Medium Raw

In 2010 Harper Collins published Anthony Bourdain’s 10th book. This July I read it in a few quick bites over about 48 hours. I long refused to return it to the library because just enough just-thoughtful-enough insights reside within its pages that I want to write them down. Which makes this neither a book report nor a book review. Book reviort?

If you don’t know who Anthony Bourdain is, then I will guess that you are new to food writing and ‘food porn’ (as the rise of visually and celebrity driven food shows, channels and products is very aptly called). Love him or hate him, Tony is unavoidable. He has incredible charisma, a lust for profanity and consistent failings of brain-to-mouth discipline that are genuine enough to rise above schtick. Regrettably he is too often reduced to sound-bites (search “Bourdainisms”), which might be why I prefer reading his essays. I’ve seen enough episodes of No Reservations to have a good sonic memory of his voice and his writing is edited to mimic his patter. Words on the page, writer to writer, is where Tony makes an impact on me.

And make an impact he does. I will not try to sell him as some incontrovertible muse of cuisine vérité, but a) life grows wisdom, period. And AB has had more life than I have. And b) I think Tony is pretty honest and pretty present. He is aware of when he is being an ignoramus. He doesn’t try to BS it away. He has honest remorse about it and he (apparently) gets on with his life. We should all be so real.

That said, I like his writings. I think I would like the man if I ever met him. And I consider several of the essays in this book worth mentioning. Medium Raw contains 21 essays. One is a prologue. One is an epilogue. Stylistically, there was no reason to separate them, but I did not package this book. You could down the whole thing poolside or beachside  in one day and still have time left over to luxuriously shower and dress for dinner. But Bourdain is infinitely snackable and, I think, more enjoyable that way. So nibble. Stretch out the experience and if for some reason you can’t eat the whole thing, I recommended the following flavors.

The best essay in the book, hands down, is #18 “My Aim is True” about Justo Thomas who cuts fish for Le Bernardin. Bourdain actually writes about people very well and there are many layers to this essay, effortlessly and seemingly unintentionally.

As a nascent butcher, I was pleased to see essay #9 “Meat”. I will promote anyone who brings issues about meat and meat production in this country to the light of day. To paraphrase the old bumper sticker, if you are not angry about meat, you are not paying attention. Read Bourdain’s thoughts. Get pissed. Go do something about it.

I have mentioned “So You Wanna Be a Chef” (#5) and “Lust”(#8) in other posts. If you’re in that deep you might as well read “I Drink Alone” (#4). But don’t give up without reading “It’s Not You, It’s Me.” Perhaps this only resonates with those of us lucky enough to have had so many of ‘those types’ of meals that we would disappointedly utter “Not local, organic, heritage breed, house-cured artisanally hand-built pate de campagne, again.” But Tony nails the mix of gratitude and chagrin one feels for desperately wanting a bowl of Chili flavored Top Ramen and a PBR when confronted with 12 courses of escargot, lobster reduction, osso bucco etc.

Finally, Tony’s custodial and admiring treatment of Fergus Henderson in the first vignette of “Heroes and Villains” (#13) and his observer’s look at David Chang in “The Fury” (#17) are both well worth your time.

My motivation in getting you to read these essays is the hope that some of the issues Tony raises (food costs, food safety, the marginalized folks who cook all this food for us) will spark your interest. His irreverent style illuminates real concerns about our foodstream. And if guys as cool as Tony can care, hey maybe you can care too.

Don’t forget, Medium Raw pairs well with just about anything. But sip cautiously. You will often be laughing so hard it may come out of your nose.

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