He was a better writer and television producer than he had ever been a cook.
Editor’s Note: Each week, Michael Brendan Dougherty writes an âOff the Shelfâ column sharing informal observations about the books he reads and the scene that passes.
THELast Friday I was in a Dunkin ‘Donuts in New Haven and almost yelled “F *** you, Tony” on the TV. It was a segment on the suicide of Anthony Bourdain. I had a debate on Facebook about whether it was useful to show anger at public suicides. I have no idea. I know I’m starting to hate the rush to institute new taboos about what to say, what to believe, and what to think about suicide. As if we all need to be broadly informed by the most authoritative longitudinal social studies before reacting to them. Is the idea that depression can be described by chemical and hormonal abnormalities supposed to give us any comfort? I do not think so. Rushing to quote them sounds like silencing people.
I just know suicide is a bad thing. Bourdain seems to have believed it too. He thought about it once. âThere have been times, honestly, in my life, where I’ve been like, ‘I’ve had a good run – why don’t you just do this stupid thing, this selfish thing. . . jump off a cliff into water of indeterminate depth, âhe once said.
And that’s how he did it. Bourdain arranged things so that in all likelihood a hotel employee or his close friend, Eric Ripert, found his lifeless body. Regardless of the emotional or chemical origins of the suicidal urge he experienced, his teenage daughter, coworkers, friends, and other loved ones will wonder why they were not reason enough to continue living.
In a much more diminished way, his fans feel the same way. A friend contacted me to ask me how I felt that day knowing that I was a fan. I had written a little over a year ago about how Bourdain seemed to have found something like spiritual enlightenment, given the beloved father tone of his cookbook, appetites. I have been cooking Bourdain recipes for years now. His roast chicken and coq au vin in particular. My wife booked my 30th birthday at Les Halles, the French restaurant on Park Avenue that he made even more famous. I wasn’t an obsessive, but I really admired him.
My friend was a fan too. He had watched the last episode of the Bourdain show the day before, and he had his girlfriend order Chinese food because of it. Bourdain was a bit of a hero to my friend, a guy who seemed to have risen above a poorly spent youth, got rid of drugs, and learned to overcome his cynicism to find real pleasure in beauty. and the abundance of the world as it is. Hundreds of thousands of men might turn to Bourdain for reasons like this.
So I don’t think I can bring myself to watch Bourdain’s shows for a while. It’s still too raw. But, in a week where my work and some chores at home interfered with my normal reading, I looked at his books.
Bourdain had a special talent for writing about what was illegal. Drugs, sex, getting drunk on purpose. And even illicit food. In the chapter of Raw Medium, his second book on culinary celebrity, he describes an event that can only arouse envy. He was gathered with a few handfuls of elite people in the know for an important after-hours meal. Why the whole secret? Because this meal is illegal in Europe and America. It was the French songbird, the ortolan. Bourdain writes:
Throughout the story, birds are trapped in nets, then blinded by gutted eyes – to manipulate the feeding cycle. I have no doubt that at various times in history this has been true. With labor laws being what they are in Europe these days, it is apparently no longer profitable to use eye pliers. A simple blanket or towel draped over the cage has long replaced this cruel means of tricking the ortolan into continually gorging on figs, millet and oats.
When the birds are properly plumped – with a desirable layer of thick fat – they are killed, plucked and roasted. It is claimed that the birds are literally drowned in Armagnac – but this is not the case either. A simple puff of the material is enough for the now morbidly obese ortolan to fall to the ground.
The flames of the casseroles go out and the ortolans are distributed, one to each guest. Everyone at this table knows what to do and how to do it. We wait for the sizzling flesh and fat in front of us to calm down a bit. We exchange looks and smiles, then, simultaneously, we place our towels over our heads, hiding our faces from God, and with burning fingertips, carefully lift our birds by their burning skulls, placing them feet forward. in our mouths – only their protruding heads and beaks.
In truth, Bourdain was a better writer and television producer than he ever was a cook. It is because his life as a cook gave him a subject that had become the obsession of upwardly mobile scholars. His cookbooks and memoirs are all a lot of fun. Although I don’t know what to make of the culture changes he led to success.
At some point in my life, every person in the world started to describe themselves as a âfoodieâ or, equally boring, a âfood personâ. I don’t know where it started. I suspect this has something to do with the generally unmentionable fact that our civilization is quickly collapsing. In any case, this name has no particular meaning. Certain foods that people love to cook. Some like to go to restaurants. Some do both. But don’t all humans eat? I don’t think enough people went on a Soylent diet to qualify Luddite Eaters of Meat, Bread, Cheese, and Veg as a separate and distinct class.
I suspect that at the end of the day, a “food person” differs from the rest of us only by having a bunch of crazy opinions to share about food, having quit have interesting opinions or hobbies.
Would my stepfather be considered a “food person?” Her professional life was spent sweating in a chemical factory. He does not tell improvised monologues about the restaurants in the neighborhood. He’s not very picky about his beer. But there are a handful of special occasions during the year that he takes over in the kitchen. It is not quite in the recipes. For him, a good meal usually consists of excellent ingredients processed with the right amount of drying in the refrigerator and heated on the grill or stove. He drives out of town to a certain Polish butcher for good sausages. He cooks chili during the football season, a dish that dates back to his days as a volunteer firefighter. At other times, it was a skirt steak, a cut he praised me when other people were still ditching the filet mignon for the rib eye. In all these subjects, he is, as a chemical engineer should be, a demanding director. He would never call himself a âfood personâ. He’s just a man. A man who this weekend will inflict exactly the right amount of heat and salt on the surf and turf that has become our annual Father’s Day.
I suspect that at the end of the day, a “food person” is distinguished from the rest of us only by having a bunch of crazy opinions to share about food, having stopped having feelings. opinions or interesting hobbies.
Father’s Day is always a good event. My brothers-in-law bring beers to drink. For some time now, I have been joining my wife’s family. The day begins with clams, usually enjoyed on the deck. My wife’s cousins ââapply their new favorite hot sauces to it. My brother-in-law passes me an IPA called “Sip of Sunshine”. The flank steaks are then barely grilled. And a giant pot is prepared for the lobsters, while my relatives gather their various utensils to break their shells and remove the good stuff from their legs. As various cousins ââand in-laws walk into the house to rest from the sun, then outside, they report on the depredations from that day’s Mets game. By late afternoon, the cigars start to come out and most of the women in the house clean the inside. One of my sisters-in-law is pregnant, so we’re going to induct a new man into the growing group of fathers in attendance. My wife is making dessert while I type this.
Last week I worked on prepositional sentences in my study of Irish. But just for a mental break I drifted to english. Apple Music maintains a few lists of French pop music. And I recently rented and watched the two-part movie about famous bank robber and murderer Jacques Mesrine. This gangster is magnetically portrayed by Vincent Cassel, who most Americans know as the European foil of 12 from the ocean. Mesrine became infamous for escaping from high security prisons in both Quebec and France. It presented itself in the press as a sort of affliction that a perverted legal and economic system deserved. He was tortured in prison, so he got away with it. And not only did he escape, but he also organized an attempt to raid the prison and allow a larger escape later. His bank robberies, he excused a thief stealing a bigger one. The films are patchy, although Cassel shines. And something about them cheered me up. Mesrine was a mean man. But he was also “tall” in his own way. A great villain of civic life, and so typically French in his wickedness. It comforted me to know that postwar France could produce any greatness. There is hope for all of us, isn’t there?