectory? Made me a better chef? A better cook? As another American writing about Spain famously said, ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?'”

“To say that the experience was shocking, that it knocked the wind out of me, that it was cold would all be grievous understatements. It was like getting hit by a phantom freight train — every cell, every atom of my body went into mad panic. My balls scrambled north, headed somewhere around my collarbone, my brain screamed, my eyeballs did the best they could to pop out of my skull, and every pore, wide open only a few seconds early, slammed closed like a plugged steam pipe.”

“The music was lovely, the slow-motion dance mesmerizing to watch. I felt like a feudal lord. I no longer cared about the silly clothes I was wearing. In fact, I felt cool. It was good to be the king. I was ready to order out the cavalry, burn castles, strategize with my warlords in the rock garden, think deep thoughts while I watched the winter cherry blossoms bloom.”

“Casinos? Run by the most vicious, hard-core Commie mass murderers in history? Well, why not check it out? I thought. Satan’s Vegas: lounge acts, strippers, maybe a few new casinos surrounded by razor wire and militia. A town where anything would be possible. Lawless. A little dangerous. I liked the idea.”

“This was the sort of place where I could walk over to the jukebox and play a couple of Johnny Cash tunes and nobody would say boo. Hell, they might even like it. This was the sort of place that when Johnny, singing ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’ comes to the line, ‘I shot at man in Reno… just to watch him die,’ people will sing along, getting wistful over similar golden moments in their own pasts.”

“Being able to read these words, no matter how stupid, offensive, or wrongheaded, is a privilege, your reading skills the end product of a level of education most of the world will never enjoy. Our whole lives — our homes, the shoes we wear, the cars we drive, the food we eat — are all built on a mountain of skulls.”