The Killing Fields


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.


  1. Hmm. Bourdain’s quote put me off a bit, since I once knew some victims of the Khmer Rouge and find it hard to rise up to the notion of using it for humor.

    Leaving all that aside, I agree with you Michelle, both in how clever Bourdain can be when talking about food and making us re-examine our attitudes toward it, and in how much we’ve all been co-opted into the great agri-business system without a say in the matter.

    A little symbolic fighting back doesn’t hurt a thing. And, as you say, a packet of seed and a small patch of land, while not necessarily within the reach of everyone, are readily available and fairly inexpensive.

  2. I’m glad to know Bourdain was nice to the waitstaff.I worked in restaurants and saw my fair share of cooks with the “my knife is bigger than your knife” attitude–as depicted in his admiring anecdote in Kitchen Confidential about the female cook who stopped a male cook’s sexual harassment by dominating him, canine style, and putting him in his place. Whatta woman! So I detect a tiny whiff of misogyny (or top dog snarling) in his comments about Alice Waters–but maybe I’m imagining it.
    That said, Alice Waters can sound imperious, like her edict that lettuce should be eaten only on the day it’s picked. But if you GO to California and Berkeley, you see that this is a pretty realistic rule of thumb–there’s amazing produce growing everywhere–I remember collards growing in tiny postage stamp yards in Oakland.
    And I agree with Michelle–we are already totally dominated (again with the dogs) by the food industry. So I agree with Michelle–rise up, people, and go sow your own kale!

  3. Great post! It’s always helpful to separate the message from the messenger, particularly if we find the messenger really annoying. Same goes for taking issue with people we usually agree with when they say something nutty or offensive.
    And can I just say? The food world, with its often-outrageous personalities/celebrities, is amazing to this non-foodie. I bet it’s like the gardening world in the U.K., where gardeners can be famous, outrageous, make news, all that good stuff. Think it’ll ever happen here? Fun to imagine.

  4. I pay no attention to ‘food celebrities’, at least the type that appear on television, so I didn’t know who either of the people were in this article. But I did recently read Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, and it was illuminating. As was your article, of course. It brings up a host of different thoughts, all of which could take up a lot of space, so I’ll limit myself for a change. 🙂

    I’ve long been a proponent of buying local/eating local, (long before it got seized on as a trendy thing to do) because I live in the heartland of food production in Nova Scotia and know a LOT of farmers, and occasionally write about farming considerations for several of my markets. It’s great to see more people making an effort to eat local, but I will be watching closely over the rest of the winter and spring to see if the economy curbs activity at the local farmers market and farm market shops. It can be less expensive to buy as much local food as possible, but also not. We do buy as much as we can from local producers, but there are things that can’t be produced here that I simply refuse to do without, like citrus, coffee, and chocolate.

    And of course some people will never go that way, opting for the LeanQuisine/Instant-meal/takeout method of meal preparation and eating.

    I have only one question? Where in HELL did the word ‘waitron’ come from? I assume it’s another foray into neologisms, and supposed to be all-inclusive, but somehow my caffeine-deprived brain tried to make it into ‘Waitbot’, with the result that all I could see were Wall-E-like serving staff, skittering around delivering meals to cranky customers.

  5. Well, Bourdain is known for hyperbole — and while I actually agree with many of Alice Waters’ ideas, her imperious, perfectionist, queen-of-the-foodies thing is SO annoying. A garden at the White House would be fabulous, and it sounds like this new chef they just hired out of Chicago is exactly the kind of guy to do it. But I understand where Bourdain is coming from — and I too find him very touching as a portrait of redemption. The riff on impossibility of capturing in words the beauty of the Inuit family eating a seal in their kitchen that opens The Nasty Bits is stuck to the bulletin board over my writing desk.

  6. I love Anthony Bourdain.

    That said, even though his choice of words is harsh and maybe hyperbolic, I think he has hit the nail on the head: the “real food” movement is very much in danger of becoming irrelevant to the people it matters most to: Everyman and Everywoman and Everychild. Making “real food” into a phenomenon that must needs encompass trips to elite shops or markets or restaurants is missing the point. The urge and edict to “reduce, reuse, recycle”is not possible when we are being urged to follow rules like “only eat lettuce the day it’s picked” (huh? I agree with this if you;re talking about corn on the cob, but lettuce?)

    Gardening is the canvas upon which we can create a new movement, a way of life that brings us back in touch with what food is and what being human means, a movement that will inspire and endure. Make it so.

  7. “It can be less expensive to buy as much local food as possible, but also not. ” Man, you’re not kidding. It’s really unfortunate that between the true costs of big ag being hidden, and the perception of farmers’ markets as “foodie boutiques,” a lot of folks won’t even try buying local. A good friend of mine provides personal chef services in northern virginia, and she struggles with those perceptions all the time.

    I think a reaction of a nanny state making healthy food choices mandatory is a bad idea. I’ve worked hard to lose over a hundred pounds, but if a Whopper becomes subversive, I might just tumble off the ol’ wagon out of spite. But, this state-sanctioned unhealthy crap we’re looking at doesn’t do anyone any favors either.

    I’m also glad I’m not the only one seeing “waitron” for the first time.

  8. Michele you are such a radical. I guess that is to be expected from an escapee of NJ suburbia.

    For me growing food seems natural and normal, not some radical statement of revolt against agribusiness and food processors, though I can certainly see how it would be for a huge swath of the population.

    My peasant ancestry goes back generations and I grew up gardening ornamentally in a family of gardeners and former farmers. One of my fondest memories of living in nowheresville Fort Collins, Co. was the vegetable garden I grew in an unused plot of ground at a friends house. It was a logical extension of my mostly pleasure gardening. I had a nice vege garden one year in Hawaii too.

    Now that I am officially rural and have a dedicated space, a vegetable garden will become as regular as my ornamental gardening. The vege garden won’t look radical to the neighbors. The scarecrow Uncle Ernie might cause a bit of a stir though.

  9. Extreme speakers on either side of any issue can be irritating, but with the rise of obesity and diabetes we all recognize the problem of poor diets. I think it would be nice if we all had the pleasures and benefits of our own organic vegetable gardens, but I am realistic enough to know its not going to happen. That is why I promote local produce, organic or not, because it promotes our own health, the health of our land, the economic health of our small farmers, the health of our communities, and a lot of pleasure at table

  10. I buy produce and fish almost every Thursday at a tiny local farmers’ market here in NOLA. I’m fortunate, both in its proximity and my bank account. The produce is rarely as inexpensive as the store, but these are my farmers, and if I continue to support them – while enjoying their output – perhaps they’ll get enough customers to lower prices and still profit. I have neighbors on fixed income, with no yards. At times my beau and I fix a meal here and invite the neighbors, delivering a plate to those who don’t get out. These people don’t have the space, the time, sometimes the health, to garden. My yard is one of the bigger around here – thirty by thirty feet. So, maybe I am an elitist, buying locally, eating fast food once every year or so, agreeing to a large extent with Alice Waters. Don’t we need the extremists pushing to get to the middle? I tend to see Bourdain as extreme as Waters, but I think we need both of them, for many reasons, one of which is they both contribute much to public thought, usually entertainingly.

  11. Oh, I LOVE my local farmers at the farmer’s market. I’m constantly pumping them for information and stealing their ideas. I actually think they are quite competitive with the supermarket, too, on price–and win hands down on quality and sustainability.

    But in my ideological scheme, these small farmers would feed the yardless apartment-dwellers, the denizens of shady yards, the infirm, and the incorrigibly lazy. The rest of us would make use of our yards to grow our own food–and become fitter and happier people for it.

  12. Great post.

    I love Anthony Bourdain AND Alice Waters because they are both such characters! He’s the gritty, drinkin’, smokin’ New York chef who eats things off of back-alley carts in Third World Countries, and Alice is the soft-spoken, hippie-dippy, organic California chef (I SWEAR she was stoned in an interview I heard once). Great caricatures of East Coast versus West Coast.

    And they’re both right. And they’re both wrong. And they’re both charming. And they’re both annoying. Wouldn’t you love to see them battling it out on Iron Chef America?

    Oh, and A.B. had a baby and quit smoking at 50? Wow, good for him! He’ll be flying out to California for homemade organic baby food cooking tips from Alice Waters any day now. Babies have the power to turn your world upside down, in a good way.

  13. I empathize with his comments, in that while I (severely) distrust megaFood, I also (severely) distrust the government telling me what to eat.

    But I don’t think there’s really a conflict.

    It would make more sense for the government to withdraw laws and policies which support big agriculture than to make new ones to specifically promote smallAg (local…whatever you want to call it)

    I mean, it wouldn’t, because you have farm lobbies, and economics, and we all know the feds would never willingly shrink, but there isn’t a *fundamental* conflict here.

  14. “Unlike Alice, I’d force the intelligentsia out into the fields.”

    Careful, girl. Wasn’t that Mao’s big idea?

    Garden Rant is such a great blog. I read it every day.

  15. Love Bourdain and I find Waters annoying, too, always have. I don’t know why. He went overboard of course; that’s what he does.

    But in my view that Child bio is NOT delightful. I found it tedious and in no way did it give me a sense of the woman I have so long admired. If you really want to appreciate Child, read the book dictated to her nephew, My Life in France. I am just finishing it now. Whatever she told me to do, I would do, and never find it annoying!

    Watron has long been a common term here. I think chefs invented it.

    Great post!

  16. The Khmer Rouge comparison is really really tasteless-I know someone whose whole family died at the hands of Pol Pot, and I think Bourdain’s word trivialize one of the most hideous events in history,

    I love my farmers’ market, and go pretty much year round, although in January there isn’t much there except kale (if you’re lucky). But the prices in summer are way higher than in the grocery store–$6.50 for a pint of nonfat yogurt, $5.00 for a dozen eggs, $2.50 a pound for tomatoes in August when they are dropping off the vines, so I tend to be pretty selective about what I buy, and I try to grow as much as possible. Certainly the White House could afford to have a lovely large organic vegetable garden to show us all the way, but it seems kind of meaningless grandstanding to me–yes folks, this is the way to eat, IF you have some land for a garden, or if you can afford the prices for the organic stuff around here. For most people, $5.00 for a dozen eggs is NOT a good thing, not even if the eggs come from happy hens.

  17. Anthony Who??

    Just kidding.
    Do I think all of Alice’s “eat locally” ideas are practical? No. At least not yet.

    But this I do know: she doesn’t need to trash other people in her profession to get her message out.

    Anthony’s ratings must be slipping…since he is using the “low ball” method for getting his name in the press.
    Khmer Rouge?? Give me a break. Genius?? Yeah, for getting his name to travel ’round the blogosphere for another 15 minutes.

  18. “Unlike Alice, I’d force the intelligentsia out into the fields.”

    Whoa, wasn’t that done in the cultural revolution?

  19. “I’m a little reluctant to admit that maybe Americans are too stupid to figure out that the food we’re eating is killing us.” Er, yes. Coming from someone who didn’t quit smoking until age 49 or 50. I am guessing he’s in a bit of denial of what our current American farming & food habits & smoking habits for that matter are doing to us & our huge health costs, federally and privately. Never seen his show or read him, so I can’t say for sure.

  20. Grow your own is not enough! You have to close the loop! Sustainability only exists in undisturbed ecosystems. Humans have yet to “create” a sustainable model. Undisturbed ecosystems are closed. They survive only on the resource pool that is there. You can tell a healthy one by the vast diversity of species and life, but not by the growth of any one species. Rapid growth only exists in imbalance, like cancer. If you want a sustainable way of living it has to close the resource loop. Yes, food must be 100% local. So must energy, water, and all the other basics of life. And everything, all the resources, must be returned to the local community to continue the cycle. This is where we broke the system. I’ve written more here and other places if you want to explore this further.

  21. I think Bourdain is very smart to recognize that people might admire Alice Waters and believe in what she stands for and still need the occasional meal from McDonald’s when they’re in between piano lessons and soccer practice. And they don’t want to be made to feel guilty about it.

  22. The key to establishing good nutrition is feeding children good meals in school as opposed to the junk food served in many. they key is also to have children ahve some sort of physical activity every day, something that has alos been lost today.

    Having traveled worldwide for 17 years to 21 countries I can relate to Bourdain and find his advice on avoiding normal tourist spots as the best way to learn about a country.

    As for putting a vegetable garden on the White House grounds, this is an idea that you should give up on. It may be a very chic and functional addition to a good restaurant, but it would be tacky to put one on the White House grounds.

    I can also think of nothing that would be more unsustanable than trying to feed the world on organic foods. It would increase costs, make food scarcer and add to hunger worldwide all to satisfy and eletist idea that modern agriculture and products are inferior to “organically” grown food. I also find it laughable that anyone believes there is any biological difference. Fresher, probably. A different strain that may taste better, maybe. A real dicernable difference, no.

    Burning food in your cars as ethanol and trying to force the use of “organic” (what other type of food is there?) reduce supply and raise cost. It is foolish to try and lump higher cost and lower yield food with the term sustainable; it is the exact opposite.

    Having traveled to many countries and seen people actually hungry and starving I appreciate the modern farming techniques and abundance of harvest we have in this country and recognize how, if implemented, could eleviate much hunger in the world.

    Sitting back with a full stomach and ruminating about how the world has too many people and how “organic” gardening should be substituted for modern farming is not very well thought through. Not at all.

  23. I find it frustrating to track down local food in my major metro area. The best advertised farmers market here sells an abundance of bejeweled dog collars, spectacles, and fancy soaps-with the only edible being jars of locally grown olives!

  24. Pitting one food celebrity against another may be titillating, but what Alice Waters thinks about food or what Anthony Bourdain thinks about food is trivial and a distraction compared with the national food policy set by our government-corporate alliance in Washington. It’s bad enough that corporations for more than a century have been doing everything they can to convince Americans that processed factory food is better and more convenient than real food. For just as long the policy of our federal government has been to promote those products around the world and subsidize them with U.S. tax dollars. That makes elected officials from mayors and state legislators on up to congressmen and the president cheerleaders and emissaries of a system that prizes a glut of corn and soybeans and actually discourages fresh fruits and vegetables. This is a $2 tillion-plus industry. Local foods barely register.

    I don’t think a White House kitchen garden is going to turn the tide.In fact, my fear would be that planting a garden to feed the Obamas would merely serve as a fig leaf for a go-along, get-along agriculture policy. We love Obama. But remember his roots are in Illinois and the agricultural heartland. Already he is poised to set aside billions in a stimulus package to rescue a corn ethanol industry that is on the skids since the bottom dropped out of oil. Obama should be eliminating subsidies and other supports for factory farming and throwing that support to healthy food instead. Does he have the stomach to do that? If not, I think you can expect the vast majority of American to continue feeding themselves with food that is the cheapest and most convenient. Maybe that will change when oil hits $300 a barrel.

  25. Ed, while I really do enjoy the war of personalities in the food world, I don’t disagree with you about the larger issues–Obama’s Ag Secretary pick does not suggest any radical alterations to the status quo are coming soon.

    That said, in my observation, politics moves more by anecdote than reason. In other words, we need some really bad stories…then things may change. The disgusting peanut factory, for example, that’s been poisoning people with salmonella will probably do a world of good.

    Anyway, there is not much you or I can do about inertia in Washington, except yell loudly–and try to start a revolution at the grassroots. Personally, I have decided to tell anybody who will listen to me how easy and rewarding it is to grown food at home.

  26. This argument seems to be taking place mainly among the produce gourmands, the food purists and the locavores who jump in their Saabs on Sunday mornings to scour the farmers market. Being none of those, Bourdain is merely pointing out the obvious–that most Americans aren’t listening. And I don’t think any moral suasion or nutrition nagging on our part is going to change their minds, even though I am engaged in precisely that on a daily basis.

    Which leads me to wonder if there isn’t a real disconnect inherent in the Obamas digging up part of the White House lawn to install a food garden if Dad isn’t willing to make radical changes in agricultural policy. As we now know, the White House chefs under the Bushes and the Clintons were growing food on the roof and routinely sourcing local organic produce to put on the president’s dinner table. They didn’t make a big deal out of it, because to do so would imply that there’s something wrong with the regular old ordinary food most Americans are buying at the supermarket. And that’s where I think a President Obama might run into trouble. He starts to look a little two-faced if, on the one hand, he’s feeding his own family food right of the garden but not pushing those same policies for the rest of the country. Remember, the last time the federal government urged citizens to plant their own food was during World War II. Is Obama ready to declare a food war? If so, he should have picked someone like Marion Nestle to be agriculture secretary, not Tom Vilsack.

  27. Food is like energy, only a few years behind. It needs its own Al Gore to help masses of people understand the inevitable–that if we keep feeding ourselves the way we’ve been feeding ourselves, we’ll not only kill ourselves, but destroy the soil and water we need to feed ourselves. I’m sorry–all those people in Saabs at least have the sense that there has to be a better way.

    I think there is much value in a Chief Executive who appears to enjoy good food! One of the best arguments for eating locally or growing your own is that the food just tastes better.

    But yes, we’ll have to see whether Obama is willing to make that statement–and possible anger the giant corporations that shovel crap onto American dinner tables and destroy our shared environment at the same time.

  28. So i agree completely with bourdain. I couldnt be more disgusted with what the american culture has done to food, and its consumption. and i would love nothing more then to see more Chez panisse pop up all over the country. But i just challenge someone to do the same thing in lansing michigan as alice does in southern california. Being in the heart of one of the most fertal areas in the world is nice i imagine, but come january in michigan, what kind of produce are you going to get delivered that is grown within 100 miles, let alone 500?

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