Taste for travel
No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach By Anthony Bourdain Bloomsbury, 288pp, $ 35 Food: the History of Taste Edited by Paul Freedman Thames & Hudson, 368pp, $ 75
AT first glance, these two books could not be more different from each other. Food: the History of Taste is a collection of 11 essays, richly illustrated with works of art from China, Europe and the Muslim world, securely underpinned by four pages of bibliography. Every one of its contributors belongs to a university or a research institute. By contrast,
No Reservations is light on text and heavy on pictures ( winning snaps of our hero, the food he ’s eaten on his travels and the landscape in which he has eaten it).
Yet they tell the same story, and the story is about how every society can be characterised by the food it eats and the way in which it prepares that food. The scholarly book aspires to be global. It doesn ’t quite succeed: the bias is European, though there are chapters on imperial China and medieval Islam, and one on prehistory that draws evidence from all over the world. But the final chapter, by Belgian historian Peter Scholliers, addresses the exciting and strange environment in which many of us live today. We might visit an Ethiopian restaurant, say, in the inner city, and hesitate over spicy, raw, minced beef while congratulating ourselves on being really happening, global diners.
What you and I get by hitting the plastic downtown, Anthony Bourdain gets by travelling the world. Not that he ’ s exactly the fearless foodie equivalent of Captain Cook ( a man who, incidentally, possessed the cast- iron stomach that all global explorers needed).
No, he has gone around the planet with a camera crew and
No Reservations is the book of the television show. Yet there ’s a serious story here and it begins with Kitchen Confidential , Bourdain ’ s first work of nonfiction. ( He ’ s a crime novelist, too.)
Kitchen Confidential is Bourdain ’ s best- selling account of his education in the hard school of restaurant life, where the cuisine is French, nobody aspires to greatness and almost everybody seems to be a macho man addled by drink and drugs. ( This is a world where women belong front of house or in the white and quiet of the pastry kitchen.) The result was that Bourdain became one of the best- known chefs in the world, even though he would probably be the first to admit that he was essentially just a competent professional, not an inspired and creative artist.
So there had to be a cookbook, and there was, rather a good one, helping the amateur cook to imitate at home the business- like methods of the French restaurant kitchen. But it was clear Bourdain ’ s interests lay elsewhere.
No In fact, they were everywhere else: Reservations takes in China, India, Japan, Korea, the foodie heaven that is Singapore, Ghana, Sicily, Mexico, Argentina, and Beirut. Then there are less likely destinations such as Cleveland, Uzbekistan, Quebec, Iceland and Sweden. There ’ s a chapter on Malaysia that reads very like something out of
Heart of Darkness . Bourdain was in a bad way when he went into the jungle: confused, emotionally wounded, at some sort of crossroads. If you care about Bourdain ( which I do), you ’ ll care about this.
In Food: The History of Taste , chapters by Alain Drouard and Elliott Shore describe the origins of the world in which Bourdain had his education. The redistribution of wealth in France following the revolution created a new customer base, an urban bourgeoisie, and the personnel ready to satisfy their desires: skilled cooks who could no longer hope for employment in an aristocratic household. It also encouraged a relatively new institution, the restaurant ( new, that is, in Europe, though, as Joanna Waley- Cohen tells us in her chapter on imperial China, there had been public eating places in Chinese cities since the 12th century). The result, though, was not really a national cuisine, but as Freedman remarks in his introduction, a collection of regional items turned into a grand cuisine and then pruned for export. And now it ’ s all nearly over.
Global French cuisine spruced up for export is beginning to look like a thing of the past, so perhaps Bourdain was wise to get out when he did. The term gastroporn ’’ was coined more
‘‘ than 20 years ago to describe the sort of pictures you might encounter in the pages of food magazines, which at the time would have meant terrines and mousses and food artfully painted on large white plates. There ’ s a chapter called Food Porn in Bourdain ’ s book and it depicts things that would have once seemed decidedly unphotogenic: roast geese hanging up in Hong Kong, tofu awash with pepper- laced oil, a burger in Los Angeles. That ’s what we want in the age of global gastronomy: authenticity, not artifice.
Or, to put it another way, authenticity is the new artifice. Alan Saunders presents By Design and The Philosopher s Zone on ABC Radio National.
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