My relationship with Anthony Bourdain is a conflicted one. I can’t say I love him and hate him in equal measures; love wins out. But he does irritate the shit out of me. But he’s kind of hot. But he’s so arrogant! But he shows me so many kinds of interesting food on the television. But he makes it all about him! But sometimes he’s really poetic. And he’s from New Jersey. And he went to Vassar! But he dropped out. You see what I mean.
I received his book A Cook’s Tour for my birthday. I’ve read essays by Mr. Bourdain in the past, but my general experience with him is related to his television show on the Travel Channel, No Reservations. Conflicted as I may be, I often watch No Reservations with a notepad at the ready and have in fact used his travel tips to great success. I was describing to a friend the other day that, even though I only eat vegetables and occasionally seafood, I find all the weird extreme food shows on the Travel Channel extremely interesting, addictive, even. (Side note: Andrew Zimmern, another Travel Channel foodie, is also a Vassar alum!)
So, given that I love his show, I expected to like Mr. Bourdain’s book a lot more than I did. It is a chronicle of his travels around the world to eat indiginous foods (as well as to eat at French Laundry) in order to write about them and make a television show, the predecessor of No Reservations, for the Food Network. Parts were interesting, particularly his first hand account of getting to a remote town in Cambodia–for someone who lives in NYC, it is hard to imagine that there are places in the world that hard to reach, and that dangerous once you get there. The French Laundry chapter was pretty great, too–I think because it is such a fetishized hot spot yet I haven’t seen much television that’s been filmed there. But, I have to say, I am inured to a lot of the other exploits that took place in the book. Tony recounts the first time he saw his dinner–a pig–slaughtered in front of him, really delving into what this meant for him, the community, etc.–but I was like, blah, blah, whatever–I’ve watched that on your show a thousand times. The book, being nine or so years old, is really dated. Tony’s then wife is not his wife anymore. His meals are nowhere near as outrageous as the crazy animal parts he now shoves into his face. And, excepting the Cambodia chapters, nothing he writes about is anywhere near as thrilling as what has happened since–being trapped with his crew in Lebanon when the war broke out in 2008, that fantastic tumble he took on an ATV, the whole thing flipping over on a sand dune, Tony somehow landing on his feet in a running position. It just doesn’t compare.
What’s more, all that is charming about Tony on television–his quick-on-his-feet quips, his awkwardness, his chemistry with friends like the infamous Zamir–it’s all missing from his first person written accounts. What shines through instead is his self-involvedness. He didn’t seem to quite know his audience–as someone who would love to travel more, eat at a floating market in Vietnam, get paid to write a book–I didn’t really want to read about his existential crises regarding making television for the Food Network.
In terms of the writing, too, some of it was great in a hyper-descriptive travel-writing way, but I noticed it was often really repetitive. In the chapter in which Tony and his brother travel to the tiny town in France where they spent formative childhood summers, he ended up diluting the power of what he was writing by belaboring his realizations. He and his brother faithfully recreate their past meals, trying to recapture the magic of their childhood, and they keep failing. Tony realizes, at a certain point, that it’s not really his childhood he’s after, but his deceased father. Nothing is going to taste as good as it used to without him. The essay is shades away from being extremely powerful, but it loses that power when Tony reiterates again and again, without developing it any further, that he misses his dad.
Going back to my first paragraph, though, Tony went to Vassar, and I can forgive him a lot because of that. I love Vassar. (Really? you all ask, rolling your eyes). So, this passage from pages 71-72, in which Tony goes out for a night in the Basque region with a whole bunch of women, saved the book for me:
I had, I suspected, a big night ahead of me. I’d seen that look on Virginia’s face before, when she’d told me that I’d be going ‘out with the girls.’ It was a look that made my blood run cold as the memories came rushing back. Vassar, 1973. I was part of a tiny minority of men, living in a little green world run by and for women. I’d fallen in — as I always do — with a bad crowd, a loosely knit bunch of carnivorous, brainy, gun-toting, coke-sniffing, pill-popping manic-depressives, most of them slightly older and much more experienced than I was at seventeen. Sitting each morning in the college dining facility and later the neighborhood bar with eight or ten of these women at a time, I’d learned, painfully at times, that women have nothing to learn from men in the bad behavior department, particularly when they travel in packs. They drank more than I did. They talked about stuff that made even me blush. They rated the sexual performance of the previous night’s conquests on a scale of one to ten, and carved up the class of incoming freshmen ahead of time — drawing circles around their faces in the Welcome to Vassar pamphlet introducing the new fish — like gangsters dividing up building contracts. I was afraid. Very afraid.
Reading that paragraph, I briefly forgot all my criticisms, paused and daydreamed about what it would have been like to hang out at the Dutch with my wonderful Vassar girlfriends and Anthony Bourdain. Probably pretty awesome.