“How about this?” I suggested to my editor. “I travel around the world, doing whatever I want. I stay in fine hotels and I stay in hovels. I eat scary, exotic, wonderful food, doing cool stuff like I’ve seen in movies, and looking for the perfect meal. How’s that sound?”
And so chef Anthony Bourdain sets out (with a crew from the Food Network filming his every move) to explore the cuisines of the world. Sounds like a dream come true to me! I tucked into this book with the relish I usually reserve for a fine meal or a glass of Guinness; I expected to find A Cook’s Tour at least as rewarding.
The journey begins with a visit to a farm in Portugal, the family home of Bourdain’s fellow chef Jose Mereilles. Here the reader is treated to a graphic step-by-step description of the slaughter of a “monstrously large, aggressive-looking pig” — including the delightfully gruesome removal of the pig’s rectum in a procedure referred to as pig-fisting — after which Bourdain describes two full days’ worth of meals made from said pig. As he eats his way through dozens of pork products he gives a running tally of dishes served at each meal. One dinner, for example, sounded fabulous: freshly toasted almonds, pickled pearl onions, fried baby sardines, marinated olives, rojoes papas de sarabuhlo — a soup of bread, stock, cumin, pork, and congealed pork blood — pork confit with potatoes, and smoked pork sausage. As graphic as this chapter is, I found it rather uplifting. When Bourdain says, “That’s something I owe the pig for. I know now what a pork chop costs in terms of the living, breathing thing that was killed to supply it,” I respect his newfound “respect for what we call ‘the ingredient’.” Not a bad beginning at all.
Next Bourdain and his brother Christopher journey to France, where they summered as children, for some navel-gazing and an attempt to recapture the meals of their youth. This is where things begin to go downhill. A bit of maudlin reminiscing, some stilted dialog, and a description of tete de veau … don’t ask me which bit is more revolting. If you’re unfamiliar with tete de veau, let’s look at his description:
… a slice of rolled-up calf’s face, peeled right off the skull, tied up — with a stuffing of sweetbreads — and served boiled in a little broth with a few nicely shaped root vegetables and a slice of tongue. It’s an … acquired texture: the translucent fat, the blue calf’s skin, and the bits of cheek and thymus gland take some getting past before you can actually enjoy the flavor.
This chapter also includes a detailed description of the force feeding of foie gras geese and ducks, and an experience with the effects of food poisoning. Mmmm.
No, I’m not going to give a blow by blow synopsis of the bizarre foods consumed by Anthony Bourdain. There are delicious-sounding meals in this book: prawn spring rolls with mint, basil, lotus root and sprouts in Saigon; crayfish with eggplant caviar, Basque sausage and honey on toast points, and sheep’s milk yogurt with foie gras in Spain; braised reindeer in juniper in Russia; Edoame sushi in Japan. (He dines on fugu in Japan, too, but finds the experience of tempting death with the toxic fish less exciting than he had hoped.) The very idea of Vietnamese lobster stewed in coconut and chili makes my mouth water.
And yes, there are more weird and unappetizing meals to rival the tete de veau — at least, unappetizing to my untutored palate. Fried worms and sauteed ant eggs in Mexico. Roasted bone marrow with parsley and caper salad. Soft boiled duck embryo in the shell. A cocktail of cobra blood, cobra bile, and rice wine. Ugh.
But unpleasant sounding foods are not the real problem with this book. I’m hardly a xenophobe and I’ll try almost anything once, so I can allow for the possibility that some of these foods are as delectable as they don’t sound. The real problem with this book lies in Bourdain’s choppy narrative; one would expect the chapters to follow his journey chronologically, but scenes in Vietnam are interspersed throughout the book. Did he return to Southeast Asia repeatedly, or did he just need a good editor? Impossible to tell, and the book suffers from the nonexistent continuity.
Several things damage the author’s credibility here, too: substance abuse in many forms would be the first. At every meal, Bourdain manages to consume copious amounts of whatever happens to be the locally preferred liquor. Fermented maguey, vodka, rice wine, red wine, white wine, beer, ale, if it’s there and it’s intoxicating, he’ll drink too much of it. Not to mention his repeated forays into local cannabinoids — it’s hard to picture Julia Child or Emeril Lagasse rhapsodizing about huge cakes of hashish! Add to this his proud declarations that he’s a chain smoker, and it’s really very hard to imagine that his palate can even distinguish a fine meal anymore. I wonder if, by the end of one of these drunken wasted dinners, any of the locals thought to slip him a nice plate of dirt and see if he found that delectable. I wish I were kidding.
In addition, the author is a bit too fond of his purple prose and uses some fairly ineloquent language. One meal leaves him “feeling like Elvis in Vegas — fat, drugged, and completely out of it.” Another “was bittersweet, the experience tinged as it was with the certain knowledge of my own bad choices and shortcomings.” He explores the markets of impoverished Russia and the streets of Communist Vietnam and waxes philosophic over the plight of the poor, managing to sound both condescending and altruistic at the same time, and yet while he passionately proclaims his admiration for the simple folk of the world, the farmers of Vietnam, Portugal, Mexico, or Cambodia, he manages to find contempt for the same folk if they happen to be American. He describes a white limo sent to take him to a fine restaurant in California as a “hideous rubemobile … a car more suitable to some lottery-winning yokel on his way to the county fair to sell off his prize hogs.” What an incredibly inept and insulting piece of writing.
Bourdain ends his book with a trite and not unexpected illustration of the fact that the perfect meal has less to do with what you’re eating than with who you’re with and what you’re doing at the time. What could have been a marvelous and inspired culinary journey turns out to be a drug-addled literary meander. There are some fascinating stories here but it requires a dedicated reader to filter them out of the sludge.