#4 Medium Raw
By Anthony Bourdain
There’s a chapter in celebrity chef/food critic Anthony Bourdain’s new book Medium Raw about his life-expanding and heartwarming experiences as a new father, and the book is dedicated to his new wife, who’s the subject of many an aria of besotted praise throughout the text – so readers familiar with Bourdain’s scorching prior works (especially the delightfully exasperated and infinitely quotable Kitchen Confidential) could be forgiven for thinking this latest book might be a more laid-back affair, more given to homespun yarns than blood-splattered feuding.
Those readers will be sorely disappointed by Medium Raw, but they’ll be the only ones. This book is a hoot from start to finish; celebrity foodies might not be nice people (celebrity foodies cannot, by definition, be nice people), but some of them sure do write snarky books. And the snarkiest of them all is Bourdain, who cultivates an aura of seer and scold. He has a sharp wit and a bottomless penchant for profanity (he’s so fond of one in particular that it’s surprising the book wasn’t called Medium Fuck), and any collegiate feeling he might have for fellow food-stars is limited to the people he actually likes. This has an absolutely marvelous benefit: fully half of Medium Raw is one celebrity attacking, mocking, and lampooning lots of other celebrities. If Brad Pitt wrote a book like that, I’d buy it.
The slash-and-hackery starts right away, with a playfully bouffant depiction of an icy boss he once acquired while working for the Food Network – a soulless corporate type that will be ruefully familiar to anybody who’s had an evil manager walk into their workspace:
Ms. Johnson was clearly not delighted to meet me or my partners. You could feel the air go out of the room the moment she entered. It became instantly a place without hope or humor. There was a limp handshake as cabin pressure changed, a black hole of fun – all light, all possibility of joy was sucked into the vortex of this hunched and scowling apparition. The indifference bordering on naked hostility was palpable.
And given how entertaining Bourdain can be, it’s an added attraction when he starts throwing his knives at a fellow writer. The most ballyhoo’d example of this is his long-standing clash with influential GQ food writer (and, pace Bourdain, first-rate prose stylist) Alan Richman. That clash is brought to life in all its tawdry glory in the chapter titled (spoiler alert!) “Alan Richman is a Douchebag,” and it’s the highlight of the book.
In fact, the only real shortcoming of Medium Raw is one it shares in common with all Bourdain’s other books: our author knows a great deal about food, a great deal about cooking, a great deal about writing vigorous prose, but next to nothing about himself. When he cites the attitude problems of famous food-celebrities, he cites them as though he were watching specimens in a petri dish, creatures with whom he himself could have nothing in common. A little of this can be charming, in a ‘boys will be boys’ kind of way. But page after page of it can put the reader in a decidedly ‘physician, heal thyself’ frame of mind. “I’m a romantic, I guess,” Bourdain says at one point – and you want to stab him with the nearest cooking utensil. Here’s a description he gives of one particularly decadent eating experience he had recently:
On 59th Street, at a fancy Italian joint and fortified with Negronis, you’re ready for a good meal – but you’re not ready for the little cicchetti that arrive unexpectedly at the table: little pillows of 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 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 briney-sweet. Beyond decency. You call the waiter over and ask for more.
To put it mildly, that isn’t a romantic speaking. Little pillows of sea urchin roe sitting atop tiny slices of toasted bread? That, ladies and gentlemen, is a cynic, as bad, bored, and monstrous a cynic as anybody this side of Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote. Bourdain writes often in this book about the simple joy he finds in eating good food, but that passage (and there are many like it) could only have been written by somebody who hasn’t experienced simple joy at a supper table in a long, long time.
But all interesting food-writers have their shortcomings (Elizabeth David’s passive-aggressive self-pity is far more annoying than anything in this book), and Bourdain is allowed his own. It’s a small price to pay, after all, for the treat that is Medium Raw.
Amanda Bragg Amanda Bragg is a florist living in Baton Rouge. She writes regularly for Open Letters.