Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour

I’m planning to write a lot of book reviews in this blog — of any kind of book that touches me. This one did. It also had me wired all the way through. And what better subject to mull over, the week after Thanksgiving, than how to make good food… out of pig snouts, calves’ cheeks, steamed cockles and o-toro.

Tony Bourdain travels, often to places hard to reach unless you live there, and eats damn near everything, and writes about it. And gets filmed. One of the many remarkable things about this book is that after the first chapter I am decidedly curious to try pig snout, and pigs’ feet, and all of the parts of the pig most cultures turn into festival dinners while Americans throw them away. He describes them with such uninhibited gusto.

He loves these parts because they taste good. People who make one pig last a winter, and eat the innards as a matter of course, have spent centuries finding out how to get the best use out of them. But more than that, he respects what he eats, and the people who cook it, because they work hard; they pick their ingredients fresh; and they waste next to nothing.

That respect pulls this book together. He writes with urgent clarity; at times the choppy flat-out momentum of “chef Tony” takes over, or the chaos of a mined highway in northern Cambodia, or an hour of continuous vodka shots, or plain exhaustion. But he has a boundless ability to be charmed, bouleversé, bowled over. A fish market in Tokyo makes him giddy. A restaurant owner in Saigon, a woman cooking pho on a floating city, a restorer of Islamic tiles, fishermen and farmers and drivers take him in and delight him. He walks into a strange place and finds people to care about.

Because he keeps focused on a single sense (or two, if you count smell,) he often has a potent immediacy. He eats fresh caught lobster with his hands. He often runs of adrenaline, which can make the immediacy positively collar-grabbing. At other times, though, he slows down. He walks a cold, windy beach to empty poured-concrete block houses the Germans left on the beaches of southern France, where he used to throw fire crackers as a kid.

He sits watching a market in Puebla, Mexico.

The streets were quiet and dusty, kids kicking around old soccer balls, shooting hoops in the court by the mercado, where old women sold chilis, squashes, chayote, yucca, and vegetables. Occasionally, an old man passed by, driving a few head of cattle, a herd of goats, a few donkeys…. At 4 o’clock, the peal of the bread alarm informed residents that fresh bread, hot out of the oven, was now available at the bakery.

He always has this eye for detail, but not always this calm. He keeps a hectic pace. His food is tantalizing and occasionally gruesome. His people are brilliant and quickly passing. And he is writing a series of sketches, literally episodes. He ties them together by theme and repetition, and by little else, not even geography.

When you combine shorter essays or stories into a longer piece, you can’t hide your habitual patterns and defenses; I learned that in a novel-writing workshop last year. Some of his make me wonder what a woman would see on the same journey. Would the men still entertain her while the women cooked? And some of them awe me. I can’t drink in a month what he can put away in a sitting. And yet small women keep drinking him under the table!

Some make me laugh. By the 10th chapter here, I was beginning to wonder whether any of these countries ate fruit. His meat, fish, poultry and eggs are mesmerizing, and he garnishes them now and then with almonds out of the orchard. But vegetables tend to be gelatinous seaweeds, and I begin to wonder — Asian cooking is known for vegetables and spices, isn’t it? And what about breads and rice and local cheeses, and how does freshly made cous cous taste different from the kind in the box?

That’s why I say respect pulls this book together: because the pattern of people he reaches out to grab, and the pattern of using every part down to the bone marrow, thicken it like flour. At the end of the visit to Puebla, after a few too many flaming tequila shots, the head cameraman passes out. This man has filmed Tony ill, exhausted, and force-fed iguana, and Tony has a chance to turn the camera on him. He thinks about it. Then he takes the guy back to his hotel and puts the camera beside him, knowing it will be the first thing he looks for. He makes a fine point without having to explain it — that the cameraman is a professional, and if Tony had filmed him, it would have been personal. I am relieved. But in the body of the story, the professional gives technical assistance and gets in the way. The personal carries it.


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