09.17.14: on anthony bourdain (part I)

the library emailed me a few days ago to let me know that the anthony bourdain crime novel i'd reserved was going to get reshelved if i didn't come by to pick it up. i am weirdly vulnerable to admonitions from the NYPL and considered rushing across town over my lunch break, but internet, i think it's okay for me to walk away now. i've sat beside joe through hours and hours of a cook's tour and no reservations and various extra-special top chef episodes, i have read kitchen confidential, and i have read medium raw. i feel like i can say, with the conviction of a diligent viewer and reader rather than reflexive righteous vegetarian indignation, that anthony bourdain is a—but let me explain.

i've bristled at bourdain's casual pot shots at vegetarians for years, but i felt i should consider some of his more thoughtful remarks before making conclusions. i started with kitchen confidential, his blockbuster memoir, in which i learned that
Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, and an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food. The body, these waterheads imagine, is a temple that should not be polluted by animal protein. It's healthier, they insist, though every vegetarian waiter I've worked with is brought down by any rumor of a cold. Oh, I'll accommodate them, I'll rummage around for something to feed them, for a 'vegetarian plate', if called on to do so. Fourteen dollars for a few slices of grilled eggplant and zucchini suits my food cost fine.
tony, toni, toné. for ethical vegetarians like me, the consumption of meat and the pure enjoyment of food are mutually exclusive. my body is nothing like a temple (i was a pack-a-day smoker for 11 of the 22 years i've been vegetarian), and i don't give two shits about how much healthier or sicker i'd be if i ate like he does. i've gotten pretty good at telling when a chef is welcoming a challenge and when straying from the side salad will cost me $25 and an hour of staring at a pile of listlessly steamed vegetables called something like "the haystack." kitchen confidential's vegetarians aren't people like me, though, or people at all: they're just jokes, part of the shtick bourdain turns on for appearances like his larry king live segment (and "rematch") with jonathan safran foer. don't we get it?

bourdain's follow-up memoir, medium raw ("a bloody valentine to the world of food and the people who cook"), wastes no time in waddling back to the inflatable punching clown that is The Vegetarian Perspective in a Tony Bourdain Book. he opens by covering his head with a napkin and devouring ortolan, an endangered (and protected) songbird that had the bad luck to be blinded, force-fed, drowned, roasted, and stuffed into his yap.* bourdain is uncompromising in his pursuit of self-satisfaction, you guys! zero fucks given re: jonathan franzen's beloved birds (aside from the ones franzen himself ate before he could get to them, maybe)! in case we waterheads were still unclear about his feelings on our feelings, he doubles down on them in his chapter on meat:
PETA doesn't want stressed animals to be cruelly crowded into sheds, ankle-deep in their own crap, because they don't want any animals to die—ever—and basically think that chickens should, in time, gain the right to vote. I don't want animals stressed or crowded or treated cruelly or inhumanely because that makes them provably less delicious.
that deliciousness point isn't universally accepted, actually, as cnn reported last year.** the main point here, of course, is that improvements in animal welfare which benefit human consumers directly and immediately are the only improvements a reasonable person can care about. and how he cares! bourdain is so grossed out by factory farms' cheap, shitty meat that he's developed classy socratic dialogues to steer his little daughter away from fast food ("Is it true that if you eat a hamburger at McDonald's it can make you a ree-tard?"). refusing to consume animals for their sake, on the other hand, is acceptable strictly in the context of an ethos too exotic to criticize with confidence.
Okay. I am genuinely angry—still—at vegetarians. That's not shtick. Not angry at them personally, mind you—but in principle. A shocking number of vegetarians and even vegans have come to my readings, surprised me with an occasional sense of humor, refrained from hurling animal blood at me—even befriended me. I have even knowingly had sex with one, truth be told.*** But what I've seen of the world in the past nine years has, if anything, made me angrier at anyone not a Hindu who insists on turning their nose up at a friendly offer of meat.

I don't care what you do in your home, but the idea of a vegetarian traveler in comfortable shoes waving away the hospitality—the distillation of a lifetime of training and experience—of, say, a Vietnamese pho vendor (or Italian mother-in-law, for that matter) fills me with spluttering indignation.

No principle is, to my mind, worth that; no Western concept of "is it a pet or is it meat" excuses that kind of rudeness.
one wonders what would happen if bourdain rolled into a deeply authentic place in, say, southeast asia and was offered a binder of his host's finest kiddie porn. no principle is worth the unforgivable condescension of morality out of context, amirite? bourdain's parenthetical about his mother-in-law is very nearly too pathetic to address at all, but i would note that when i was a junior in high school, my beloved boyfriend's ultra-catholic italian family invited me to stay at their home the night before we all went up to pasadena for the rose parade and the rose bowl; when his mother served us "vegetarian" soup made, alas, with chicken stock, i at sixteen was able to root around and find the balls to thank her and decline it as politely as possible. she made me sleep under the christmas tree that night, and two decades later i think she still calls him every now and again to make sure we haven't somehow gotten back together.
"I feel too lucky—now more than ever—too acutely aware what an incredible, unexpected privilege it is to travel this world and enjoy the kindness of strangers to ever, ever be able to understand how one could do anything other than say yes, yes, yes."
you know what? yes is easy. yes is sucking up to your mother-in-law. heaven forbid you should actually have to think on your feet and come up with a gracious way to turn down someone's offer of hospitality for moral reasons. i'd sleep under that christmas tree again.

to be continued.

*that's the traditional method, anyway; bourdain claims his ortolan was merely hoodwinked with a cloth and then soaked with armagnac after death, which makes the whole scene completely respectable.

**from cnn's piece on dog smuggling from thailand to vietnam:
A common belief is that stress and fear releases hormones that improve the taste of the meat, so the dogs are placed in stress cages that restrict their movement.

Eventually, the dogs are either bludgeoned to death or have their throats cut in front of other dogs who are awaiting the same fate. In some cases, they've been known to be skinned alive.

"Dogs are highly intelligent animals so if you kill a dog and you have a whole cage of dogs next to the one that's being killed, those dogs that are going to be killed next know what's going on," [the director of a Hanoi-based animal welfare group] said.
an opening scene for bourdain's next book, perhaps?



YE OLDE TRAMP-FOR-DAYS FOTOMEME (origin here): 6 things i see every day

fotomeme: 1

the freedom tower mural at henry m. jackson playground, across the street from our local fine fare (which reopened during the lower east side blackout after sandy when the owner saw people lining up outside the steel shutters; runners with flashlights would take orders and venture back into the dark aisles to fill them). you can see the actual freedom tower a block or so later down east broadway.

fotomeme: 2

st. mary's, where hearses park for funerals during the week and the sidewalk is full of worshipers after ten o'clock mass as i pass on the way to the wild bird fund on sundays.

fotomeme: 3

for about a month we shared the street with a film crew for the cobbler ('[adam] sandler plays a lonely new york shoe-repairman who senses that he’s let life past him by. but when he discovers a magical family heirloom that allows him to literally “walk in another man’s shoes,” he embarks on a great adventure with far-reaching ramifications.') no word on whether or not sandler's character, like the actual shoe-repair guy, also makes shabbos keys for our neighbors (who can't carry house keys on the sabbath but can "wear" them as tie clips or belt buckles).

fotomeme: 4

the mural-bird in the alley west of the great wall, the first chinese restaurant on the south side of grand street en route to chinatown. i feel like his name would be alvin or nelson.

fotomeme 5

if you look to your left when you get to this tag you'll see STEAMS BUNS, one of my favorite lower east side awning-slogans. if you keep going down essex and hang a right at delancey you'll hit another, AS OLD AS HILLS, just before the williamsburg bridge.

fotomeme: 6

i couldn't keep the staircases straight for the first several weeks i took the subway to and from the office; i get turned around easily, and street names and directions slip away from me like wet bar soap. i go right if i emerge in front of the orchard mural, and left if i'm in front of the leaping fish. right orchard, left fish. right orchard, left fish.



grand street

Glorify me!
For me the great are no match.
Upon every achievement
I stamp nihil.

I never want
to read anything.
What are books!

Formerly I believed
books were made like this:
a poet came,
lightly opened his lips,
and the inspired fool burst into song—
if you please!
But it seems,
before they can launch a song,
poets must tramp for days with callused feet,
and the sluggish fish of the imagination
flounders softly in the slush of the heart.
And while, with twittering rhymes, they boil a broth
of loves and nightingales,
the tongueless street merely writhes
for lack of something to shout or say.

(vladimir mayakovsky, from "the cloud in trousers" [max hayward and george reavey trans.])
the "list 10 books that have stayed with you" meme that's been bouncing around facebook for the last year or so made its way to me via my friend sarah just a few days before someone published a statistical analysis of said meme that's been bouncing around the internet this week (harry potter crushed everyone, including jesus, even though the average meme-participant's age was 37, which would have made them about 21 when harry potter and the sorcerer's stone first sank its claws into popular culture). as for me? this site is my list, maybe; it's about more (and less?) than books, but it's certainly about the ones that have stayed with me. either way, i don't know that i'm interested in making a list of 10; i'd have to talk about the goldfinch, which was so sensationally meh that i think and get angry about it least once a week, and i'd probably have to talk about gravity's rainbow, which i still haven't been able to begin in any significant way even though i know i need to complete all of pynchon's novels before declaring once and for all that he can suck it. i do love lists, though, and i like tag. i've been thinking about all of that as i've walked to and from the subway on the way to work this week—i've been thinking about transit and daily routines a lot as well, as joe just started a new job up in the bronx and we're trying to figure out how to get him there and back via some combination of actions that won't drive him nuts—and i think i'd like to tag people and ask them where they go. boil some broth on those tongueless streets, would you? in other words:

take/share 6 photographs of things you see every day. one batch, that is, of 6 photos. the sun coming up over the buildings across the street? excellent. a rusty-but-stately old manhole cover on the sidewalk outside your apartment (above, an everyday sight of mine)? delicious. your own feet in the shower? sure, if you want to take things in that direction.

i tag you 6: baby jo, dave, erin, lisa (east), lisa (west), and sarah.