Sunday, October 30, 2011

Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain (review)

Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook by Anthony Bourdain is one of those books that has the rare quality of being hilarious, intelligent, and decadent all in one sitting.

I picked up Medium Raw at the Atlanta airport after some hideous adjustments to my travel schedule.  I was tired, had dined poorly that day, and needed a laugh.
Bourdain’s snarky wit came to the rescue. 
Funny thing though, I never really liked his show.  He was forever going off to places I would never go, eating things that were made of goodness knows what, and describing taste experiences I could never have.
This, of course, is the allure of his show.  I just never got into it.  Though to be fair, I always like his “bad boy” personality better than any of the glossy Food Network stars.
Medium Raw continues Bourdain’s flair for gripe, pointed criticism, and wicked humor that started in Kitchen Confidential.  This is actually the first time I’ve read Bourdain’s work, so I cannot comment on how his work has evolved, only to guess that his TV show, second marriage, and daughter have mellowed out this former drug addict a touch.
Bourdain’s style of writing is like gumbo – it’s spicy and meaty. It comes from rustic origins but it’s been polished over time.  There’s a little something for everyone.

There’s many favorable points for this book, humor being the biggest selling point.  I audibly cracked up several times over Bourdain’s adventures.
But the thing I love the most is Bourdain’s astute acknowledgement of the economics of food.
This is a man who knows and freely admits he has eaten some of the most incredible food offerings in the world – which come with a price tag most of us would gag at and food waste that is appalling.
He is keenly aware that the average Joe and Jane are just trying to get food into their kids’ bellies, not serve up a gourmet delight. That access to better food is hindered by dollar signs. That the state of mass farms and the meat industry are a serious problem. That the allure of food porn splashed on air and magazine covers is likely contributing to our complicated relationship with food.
Bourdain’s outsider perspective and working class roots honors the typical American and their routine experiences with food.  This is not a guy who grew up with steak tartar and vichyssoise, even though he offers enthusiastic descriptions of food I will never afford to look at.
Highlights of the book:
Virtue (Chapter 6) – in which Bourdain champions for basic cooking skills to be taught in schools to everyone.
Lust (Chapter 8) – short vignettes of Bourdain’s most heavenly food experiences.  I have never had pho before (a Vietnamese soup) but he had my mouth salivating.  His description of pain raisins and butter in Paris is particularly intoxicating.
Meat (Chapter 9) – a defense of our American right to eat beef untreated with ammonia and a call for better practices in the meat industry
Lower Education (Chapter 10) – a devilish ploy to shield his daughter from the evils of McDonald’s marketing and food
Swearing – This point actually endears Bourdain to me, but if you can’t handle a George Carlin-style voice punctuated with every swear word imaginable, you will be offended.  However, if you take pride in your colorful vocabulary, then reading Bourdain is like sitting in the bar next to your favorite drinking buddy. 

Writing Style - Amongst the salty language are lush descriptions of food, people, and places.  The book is infused with exotic passages, colorful imagery, and sharp intelligence.  Mix that with his deep cynicism and you find yourself needing a reprieve from the book at times.  You may need to take a little time to digest in between some chapters and recover from sensory overload.  

Chapters 12-18 – In which Bourdain runs attacks and praises on various food celebrities.  The problem here is that one’s interest wanes considerably if you don’t know who Alice Waters or David Chang is.  This section is clearly targeted at “the people who cook” portion of the title than those of us everyday foodies.

The Final Word
This was an excellent buy.  I purchased Medium Raw from $17.11 (with tax), which is much more than I would normally pay for a paperback.  However, the entertainment value was markedly high and the book saved me amongst dismal travel conditions. 

Its price has also been slashed by the amount of people I've loaned the book to.  Mike snatched it from my hands before I was even done with it. The book was then sent to my mother-in-law, who is a female version of Bourdain.  And she has instructions to turn over the book to my brother-in-law when she's finished.

I believe in setting a good book free for others to enjoy :)

What are you reading?

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