HOW did the daughter of the Queen of Mold, a woman who inadvertently poisoned the guests at her son’s engagement party because she wouldn’t throw out rotten food, grow up to be editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine? What is Anthony Bourdain’s beef with fellow food critic Alan Richman that he would publicly diss him as “a douchebag”? And what are the ten commandments for diners, according to Richman?
Now that’s just for appetizers. Wait till you get to the main entrees: those deliciously wicked stories that make Reichl’s memoirs, “Tender at the Bone” and “Comfort Me With Apples” irresistible, Bourdain’s “Medium Raw” a recipe for revenge, and Richman’s “Fork It Over” an intellectual foray into gluttony.
“Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table” traces Reichl’s often hilarious journey into discovering food as “a way of making sense of the world.” It recalls a fractured childhood dominated by a manic mother and a loving but meek father, a politically correct commune in Berkeley in the ’70s when she had to stretch one organic chicken to feed a rapidly growing household of 12, and her serendipitous encounters with people who would point her to a career as a food reviewer in New York, where she had to dine out in disguise to avoid special treatment from fawning restaurateurs.
The book, she writes, is in the family tradition of storytelling: “Everything is true but they may not be entirely factual…I learned early that the most important thing in life is a good story.”
Indeed, “Tender” is an entertaining collection of stories that revolve around food and people who love food. The descriptions of dishes from another time – their taste, aroma and textures –are so heady it takes a lot of self-control to avoid licking the pages. And just to make sure the experience stays with the reader, Reichl shares some recipes as well, making the book a savory treat all around.
Its sequel, “Comfort Me With Apples: More Adventures at the Table” recounts Reichl’s rollercoaster life as a restaurant critic, including her momentous meeting with the iconic Alice Waters of Chez Panisse who is often described as the Mother of the Slow Food Movement, and her gustatory tours in France, Los Angeles and China, where the strange dishes included unfried pig skin woven into imitation bird’s nest and an armadillo that tasted like chicken (except, she was to learn later, there are no armadillos in China). But the levity of traveling through life on one’s full stomach is balanced judiciously by other stories that tell of Reichl’s deteriorating first marriage, the incredible burden of secret love affairs, and the grief of losing a child in the thicket of complicated adoption rules.
While Reichl’s books occasioned bouts of giggles and a contemplative moment or two, Bourdain’s “Medium Raw” is pure guilty pleasure. Nothing is sacred; no one is above being cut by his sharp tongue, and everything is served with a dash of acidic wit liberally sprinkled with malice.
But how can you fault a guy who’s so damnably honest he doesn’t spare even himself the expletives? He admits to being compromised by his friendship with other chefs, relationships that would prevent his being “a trustworthy reviewer.” Why, he gets a lot of complimentary meals, he confesses. And so, he writes, “If I were to walk into one of Mario Batali’s places and see something unspeakable going on in the kitchen – animal sacrifice or satanic rituals or something unhygienic or deeply disturbing, I’d never write about it.”
Bourdain, who first rose to notoriety (and the bestseller list) via his vicious tell-all book, “Kitchen Confidential,” on the seamy side of the restaurant business, describes himself as “a loud, egotistical, one-note asshole who’s been cruising on the reputation of one obnoxious, over-testosteroned book for way too long…”
Whoa, if he can demolish himself so effortlessly, you think, how would he thrash the other guys? And there are plenty on his hate list, as Bourdain seems to have made a fetish of burning bridges, fearlessly classifying in print those whom he considers as heroes and villains in this food/chef pantheon. Gael Greene? Villain. Jamie Oliver? Hero. Brooke Johnson (who put all those lucrative reality chef shows on the Food Network): villain. Wylie Dufresne: hero. Alain Ducasse: villain. The James Beard House: villain. Mario Batali, Eric Ripert, Jose Andres: heroes. Alan Richman? Douchebag. And Bourdain has a whole chapter explaining why.
But for all the heckling, the guy can make perfect sense, especially when he recounts his war stories as a coke addict (a cautionary tale if ever there was one), and when he passionately argues that cooking must be regarded as a necessary and indispensable survival skill for both sexes that should be taught in school.
If there’s one thing that gets Bourdain instant absolution for all the abuse he heaps on his frenemies, it is his lyrical prose. Yes, he writes so rabidly of people he loves to hate, but there’s no mistaking that he can also use words to caress what matters most to him: really good food. He describes such writing as food porn, something he can’t have enough of. Here’s a sampling (from the chapter “Lust”) :
“What is not debatable is that a perfect bowl of Hanoi pho is a balanced meeting of savory, sweet, sour, spicy, salty and even umami – a gentle commingling of textures as well: soft and giving, wet and slippery, slightly chewy, momentarily resistant but ultimately near-diaphanous, light and heavy, leafy and limp, crunchy and tender. There – and not there at all.”
Describing the roast goose in Mongkok, Hong Kong, he writes: “…the place looks like any other. But you sink your teeth into the quickly hacked pieces and you know you’re experiencing something special. Layers of what can only be described as enlightenment, one extraordinary sensation after another as the popils of the tongue encounter first the crispy, caramelized skin, then air, then fat—the juicy, sweet yet savory, ever so slightly gamey meat, the fat just barely managing to retain its corporeal form before quickly dematerializing into liquid…”
He’s just as ecstatic over sea urchin roe “sitting atop tiny slices of toasted bread. Wonderful enough, one would think, but the chef has done something that goes beyond mischievous, possibly into the realm of the unholy: melting onto each plump orange egg-sac is a gossamer-thin shaving of ‘lardo,’ the lightly cured and herbed pork fat made in the marble caverns in the mountains of Tuscany, slowly curling around its prey, soon to dissolve. You hurry to put it in your mouth, knowing it’s surely a sin against God – and are all the happier for it. It’s too much. Way too much. Beyond rich… beyond briny-sweet. Beyond decency. You call the waiter over and ask for more.”
In contrast, Richman’s “Fork It Over: The Intrepid Adventures of a Professional Eater” comes across as too academic, the prose much like over-kneaded dough that gets heavy and rubbery. He can be witty and funny (as in “Ten Commandments for Diners”), but biting through his oeuvre is like chewing a particularly tough tripe – your jaw hurts after a while but the meat stays as implacable as ever.
The contributing writer for GQ waxes nostalgic recalling his comfort food from childhood (“A Mother’s Knishes”) and his mother’s deathbed wishes, is particularly clever when he dines incognito at Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam restaurant, and endearingly remorseless in “My Beef with Vegans.”
In all, “Fork It Over” is a mixed stew of fibrous mystery meat, some tender dumplings stuffed with savory filling, a rather bland broth and a few tired greens. Not particularly gourmet, but to a hungry diner, still a filling option. •