It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Anthony Bourdain, so it’ll come as no surprise that I’ve very much enjoyed reading his latest book, Medium Raw. In reading through my review of The Nasty Bits in 2008, I realize that a lot of what I could say about this book will sound the same. He’s older, wiser, still snarky, still humble. But this is the better work, and I’ll do my best to tell you why I loved it so.
Each chapter in Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook is essentially a standalone essay. There are opinion pieces about David Chang and Alice Waters. He does a nice write-up on The Food Network and selling out (it’s probably not what you think - not exactly anyway). And don’t forget, he’s not just a personality with a trademark talent for clever and sometimes disturbingly descriptive put-downs. He’s an excellent writer. Some of his food-porn narratives were enough to make me want to cry, knowing as I do that I’ll never be brave enough to get deep into a foreign country’s way of life to experience it and its food the way he has …. and he acknowledges his cruelty.
Bourdain writes more completely about the bad old days of heroin addiction and financial instability than he has before (at least to my knowledge). This knowledge is interspersed with his life as it is now, which is inarguably fantastic. He loves his career, his wife, his little girl and while there may be some small measure of shame or regret over certain bad decisions he’s made in the past, he acknowledges that those mistakes led him to where he is now and he wouldn’t change them.
One of the things I’ve loved about Bourdain over the time I’ve been paying attention to him is that while he’s caustic and inflammatory, he also is willing to change his mind and admit he’s made a mistake. I was entertained and educated with Kitchen Confidential. I’ll go so far as to profess admiration after Medium Raw. He was (very) anti-Emeril in Kitchen Confidential. He’s since gotten to know him and though he may not like Emeril’s television schtik, he respects the responsibilities that he shoulders as the head of an empire. He waxes poetic about the ways that Alice Waters irks him, yet he concedes that the world she envisions would likely not look too different from the world he’d want to live in. There’s a give-and-take in his writing that I’m not used to seeing, and to me, it makes his attitudes seem more real. This is not just the “bad boy chef” spouting anger.
I don’t remember the exact phrasing (and now I’m having trouble finding it), but at one point in talking about food writing, Bourdain wonders how often writers will eat pork belly and describe it as unctuous. It got me thinking. How often are we going to read Bourdain books (or watch No Reservations, or any of his TV appearances) and describe him as irreverent? Of course, he’s irreverent. He likes to say “fuck” and he compares the way he feels about Hanoi-style pho to the joys of doing it doggie-style.
But at times, his prose is elegant and vivid and borders on poetry for the culinarily-inclined.
“Six o'clock in the morning is when the pains raisins come out, and already the customers are lining up in the dark outside this tiny Parisian boulangerie waiting for the first batch. The baguettes are ready - piping-hot from the brick oven, fabulously, deliberately ugly and uneven in shape, slashed crudely across the top. They’re too hot to eat but you grab one anyway, tearing it open gingerly, then dropping two fingers full of butter inside. It instantly melts into liquid - running into the grooves and inner spaces of the white interior. You grab it like a sandwich and bite, teeth making a cracking sound as you crunch through the crust. You haven’t eaten since yesterday lunch, your palate is asleep and just not ready for so much sensation. The reaction is violent. It hurts. Butter floods your head and you think for a second you’re going to black out.”
No, I think often he is decidedly reverent. There’s a chapter devoted to the fish-cutter, Justo, at Le Bernardin, and it’s (strangely) one of my favorite in the book. Justo does this one job, and he does it perfectly. Each day in the space of a few hours, he breaks down hundreds of pounds of fish to Le Bernardin’s exacting standards. Tony watches il maestro at work. Justo’s technique is refined to minimize movement and keep the fish in proper shape for service. The kitchen staff clearly have nothing but the utmost respect, and by the end, so does Bourdain and it comes through loud and clear in his writing. This may be my somewhat latent femininity peeking through, but the way he writes about his daughter smacks of absolute devotion and is incredibly sweet. He writes of good food and good chefs and certain foreign countries with what I would call a fan-boy’s admiration.
Medium Raw has a cumulative feel to it. It looks back on the anger of Kitchen Confidential, working in kitchens, the heroin addiction, the relationships, his personal ups and downs, and puts them in their place. He’s happy to be were he is, and he knows how to find a good meal, and as always, with characteristic humility he acknowledges how lucky he is.
Don’t fret though; I don’t think he’s gone soft. There are still some pretty grade-A rants throughout the text.
“The eye-searing ‘Kwanzaa Cake’ clip on YouTube, of Sandra Lee doing things with store-bough angel food cake, canned frosting, and corn nuts, instead of being simply the unintentionally hilarious viral video it should be, makes me mad for all humanity. I. Just. Can’t. Help it.
"I wish, really, that I was so far up my own ass that I could somehow believe myself to be some kind of standard-bearer for good eating - or ombudsman, or even the deliverer of thoughtful critique. But that wouldn’t be true, would it?
"I’m just a cranky old fuck with what, I guess, could charitably be called 'issues.’
"And I’m still angry.”