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?



jen said...

what gets my humanism hackles up is when he implies that being Hindu is an acceptable reason to morally object to eating animals, but that objections not tied to an established religion are not valid.

unrelated, i slept under a christmas tree in the Salt Lake City airport once. but in my defense 1) I was in a Very Bad Post-Breakup Place, 2) I was stranded (alone) in Salt Lake City on Christmas Day, and 3) I was slightly drunk at 11am.

lauren said...

say what you will about organized religion, but it's useful shorthand for a lot of people. no one would consider, say, a devout jewish woman a bad hostess if she didn't serve pork to guests, but the fact that i am a strict ethical vegetarian and don't have meat in my home for anyone other than the cats (obligate carnivores, those two) gets LOTS of side-eye.

one of the other things that chaps my hide about bourdain, speaking of cultural norms, is how he arbitrarily privileges certain societies and disrespects others; he'll fall all over himself to praise his hosts in iran(!), for example, and shit all over elderly icelandic people for cheap laughs. where was "yes, yes, yes" in reykjavik, boss?

LPC said...

Even happy omnivores know it's really rude to serve meat to a vegetarian. And they also know not to just give said vegetarian a baked potato and call it quits.

esb said...

not how i ought to have started my day. however, this is a stellar piece of writing, cupcake.

esb said...

whoa there's a part two coming?

Hannah Mae said...

Bourdain's periodic savaging of straw vegetarians hacks me off too - always has. It's boring macho dickswinging, and by this point it's predictable shtick as well.

But the kicker for me was reading something he wrote - I wish I could cite my source properly (but not enough to go reread any of his nonsense) - where he talks about eating vegetarian Indian food and just having his mind totally blown that vegetarian food could taste this good.

...*This* is the globe's most adventurous eater? This guy? This guy who somehow became a famous chef, and a grown adult in New York City, without ever having tasted INDIAN FOOD? Good lord, no wonder he doesn't know how to make anything without smearing it with meat.