Thursday, March 31, 2011

Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain

I admit to being predisposed to disliking this book. I have watched Anthony Bourdain on TV once--on his show No Reservations. In the series he travels around the world and films documentary-style about food, cooking, and eating. He is loud and brash, very opinionated, and self-centered. The food did look delicious, though. So when Bourdain's Medium Raw was selected as March's Kitchen Reader book, I was a bit underwhelmed.

It turns out that in the book, Bourdain is also brash, opinionated, and self-centered. It's a rough narrative to follow up his first memoir (Kitchen Confidential), but the "plot" is very scarce. Though some chapters do describe an episode from his life, more frequently, they comprise Bourdain unleashing his judgement on others in the food industry. In one chapter, Bourdain lists his villains and heroes of the chef world--each person named with a graphic assessment of their skills (or lack thereof). In the more autobiographical sections he describes his despair when high on drugs and drinking and partying too much, then later the joy at deciding to become a father. He makes it clear that cheffing is a difficult and lonely career when he describes it as a "half-life of work,... followed by whatever slivers of emulated normal life we had left to us." He also slates fast food producers and processed food companies, upholding the integrity of chefs and restaurant kitchens who use good quality ingredients.

The biggest surprise to me as I read through the book? Bourdain is actually quite an ingenious and engaging writer. Though the plot is loose, his sentences are vigorous. His vocabulary is obviously wide and inventive. His depictions of the people in his arena are energetic and authentic. This made me all the more upset that he frequently swears, often several times in a sentence or paragraph, in ever more diverse ways. I find it both lazy and disgusting. For a man with an excellent collection of words at his disposal, it's very sad to read string after string of expletives. In my opinion there are very, very few valid reasons to swear in print. I imagine that Bourdain wants to "stay true" to his abrasive public persona, but without the profanity there would be still be plenty of evidence of his virulence. (Also he looks like a culinary serial killer on the front cover. That adds to his no-hold barred image.)

Setting aside the cursing, I found some passages to be quite beautiful. The most enjoyable for me was a series of vignettes of memorable meals he has eaten around the globe. He describes them with a loving touch, no leaf ignored. The collection of them makes a notable travel eating to-do list: Hanoi pho, Hong Kong roast goose, tacos, shellfish, laksa in Borneo, pasta in Sicily, yakitori, pastrami sandwich, freshly made sausages in Czech, pains raisins in Paris, cicchetti on New York's 59th St, prawns and baby eels in northern Spain, and Sichaun hotpot.

Bourdain also touches on the topic closest to my heart: home cooking. He asserts that "there is no debating that it's 'better' to cook at home whenever--and as often as--possible." He mentions that home cooking is cheaper, healthier, and better for society. "We know... that there is a direct, inverse relationship between frequency of family meals and social problems. Bluntly stated, members of families who eat together are statistically less likely to stick up liquor stores, blow up meth labs, give birth to crack babies, commit suicide, or make donkey porn." He waxes eloquent that every young person should be able to cook something, enough to feed themselves and a few others without causing injury.

I found my predisposition to disliking Medium Raw faded as the pages turned. I still do not feel as though I particularly like Bourdain, but he does a good job of illuminating the chef scene and casting the shadow of his opinion over it. His love of food and his passion for eating gives life to an otherwise difficult book to read. Thanks to Aileen of PharmaFoodie who chose the book and then encouraged me to try it. Have a look at the Kitchen Reader website to see what the other members thought. Are you a Bourdain fan?


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