I loved this book, as I knew I would. Anthony Bourdain had a way with words just as he had a way with people and food, and the three of them together is one hell of a combo.
Tony went to incredible places and did incredible things (and drunk an incredible lot), and while it was hard to read in part knowing now what we know about his state of mind, but I sure am glad he wrote it. I love the vignettes around each different food experience as he travels the world in search of the perfect meal – which he finds everywhere and also never finds at all.
I also found it interesting when he went back to France to capture the spirit of what drove him into this deep infatuation with food, only to be disappointed at every turn. It’s the wrong time of year, it’s cold, everything goes wrong. It’s always like trying to chase what was once amazing – time and life tarnish it until it’s best we just live with our memories and not bother poking the sleeping bear. Reality is a bitch.
I loved his descriptions of not only the food and the landscape, but often the communities and families that made and shared the food. Everything so far removed from perhaps how we prepare and eat food here, nowadays. I love how culture is so often entwined and described with food.
My favourite trip of his (and probably his favourite trip, judging by comments he made in the book and since) was to Vietnam. His childlike wonder and pure, unadulterated joy at what he found in a small country that beat the bullies and kept their culture alive through true horror was a real moment for me.
It seemed he really struggled in Vietnam though, having nightmares and feeling extreme guilt for the brutality his country had once imposed. He even at one point described himself as “deranged” and claustrophobic in his hotel room. It’s a stark contrast to the exhilaration and happy delirium he experiences when wandering through the exotic, brightly-coloured market, eating and drinking his way from one end to another.
His descriptions are vivid, and coupled with his insightful personal analysis, it’s a fascinating read.
Of course, the scene that sticks out to me is the one that haunted him so very deeply.
I am almost inured to the near-starving Dondis, the legless, armless, scarred and desperate, sleeping in cyclos, on the ground by the riverbanks. I am not, however, prepared for the shirtless man with the pudding-bowl haircut who approaches me outside the market, his hand out.
He has been burned at some time in the past and is now a nearly unrecognizable man-shaped figure of uninterrupted scar tissue beneath the little crown of black hair. Every inch from the waist up (and who knows how far below) is scar tissue. He has no lips, no eyebrows, no nose. His ears are like putty, as if he’s been dipped and melted in a blast furnace, then yanked out just before dissolving completely. He moves his jack-o-lantern teeth, but no noise emanates from what used to be a mouth.
I feel gut-shot. My exuberant mood of the last few days and hours comes crashing down. I just stand there, blinking, the word napalm hanging inevitably over me, squeezing every beat out of my heart. Suddenly, this is not fun anymore. I’m ashamed. How could I come to this city, to this country, filled with enthusiasm for something so … so … meaningless as flavor, texture, cuisine? This man’s family has very possibly been vaporized, the man himself transformed into a ruined figurine like some Madame Tussaud’s exhibit, his skin dripping like molten wax. What am I doing here? Writing a fucking book? About food? Making a petty, useless, lighter-than-air television fucking show? The pendulum swings all the way over and I am suddenly filled with self-loathing. I hate myself and my whole purpose here. I blink through a cold sweat, paralyzed, certain that everyone on the street must be watching. Radiating discomfort and guilt, I’m sure that any casual observer must surely associate me and my country with this man’s injuries. I spy a few other Western tourists across the street in Banana Republic shorts and Land’s End polo shirts, comfortably shod in Weejuns and Birkenstocks, and I want suddenly and irrationally to kill them. They look evil, like carrion-eaters. The inscribed Zippo in my pocket burns, no longer amusing – suddenly about as funny as the shrunken head of a close friend. Everything I eat will taste like ashes now. Fuck writing books. Fuck making television.
He felt things so very deeply, and described them so very poetically that, ironically, he was perfect for writing books and making television about what he saw. But he struggled with it everywhere he went, and you could see it was a thread woven through all of the books and television shows he’d go on to make after this. It was clearly the impetus for all of the travels to come, and a book I will return to again and again.