Thursday, 28 October 2010

Review: Medium Raw

Food writing is a difficult art in that it doesn't allow for much scope.  leaving aside cookery books,  food writing tends to gravitate toward one of two poles. At the one, they epicurean tomes filled with raptures about outdoor banquets under sunny Tuscan skies,  culinary adventures involving munching on grill sparrows at a Hanoi market stall, or word pictures of Christmas banquets against a snowy New England backdrop.  At the other pole we have nutritionists and pinched-faced books on the virtues of Vegetarianism.  The one thing that is very rare is a cynical, biting account of what it's really like in the kitchen by someone who has seen the dark underbelly of modern food culture.

At least that was the case before Anthony Bourdain came along with his sleeper best seller of 2000, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. It was the first to take a jaundiced eye to the entire food culture from the point of view of a battle-scarred veteran of the grill.  Bourdain revealed the world of top-flight restaurants, particularly in New york, as an insane mix of alcohol, drugs, eccentricity, sex, hard work, long hours, money, illusion, delusion, and burn-out that is as addictive as cocaine–of which there was a lot, too.  The book's success surprised everyone; including Bourdain, who found himself catapulted overnight from being a failed chef in a tenth-rate kitchen to the life of an international celebrity and television personality.   Ten years later, Bourdain follows up with his new book,  Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook (2010).

Seen from the perspective of a man who is older, more responsible, and (hopefully) wiser, Bordain is still as cynical, opinated, foul-mouths, acerbic, dry-witted, and insightful as he was in Kitchen Confidential. He also hasn't lost his talent for vivid writing as this passage about a highly sensual and illegal meal of roasted ortolan bunting shows:
In the darkness under my shroud, I realize that in my eagerness to fully enjoy this experience, I’ve closed my eyes. First comes the skin and the fat. It's hot. So hot that I’m drawing short, panicky, circular breaths in and out—like a high-speed trumpet player, breathing around the ortolan, shifting it gingerly around my mouth with my tongue so I don’t burn myself. I listen for the sounds of jaws against bone around me but hear only others breathing, the muffled hiss of rapidly moving air through teeth under a dozen linen napkins. There’s a vestigial flavor of Armagnac, low-hanging fumes of airborne fat particles, an intoxicating, delicious miasma. Time goes by. Seconds? Moments? I don’t know. I hear the first snap of tiny bones from somewhere near and decide to brave it. I bring my molars slowly down and through my bird’s rib cage with a wet crunch and am rewarded with a scalding hot rush of burning fat and guts down my throat. Rarely have pain and delight combined so well. I’m giddily uncomfortable, breathing in short, controlled gasps as I continue, slowly—ever so slowly—to chew. With every bite, the thin bones and layers of fat, meat, skin, and organs compact in on themselves, there are sublime dribbles of varied and wondrous ancient flavors: figs, Armagnac, dark flesh slightly infused with the salty taste of my own blood as my mouth is pricked by the sharp bones. As I swallow, I draw in the head and beak, which, until now, had been hanging from my lips, and blithely crush the skull.

What is left is the fat. A coating of nearly imperceptible yet unforgettable-tasting abdominal fat. I undrape, and, around me, one after another, the other napkins fall to the table, too, revealing glazed, blissed-out expressions, the beginnings of guilty smiles, an identical just-****ed look on every face.
 Unlike Kitchen Confidential, Medium Raw isn't a complete narrative, but rather a collection of essays where Bourdain discusses a wide range of topics orbiting around the culinary culture.  With his typical no-holds barred approach, Bourdain takes on the Food Network (a bastion of mediocrity), restraunteur Alice Waters (villain), Fergus Henderson (hero), education (can't even teach young people how to cook an egg), becoming a chef (don't unless you're incredibly talent, hard workings, and insane), his own youthful indiscretions (hard drugs and self destructive behaviour), the Beautiful People (ugly, stupid and evil), and being cool (once you're a parent, forget it.  It's just creepy).  Along the way we're also treated to a tour of all sorts of exotic eateries in incredible locations, the future of the Great American Hamburger, and the ghastliness of a steady diet of cordon bleau.    Sometimes his pronouncements do go on a bit, but his passion for food and the people behind it comes through clearly and he's also matured enough to admit that some of the shots he took at the celebrity chefs like Emeril for selling out weren't wholely justified after Bourdain realised that these chefs had often jumped on the back of a tiger that they didn't dare let go of. 

Medium Raw is a fun and often fascinating read, but like many books of essays, the good stuff is right at the front and by the time we reach the last chapters it's a bit like coming to the end of a delightful buffet only to discover the stale buns and drying onion slices that the chef tried to hide.  The litany of names and faces becomes an uninteresting parade of dishes and I for one wanted a brandy and the bill.  Overall, however, Medium Raw does make for a very satisfying second course from a man who knows a chop from a cheese board.

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