I've always liked his TV shows, in which he travels around the world, samples local foods, exclaims over the pork, drinks a lot of beer, and draws a lot of morals from the experience. He's a really good writer and something about the restless medium of television suits his sarcastic tone beautifully. However, he's gotten truly great in the last year or so, and it seems to coincide with the birth of his first child at the ripe age of 50. Bourdain quit smoking, lost his boyish figure, started talking about mortality, and became…profound. Check out the No Reservations episode set in Romania. It is one of the more astonishing and upsetting hours of TV I've ever seen.
I also like Bourdain because he is, in my humble opinion, a great redemption story. I actually was a waitron once at a restaurant where he was head chef. This place was in New York's South Street Seaport and aspired to serve good food amidst a schizophrenic crush of customers, free-spending Wall Streeters during the week and tired, grumpy, tight-wad tourists on the weekends. We went through a lot of chefs at that place, and Bourdain was by far the worst. He talks about this debacle in his book Kitchen Confidential and hints at some personal problems that might have turned his food into such slop. The owners threw him out after a few months.
But he was a supremely nice guy, the rare chef who would actually deign to talk to the waitrons. I remember him recommending in a friendly way at the end of a long night while I was counting my tips that I try an isolation tank, something you could apparently do in New York in the 1980s. He was finding isolation tanks very relaxing after a hard night at the restaurant. I was up for many things in my early 20s, but isolation tanks were not among them.
Anyway, I'm kind of a libertarian, too, so Bourdain has made me question why I don't mind the politicization of food by people who don't believe Oreos really are a victimless crime.
I think it's because we've been hectored for years by the people at McDonald's and Coca-Cola and the elves at Keebler. And talk about orthodoxies! Every time we turn on the TV or push a cart down an aisle at the market, we hear again that convenience is all that counts, and standardization, and being sprung from that form of drudgery called cooking.
These corporations have worked very hard to turn us from a country that always had a horrible food culture (check out Appetite for Life, Noel Riley Fitch's delightful biography of Julia Child, for evidence) to one that has no food culture whatsoever, merely a shopping culture.
And as Michael Pollan and others have documented, agribusinesses and junk food conglomerates
have long controlled not just the airwaves, but our agricultural policy. Like it or not, in this benighted nation, food is political.
So somehow, I don't mind a few grand symbolic gestures from the opposite camp–the food matters camp–as a way to balance out 50 years of nonstop corporate propaganda. I think a kitchen garden on the White House lawn is a fantastic cause if it might wake people up to the whole idea of beautiful food. And I am really annoyed by Bourdain's charge that beautiful food is only available to and a concern of elitists. Not when you can buy seed for $2 a packet and when the poorest big city in America, Detroit, has the most active network of kitchen gardeners.
So if Alice Waters is the Khmer Rouge, what does that make me? She thinks people ought to eat locally. My agrarian policies are way more radical: I know America would be a happier place if more of us got up off our ample behinds and grew that local food ourselves. Unlike Alice, I'd force the intelligentsia out into the fields.
In the unlikely event that the generals ever throw their loyalty my way, suburbanites won't be picking up their kale at the local CSA–they will be out there weeding that kale in the backyard every day.