Thank You, Anthony Bourdain: It’s About the Food

I am an idiot. I only have a slight edge over some other idiots in that I am open to discovering that I am an idiot, so that I might actually learn something new, or discover, sometimes to my horror, how something I thought I knew was so blindingly wrong.

For the past month, I have been in an immersive course of Anthony Bourdain and his writing, as well as had the experience of cuisine of another country while on vacation. Not just as a tourist eating at the hotel restaurants, but more like a food anthropologist, spending a good portion of our time in the Caribbean in grocery stores, looking at what the locals eat, inspecting each aisle of the store, fumbling with packages in French, and trying to figure out what the hell was in them due to my not knowing the language.

And never, to my recollection, eating at a ‘touristy’ restaurant. It was either casual French-inspired dining, or simple local fare.

It has been illuminating, to say the least.

Looking back to what ‘food’ was in my formative years, my mom used to lament that she wished for the day her cooking would be replaced by a pill. That sorta sums it up.

It was the 60s, and Dow Chemical’s motto was ‘Better living through chemistry’. Astronauts and space were big things in the zeitgeist, and Tang was considered cool. While not a Tang family, I was particularly enamored of some chocolate-flavored stick of god-knows-what bearing the resemblance of a long but much softer Tootsie Roll. These were called ‘Space Food Sticks’, and – holy shit! – here’s the commercial that turned me into a fan:

Believe me, this might look pretty lame 40 years later, but slap a label on anything that related it to the space program then and you could have sold old socks by the truckload.

Going back to my Mom, food was typically a weekly routine of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and peas and pearl onions from a can on one day, pasta and meatballs with a home-made sauce and italian bread the next, then breaded chicken fried in a frying pan with more mashed potatoes and carrots. For variety their might be hamburgers and fries. Once yearly fare included an Easter ham, Thanksgiving turkey with stuffing made by buying bread and letting it go stale for a few days on the stairs, corned beef and cabbage with boiled potatoes for St Patrick’s day, mostly for my dad, who was half Irish, as well as the rare and exotic ‘helushki’, which was supposed to be some concoction with potatoes and cottage cheese that my dad would ask for every few years and my mother would bravely attempt to cook – and which I loathed.

Dessert was maybe Jello, or Entenmanns baked goods. Occasionally a cake made from a cake mix. Bread was Wonder Bread – ‘building strong bodies in 12 ways’ – at least that’s what the commercial said.

Sometimes on the weekend, my dad, who controlled the purse strings, might feel rich and decide to order a pizza (no toppings – I didn’t know pizza ever came with toppings until my later years) or Chinese takeout – always the same – chicken chow mein, egg rolls and egg-drop soup. I honestly did not know that until I was about 9 or 10 when my sister, old enough to buy and pay for her own Chinese takeout, brought something different home.

I could go on and continue to clearly establish that I was not brought up with the creds for a ‘food snob’, but I think you get the idea. As I morphed into early adulthood, the food patterns were set, and nothing changed.

Like a lot of Americans, I suffered from what at least one person called food neophobia – the fear of new foods. If it was a new cereal or candy bar, that’s a different story, but to eat snails? Oysters? Sushi? I did not see the need or reason for such exotica, and no sense of adventure that drew me to consume these things.

But, as it always does, love changes things.

I met my future wife, who grew up in a culture with very different foods. There was no way that I was going to charm her with my notions of cuisine. Instead, she charmed me with hers.

I ate things I would have thought I would only put in my mouth to win a substantial bet – and I liked them. When I started at this, I would frequently think: millions of people eat this and don’t die – this was how I needed to reason to myself in order to get through some of these meals.

The need to reason with myself like this quickly disappeared.

While still blissfully stupid about the details behind these meals, the cultures that created them, the spices and the cooking techniques that made them great, and what friggin fork or plate to use at the appropriate time, I was enjoying this adventure. As it required me only to sit and eat, it was perfect  for me.

I had slowly gone from someone with food neophobia to a person with food neophilia – a person who likes to try new foods, but these were occasional adventures only. I always came home to the comfort foods of my youth: frozen pizza, Eskimo pies, a bowl of pasta covered in grocery store sauce and topped with Kraft parmesan cheese.

I was still an idiot about food, just a slightly more experienced idiot. I enjoyed these new foods like a dog might – without comprehending anything about how or why or where – just shovel down the gullet until full.

And – as readers of this blog certainly know – I got fat, and kept getting fatter.

Then I started low carbing – Atkins – in 2003. I had to say goodbye to a lot of the comfort foods of my youth, and in order to not fail on Atkins, you have to be able to go beyond the stereotype of bacon, eggs and steak because few people are going to be able to live on that for a lifetime.

And here is where that prior experience with learning to try new foods really helped me out. In fact, it might explain why I succeeded (at this very moment 60 lbs. down from my high in 2003) and so many fail.

As a kid, I am sure that a sardine had never crossed the threshold of my home in the years I lived under my parent’s roof. Using my prior experience with trying new things, I’ve come to terms with sardines. I like ’em. I like ’em in a tomato sauce. Or mediterranean style – not as much as mashed potatoes smeared on a piece of buttered bread – but I like ’em.

And I also find when I track what I eat against my weight loss, that the periods of times when I’m eating these little fishies are the times that I lose weight.

This blog is filled with experiments consisting of me trying a new food. Many of these are failures.

This brings me back to Anthony Bourdain, my current banishment of science from my weight loss ‘journey’, and a comment from a reader on a previous blog post that essentially says: It’s about the food.

Anthony Bourdain, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the man, was a chef at a French restaurant, an ex-heroin addict, an ex-cokehead, who wrote a book called ‘Kitchen Confidential‘, which was a memoir about his years as a chef, about food, and about the restaurant business. It became a New York Times bestseller. He has since turned the success of this book into at least 2 different TV shows (neither of which I’ve watched as I don’t watch TV) and at least three other books I know of.

I didn’t go looking for his book – it found me. Someone had the audio version and at the time, I had a long, long commute. I’d listen to anything as I’m not a fan of the radio in the first place, and my commute – situated dead smack in the middle of two prime radio markets, meant that if I were to try to listen to radio, the signals from each market compete with each other, one station dropping out while the other gained a temporary advantage due to terrain, weather conditions, God knows what, only to be replaced moments later by the other station again.

I had no interest in what a cook does, or what a chef does. I wasn’t a food snob.

But Anthony Bourdain is neither – at least in the traditional sense.

While I do not understand entirely what the fellow is talking about when he discusses French dishes, nor am I entirely clear on what a sous chef is, his unpretentious, authentic, and engaging prose made me want to find out more. And, to be perfectly honest, his drug-laced, profane, street-talk manner of presenting his views on fine food, by necessity, strip it of any pretense.

Anthony Bourdain is not better than you. He does not talk down to you. When he gets on a high horse, he calls himself on it and is the first to label himself  ‘pretentious asshole’. I like that in a person.

This, as much as the fact that the man can tell a story, as well as his writing is so engaging, has made what might be called ‘gourmet foods’ or ‘fine dining’ – terms that sound prissy to me and conjure up images of lace cuffs on a man’s shirt – accessible to me now.

On my desk at the moment, cramping my left arm from typing this, I have his books, A Cook’s Tour and Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook. I also have the audio version of Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook.

Of the cookbook, there’s a sentence in the review that sums up the book – and Anthony Bourdain’s entire body of work:

Even though many of the dishes can be found in other cookbooks, what sets this one apart is Bourdain’s signature wise-ass attitude that pervades nearly every recipe, explanatory note and chapter introduction. Profanity adds frequent color. If Aunt Doris would blanche at pearl onions being called “little fuckers,” a cook who prefers boneless meat in Daube Provençal a “poor deluded bastard,” or a person nervous about making these recipes a “dipshit,” this book is not for her.

As I mentioned before, you don’t equate that sort of thing with the stereotype of the prissy French chef or the food snob, and it makes this world more accessible and interesting to me.

Now we come to my current banishment of science again. I am currently reading a history of dieting called ‘Never Satisified’ and while I have only partly read it, it’s apparent that a LOT of the ‘latest thinking’ on dieting is just recycled crap from the past.

And even worse: once we allowed nutritionists to dictate what we eat based on the latest notions of health, rather than listening to the people who know how food is supposed to be enjoyed, a lot of us were doomed to be fat.

And we Americans have been doing this for a long, long, long time.

I went on vacation and ate with only minimal thought about carbs. I avoided eating full portions of desserts, but would have a taste. I avoided any carbs not worth it, but did have the awesome mustard seed potato chips imported from France and unavailable in the US. I enjoyed picking up the baguettes, just taken from the oven, and walking the store eating half the loaf. I don’t know how we Americans can screw up a simple baguette, but they don’t taste like that here.

In 10 days, I gained a pound. Essentially, statistically: nothing.

Here’s why, I think. If the explanation sounds somewhat muddled, it’s because I’m still noodling through this.

Some of you might be familiar with Abraham Maslow. In an era where psychology was more philosophy and still influenced by Freud’s bullshit, Maslow was coming up with some interesting ideas. One famous one was his ‘heirarchy of needs’ – shown below:

You will notice where food is on this list, folks – at the bottom. In terms of our needs, food comes before family, health, property, friendship, self-esteem, and a bunch of others.

Food is also a true universal across time and culture. You might not understand another person, their religious views, their culture, or their time period, but we can all relate to a good meal, of good ingredients, shared with family and friends.

What we Americans have done – and are quickly exporting to every corner of the globe – is the notion that ‘food’ – and what we eat – should be left to the scientists. We have bought into this thinking. It is more likely that a food in a box with a label will make some claim about calories or vitamins than it will make a claim that it tastes good.

We eat for health, and yet we are more unhealthy than ever. We eat foods that claim to be low calorie and good for weight loss, and yet we are fatter than ever.

When I dined on vacation, I remember one night out at a restaurant. When the meal was brought to me, I recall how small the portions of the meat, the vegetable and the starch were compared to an American plate served at most resturants. In America, quantity IS quality.

The thing was – this meal was one of the most memorable meals of my life. The flavors of each meshed perfectly. Just a little of each – the starch, the vegetable, and the meat (I believe it was duck breast cooked rare), was perfection. We finished off the meal with a dessert that was a work of art: a ‘cigar’ made of chocolate. A sculpture made so beautiful and so authentic looking that it was almost a sin to eat it. It stood on a little stand, and even the ash was simulated from some sort of sugar concoction that was not just sugar, but some subtle, complex flavor.

This was shared by the table. Unlike in the US where dessert might be a massive ‘triple-chocolate-double-brownie overload’ with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream on top, this was subtle, and this was also small.  The meal was paced – not too fast and not too slow – and it seemed more like a performance than a meal. It was a small place, run by 2 women, and I told one of the owners that exact thing. She smiled proudly – this person looked at what they were doing as a work of ephemeral art, and she was glad I had noticed.

I don’t recall being hungry after this.

This is how the French supposedly eat. Small portions of whatever the hell they want, but it is instinctively good for you – and good tasting, too. Other than a nasty tendency toward liver disease due perhaps to an excess of wine, their weight and their health is better than the Americans.

We now end up with a comment on my post about being tired of all the arguing about science. Which diet is better, which supplement is better, is low carb good or evil? Is vegan healthier? What about vitamin B12? This study is good, that study is shit, my diet doc can kick the ass of your diet doc, Etc., etc., etc.

One commenter left the following:

I too get a bit tired of the arguing myself. It can be great at times, but some of it really cheapens the whole movement, which I think is not just low carb, but creating a real food culture.

Damn straight.

What I am thinking is that we need to tell the nutritionists of all stripes to screw off. Instead of them looking at us like some caged animals who need to be kept healthy,  perhaps there need to be a new route to health, weight loss and wellness that doesn’t focus on calories, carbs, proteins and vitamins, but rather keeps them at hand, in the background as a handy general reference rather than some bible on how to eat – perhaps it’s chefs that should teach us how to eat and dietitians should work to fit their creations into our lives rather than having dietitions act like chefs, creating food without magic, that become merely fuel – soylent greeen become real – and stripping from us all the one common thread that unites all faiths, political persuasions, and cultures – the joy of food and eating.

We need to refrain from the American ‘Grand Slam’ breakfast, where quantity equals quantity, but we also need to avoid the food moralists and their cultish notions of science – as well as the ‘food scientists’, coming up with the next fake foods.

Food is a basic human need, and should also be a joy as well. It should be enough but not too much, it should be prepared from the best ingredients possible, it should be prepared with pride, and not eaten in a rush. And as Anthony Bourdain pointed out in Medium Raw, almost no one knows how to ‘cook’ anymore, except for the food snobs.

I think I need to cook more, and learn some techniques other than ‘throw everything into pot’. Simple basic cooking techniques might be the best way for a lot of us to learn to respect food, respect ourselves, enjoy what we eat, and lose weight at the same time.

© 2012,


3 thoughts on “Thank You, Anthony Bourdain: It’s About the Food

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. I started low carbing one year ago next week, and during that time I’ve learned a lot about what works for me, and what doesn’t. I’m sure I have a lot more to learn, too, but I’ve basically been maintaining my weight for the past 4 months because I’m tired … of the science, of the arguing, of watching every little thing I eat, and wondering how it’s going to affect my weight. I love food. I love GOOD food, and your article is the wake-up call I apparently needed. Thanks for sharing!

    1. So the question that I am still trying to answer is, really: how to have my cake and eat it, too?

      I still believe that low carb has positive benefits. I also think there could be some downsides – like thyroid issues with extended ketogenic dieting.

      Does that me I wouldn’t want to go really low carb at times? Of course, not – I’ve found it to be helpful in weight loss.

      It’s a balancing act – I weighed myself twice a day at the hotel gym while on vacation – and factored that into what I ate and how much I ate. I came home the same weight – but I can’t expect to eat all those carbs like that and *lose* weight – it ain’t gonna happen…and I still have 25lbs. I want to lose this year.

      Right now my thinking is: low carb and eat whatever quantity. Lose weight…at least for a while. High carb? Portion control. Stick with carbs that are worth it, and make sure to consume fat with the carbs as it supposedly blunts the insulin spikes. Lose weight? Probably not – I think of it as a pleasant maintenance phase until I knuckle down and go back to a stricter low carb.

      Is the above thinking made-up, misguided bullshit? Maybe. It’s my personal experiment and I’m recommending it to nobody – just sharing.

      I think the key is ‘listening to your own body’ – you say that this is what you’re learning, and I bet it goes a long way to help with your weight loss success.

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