Monday, November 22, 2010

Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain

I have to admit, I'm left somewhat bewildered by this book. It probably helps if you're a foodie or someone who is "in the know" about the personalities in the New York Restaurant scene. Though I enjoy cooking, baking and, of course, eating, I'm wary of exotic food, extreme eating and have little interest in "dining experiences". Years ago, in Vancouver, I went with a group of friends to a restaurant that specialized in pancakes (if memory serves) and rude service. That was their shtick. You lined up outside on the sidewalk for hours it seemed, only to be barked at and glared at once you were finally admitted. The friends took great joy in changing their orders and making nuisances in themselves in order to be cursed at. The pancakes were good, but again I was left bewildered at the experience.

Oh yes, and this book (Medium Raw: a bloody valentine to the world of food and the people who cook by Anthony Bourdain) introduced me to the idea of tablescaping. Having never heard of this I had to google it and, again, I just don't get it. Where do you put all those dishes?

All this aside Medium Raw is an ascerbic, no-holds barred followup to his first book Kitchen Confidential: adventures in the culinary underbelly. in which, in addition to learning creative swear words, the reader learns the truth about what really goes on in a professional kitchen. Kitchen Confidential carved out a new career for Bourdain as a writer and traveling food critic. Success was not kind to him and he spiraled into a world of excess from which, fortunately, he was able to extricate himself.

Bourdain shines in his descriptions of the things he feels passionately about - food, his daughter, and disdain for select others in his industry. He opens with a description of a (possible illegal) certainly morally questionable meal of a rare species of bird. His description of the experience is no less than lyrical, yet it is hard to get beyond the hot fat, guts, bones and beak. His delight in his young daughter is heartwarming and he wishes to counteract McDonald's influence by telling her that Ronald has cooties. Hilarious, but again I waver when he whispers outside her bedroom door about possible Ronald-related abductions and cootie infestations. Too far? His daughter will have the best of everything including an organic diet, but when Alice Waters wants the same for "ordinary children" he describes her as "Pol Pot in a moumou". Which is actually quite funny.

While Bourdain has mellowed somewhat since Kitchen Confidential, he has lost none of his edge and may still have a chip firmly lodged on his shoulder. You certainly have to respect his honesty. He blames no one for his bad behaviour and is even finding ways to share middle ground with adversaries (PETA for example, if you can believe it). Even though I was bewildered at times, Bourdain presented ideas that made me think. For example, I can understand why an individual might object to a meat-eater, but why would anyone object to a vegetarian? Bourdain has an answer. Vegetarians are objectionable because they will refuse the hospitality of others.

Though I may not always like or agree with it, I love a book that makes me think.

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