Saturday, September 18, 2010

Bourdain Thoughts

Last night I was a guest of Poor Girl Kimberly to see Anthony Bourdain. I had told her earlier in the evening that I wasn't going to bother with a Bourdain post because I figured other food bloggers would get around to it, including her (which I'll link here). But then Bourdain started talking about some of his travels and food experiences and it made me reflect on my own. So this is not a post about his talk last night as much as the thoughts that came to mind as he was talking.

Bourdain first started talking about the dumbing down of the Food Network. This is something that I definitely agree with. Real chefs like Emeril have disappeared in favor of “let’s take some nobody home chef and turn them into a star”. Or the few real chefs that do remain (Florence and Flay) have been relegated to TV personality hosts because of their pretty boy looks. I say switch it up. But Florence and Flay back to teaching cooking and get the newly discovered home chef to host The Great Food Truck Race, etc.

It’s a shame that America and it’s fast food diet wants to cook like Sandra Lee. Shortcut cooking. It’s something that we even teach via Pampered Chef. Take packaged goods, like cake mix, and then doctor it up to make a different finished product. A favorite Pampered Chef saying, “Homemade no longer means made from scratch, it just means it was made in the home.” The thing is, real cooking of healthy, flavorful food can still take as few as five ingredients and 20 minutes. Wouldn’t it be better to teach basic cooking skills. Thank goodness there are a few shows such as Five Ingredient Fix.

Bourdain then continued by talking about his travels over the last ten years and his advice on traveling. It really boiled down to the same things my father taught me as I traveled the world growing up - stay out of tourist hotels, travel around by car, immerse yourself in the culture, be respectful of the culture and the people.

Example 1: Dress appropriately for the culture. I grew up in the Middle East and so I learned early that you covered your shoulders and to below the knees. In Arabia there were times when a Western woman’s legs would be spray painted if she they were not properly covered. Now some anti-Islamic ignoramus out there would say some idiotic thing about this. But the fact is, it’s their country, respect their culture! Even here in America, if you enter a Jewish synagogue, you should be respectful of your attire there as well. And don’t think it’s limited to Jews or Muslims. In some Catholic countries you are being disrespectful wearing hot pants and tank tops when entering a cathedral. Actually, I really believe it gets down to an underlying social problem in America - the “it’s all about me” selfish attitude of people. Stop thinking about yourself and start thinking about the bigger, global community.

Example 2 is what Bourdain called “take one for the team”. This story is about my Filipina mother. As any No Reservations viewer knows, Filipinos eat fertilized duck eggs called Balut. That means there is an embryonic chick partially formed in the duck egg when it is boiled and then eaten. It’s considered an aphrodisiac. My dad says that grandfather’s house in Manila was near a brothel and at night the balut sellers would start selling their wares out on the street. What you might not know is that there is an even worse form of balut, where it’s actually left to get a little rotten (or you could say fermented if you prefer) for a few days. Anyway, this isn’t about balut so much as it is about my Filipino mom being used to eating all sorts of weird foods. Filipinos eat a lot of blood too. And during World War II my mom even had to eat insects to survive. Suffice it to say, my dad would say that my mom would eat anything.

My parents were invited to some Arabian dinner. At these events for Westerners they would sometimes allow the Western wives to eat with the men. These Arab feasts always include a roasted whole goat served atop a platter of rice. The eyeball is the delicacy that is reserved for the guest of honor. On this night my dad was offered the eyeball. He deflected the honor by saying mom would eat it in his place, since she would eat anything. Mom took it for the team. Go, mom!

At an early age I was faced with the culinary courtesy of trying what was offered. It was the early 70’s and I was probably about 7 or 8 at the time. We had gone on a campout with other Americans in the middle of the Arabian dessert in search of Qasuma diamonds. These were polished quartz stones that looked like poor man’s diamonds. My dad took my brother and I out in the car and we went off on our own one day and came across some Bedouin camel herders out in the middle of nowhere. All Arabs are very hospitable, especially the Bedouin. After all, if you travel across barrenness for days without crossing another human being, when you do you want to converse and share food and drink. We were invited to share coffee with them even though my dad doesn’t drink coffee. They didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Arabic. Being small children, one of the men ran out to a camel and milked it for us. We, of course, had no interest in drinking fresh camel’s milk. But dad made it clear that we had to at least fake it  - and so we did.

After Bourdain finished his entertaining talk, he opened it up to Q&A. I was amazed at the groupies. After all, Bourdain admits himself that he’s not an exceptional, star chef. He became famous for his book, Kitchen Confidential, that exposed restaurant secrets. A world of opportunity opened up to him, aided by the fact that he has a fun, snaky, tell-it-like-it-is attitude. So to see people just gushing like silly schoolgirls just amazed me. And the fact that some people hit the mic just to say silly stuff to him for the sake of being able to say they talked to him…   To each his own. I’m sure I looked just as silly when I met Russell Crowe this year. Michelle and I admit that we were jumping up and down squealing like schoolgirls after we got our picture with him. (And in Michelle’s case, she wasn’t even a Crowe fan.)

As I said, this post wasn’t so much about Bourdain as it was about the thoughts and memories he triggered for me while I listened. In the end it was an entertaining evening that only reminded me that I have to give thanks to my dad. It’s daddy that made us travel by rental cars through countries and stay at the cheapest hotels and B&B’s. (Keep in mind that B&B’s in other countries are just spare rooms in a person’s farmhouse and not luxury accomodations like they are here.) Yes, we saw the typical tourist attractions of cathedrals and castles, but we also went off the beaten path as much as possible. It’s because of this type of travel that my interest is in down and dirty travel where I am immersed in a culture as much as possible.

Bourdain has the dream job. Thanks to daddy, I have the same appreciation for travel and food.


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