Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Anthony Bourdain's The Nasty Bits

Hockeyman is a heavy-metal fan who avidly watches Headbanger's Ball, now on MTV2.

I have fond memories of this often unintentionally silly show, as our courtship consisted largely of watching the orginial Headbanger's, hosted by Rikki Rachtman, an idiot if ever one existed, while lolling in bed and smoking illegal substances. Now, almost fifteen years down the line, the youthful, tattoed toughs we watched have lost hair, gained weight (Zakk Wylde! Dude, we love ya, please lay off the Doritos!), cleaned up, married, and had kids. They are being replaced by a new generation of headbangers who are largely mediocre and amazingly fat. Whatever happened to the starving Guns n' Roses look? I mean, look at Lemmy! He must be nine thousand years old, and he still looks like a teenager.

(Hockeyman would like to add that it seems all that speed hasn't hurt the Lemster one bit.)

Last week offered a breath of fresh air in the form of Dave Mustaine. Mustaine is a bright, articulate guy. He also has the best head of hair in the business. I am a sucker for long hair on men. But a bright man with long red hair? I'm in love. Only Dave and I are both married. To other people. And Hockeyman has a great head of hair himself.

When asked about the current crop of heavy metalers, Dave observed their sameness. You can always recognize Sabbath, he said, or me, or James (Hetfield, of Metallica). You always know when it's AC/DC. These guys all sound the same. They have nothing unique to say.

I thought about this while reading The Nasty Bits, which is a sort of collection of uncollected writings. Bourdain is no Hemingway, but his voice is unmistakeable. No cookie-cutter "I have an MFA from Irvine" for this guy. Here is a swearing, bushwacking, New-Yorkese dude whose is refreshingly unrepentant. He smokes. A lot. He drinks. Even more. He has overcome addictions to both heroin and cocaine. And he's been all over the world, which is what this book is about.

Is there food in here? Yes, but no recipes, nothing twee. His one mention of Nigella Lawson observes that she is not a cook, even if she does advocate pork consumption.

Bourdain, known for his take-no-prisoners, we-are-outlaw-cooks mentality, has softened up some. Seeing the world--and the many starving people and animals inhabiting it--has that effect. When he does rail, which is often, it's difficult to disagree. He is outraged by America's continuing refusal to acknowledge the Latinos that populate restaurant kitchens, doing the day-to-day, physically difficult, often poorly-paid work of serving your food. He is enraged by the fools (I agree with him on this one) who terrorized Laurent Manrique because he served foie gras. These animal rights folk destroyed his restaurant, vandalized his car, then took photographs of his wife and infant playing in their yard. They mailed these photos to Manrique, threatening his family. Manrique caved. Who wouldn't? But Bourdain suggested these well-meaning do gooders apply themselves to something more pressing than geese, like Oakland street crime or the dog and cockfighting taking place all too near my home. But, he rightfully points out, the gangbangers and dogfighters carry guns. Manrique does not, making him the easier target.

Bourdain goes on to say he is not a fan of animal cruelty. Nor am I--just this morning I paid an outrageous amount for a humanely raised pork hock. But terrorizing people? Nope.

As for the Slow-Food, organic, artisanal folks (i.e. liberal tenderfeet like me) he writes:

"There is more than a whiff of dogma in the Blood argument (this being local, sustainable, etc etc food)...The 'slow food' lobby, arguing for sustainable sources of food, organic and free range products, cruelty-free meat, and a return to a photogenic but never-to-be realized agrarian wonderland, seem to overlook the fact that the stuff is expensive, and that much of the world goes to bed hungry at night--that most of us can't hop in the SUV with Sting and drive down to the organic greenmarket to pay twice the going rate." (38-9)

Yep. From here he rhapsodizes about the wonders of ugly food--food that begins as something nasty, like feet or heads or livers, and is lovingly turned into something good. Made a lovely pot of tripe? Bourdain's the man to call for dinner. His travels have led him to any number of things Americans would cringe at: bugs, fish heads, seal eyeballs. But then again, he is at pains to point out that Americans willingly consume "paper-wrapped morsels of gray 'beef' patties with all-purpose sauce. The unbelievably high-caloric horrors of beef-flavor-sprayed chicken nuggets, of 'milkshakes' that contain no milk and have never been shaken, of 'barbecue' that has never seen a grill, 'cheese' with no cheese." (14) Compare this to his loving descriptions of Singaporean or Vietnamese street foods, all cheap, most often healthy, always delicious (his evocation of Viet Nam will make you wish you could get on the next flight to Hanoi), and you can't helpt but feel like an Ugly American indeed.

There are some missteps, invariably when Bourdain tries to veer off into fiction. "A Drinking Problem" and "A Chef's Christmas" would have been better left on the cutting room floor, but rest of The Nasty Bits compensates. it's hard to argue with a guy who dedicates his book to the Ramones, who remained defiantly, skinnily, excessively themselves to the bitter end.

Anthony Bourdain. The Nasty Bits. New York: Bloomsbury Books. 2006.

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