Some Reservations

by Sara Gran
Waffles and Chicken from Roscoe's on Pico Boul...

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I’ve always both loved and hated Anthony Bourdain’s work–his books about food and travel and his TV show (I’ve heard good things about his crime novels, but I haven’t read them). Love: goes to interesting places, eats at places I would actually eat, talks to people who aren’t exclusively ex-pats, good writer, tells the truth as he perceives it (although we certainly differ in that perception more often than not), has wonderful writers like Nick Tosches, Jerry Stahl, and Daniel Woodrell on his show. Love less: the anti-vegetarian schtick (meat is a luxury for most people on the planet, not an everyday commodity!), the fact that he seems only vaguely aware that women, you know, also write books and do stuff, seems entirely unaware that people of African descent live in our nation (never heard of chicken & waffles before Jerry Stahl took him to LA’s Roscoe’s?!?! And has he EVER been to an African American neighborhood in the US?). Most of all on the “love less” list is the fact that, until fairly recently, Bourdain was pretty heavily promoting a kind of pre-packaged consumerist rebellion that I really do not like. If you like cigarettes and leather jackets and a nasty attitude and lots of steak, I don’t object to that–I wholeheartedly support everyone liking exactly what they like. But if you’re going to try to sell that stance off as somehow opposed to the status quo, I’m not buying it. Killing yourself, the planet, and other creatures so that mega-corporations can get even more of your money is not a rebellion! Neither is accepting an old and worn path of “revolution” that never seems to go anywhere except the same old boring circles of blame and slides right into the useless slot assigned such “rebels” by society. In my opinion, loving yourself, staying healthy, making your own choices about how to live, and most of all, realizing that you are a divinely empowered being is the only revolution that counts. But over the years Bourdain seems to have dropped some of the “rebellion” and appears to have been humbled by his travels, and I’ve come to like him more and more.

His new season of “No Reservations,” though, is so far like a deconstructed, depressed, melt-down of a travel show. So far he’s been to Nicaragua, Cambodia, and Haiti, some of the poorest countries in the world, where he’s eaten at refugee camps, closed restaurants, and terrible-looking roadside stands. In Nicaragua he visited a garbage dump where people live and, clearly devastated, was filmed getting drunk and depressed in a bar that night. At the garbage dump he kept saying things like “I don’t want to sound like Sally Struthers, but…” or “This isn’t Save the Children, but…,” as if he didn’t have words for compassion without cynicism. Later he examined–and found lacking–his own understanding of leftist politics. In Cambodia, he admitted (in so many words) that he’d gone with the entirely wrong approach on previous visits, and far from offering some kind of pithy summary at the end he confessed that no summary was possible: it was wrong to try to figure Cambodia out or distill it to its essence–the central cliché of travel television. It’s like he’s taken the idea of a travel show and inverted it into some kind of anti-show; a kind of statement on economics and power and television and, maybe most of all, on one man who seems (and I know TV lies) truly stunned by what he’s seen over the years–and perhaps wounded in the best possible way.

I have a strange feeling this will be his last season, so enjoy it while you can.

13 Responses to “Some Reservations”

  1. Oh, boy, Sara, this so captures so many of my complicated Bourdain feelings (there always feels something deeply classist in it; while he savors the homestyle traditions of a century ago, cooking the way struggling families had to do make do, he’s so snobby about some of the ways contemporary struggling families have to make do–with, alas, more processed foods and no farmers’ markets at their disposal as he has).
    Truthfully, one of the things I always loved about the show is how it’s always sorta built around the notion about how wrong he turns out to be about everything, and how he doesn’t mind showing it. But I just saw the Cambodia redux episode this week and WOW, a deconstruction of a past deconstruction somehow. It was so neat to see him viewing his younger self’s arrogance and misplaced brio, and also viewing his past comeuppance, and still feeling he hadn’t gotten it right then.
    One thing I have always loved about him is the great respect he has for old things, lost traditions, fading worlds. Sara, we’ve talked a lot about that Disappearing NYC episode and I am so charmed when he visits Le Veu D’Or, an ancient French restaurant, and he is just enraptured by the whole slightly shabby ceremony of it. So so delightful.
    what a great post!

  2. I saw and have enjoyed all of these episodes. My favorite so far is Nicaragua; the stuf about the generations of families (including children) who scavenge garbage dumps, juxtaposed against Bordain’s acknowledged gluttony, was well done and heartbreaking.

    • yes, Jason! I need to see that one. Given his involvement in the show (he’s not just the host, after all), that self-scrutiny is impressive. I wish Michael Moore were so self reflective!

      • Those people who live in garbage dumps are one of the most disturbing things I know of. They’re all over the world, as I’m sure we all know. Yeah, I agree the self-scruitiny is impressive and a saving grace. I have come to really dislike Michael Moore over the years, and now the you put into words I see that part of the reason is his complete lack of self-examination.

  3. I have no idea who this dude is, but I’m intrigued now. Sounds like a jackass if an interesting jackass. What channel is this show on?

    Also I’m a white kid from new york and even I know fucking Roscoes is tourist schtick. Soul food in freakin West Hollywood?? No sir. The branch I’ve been to was in (i think) Long Beach or somewhere, and even there it was all about the t-shirt, buncha nonsense.

    • He’s on the travel channel. But he has really cool, interesting stuff on the show too, Nathan–that’s why it’s so shocking that he, for example, doesn’t seem to know about soul food. In Vietnam he’ll stop by some amazing little roadside stand run out of someone’s house that the cab driver knows about and get a great meal for 12 cents and talk to the people like, you know, actual human being and not like quaint tourist attractions. But then in the USA he goes to, say, Roscoe’s (which I don’t know anything about but take your word on).

      • It sounds like a cool show! Funny he doesn’t know his own local cuisine but the chicken and waffle thing is a bit obscure, sort of like a sub-genre of soul food…

        Couldn’t help myself I did some chicken n waffle research, this from some culinary website:

        “According to Michael Henry Adams, an author and historian, the pairing of chicken as we know it — fried, smothered, stewed, hashed, whatever — with waffles is Southern in origin but was not limited to the South or to blacks after the late 19th century. During the flapper era, he told me, wealthy whites in New York and Newport, R.I., featured black entertainers and food such as chicken and waffles at some of their soirees.

        And while blacks of all classes ate fried chicken, it was a Sunday or special-occasion treat for the less well-off. After a night on the town, he said, people — particularly whites who could afford chicken and waffles any day of the week — were attracted as much by the cachet as by the cuisine. Adams said he would not be surprised if he learned that other hot spots, like the Cotton Club and Small’s Paradise, also served chicken and waffles.”

  4. Chicken and waffles were really popular in roadside “tea rooms” in the 1920s too (all over–New England, upstate NY), so it seems like there’s several genealogies for it!

  5. Thanks for the bird/waffle history, Megan and Nathan! I wonder how the dish came to be so strongly associated with the soul food of the deep south if it spread so widely?

    • I’m sure we could dig into it and find out more. It is interesting.

      And then there are some foods that kind of cycle around, like Red Velvet Cake! Ok this is a Soul Food staple, you find it at all proper Soul Food places no matter how dumpy….but it was supposedly invented at the Waldorf (though this is in dispute) when the chef “dropped” a bunch of red food coloring into a chocolate cake batter (other stories have it coming from the fancy Canadian dept. store Eatons in the 40s)…then it must’ve gotten really popular in the South, esp amongst African Americans, who pretty much held on to it until these last like 10 years as we’ve seen it come into fashion in a huge huge way. I had the misfortune of having to go to the Magnolia Bakery (see SEX IN THE CITY ugh) yesterday and Red Velvet Cupcakes were like $4 a pop. Ben and Jerry’s have a Red Velvet Cake ice cream they just introduced.

      My Grandma used to make it, and my dad always has it for his birthday (these were Swedish-American people from deep in the Pacific Northwest) so I knew about it from a young age….and I remember thru my youth the only place in NYC we could find it ready made was Sylvia’s, up here in Harlem, which is where we would go on my dad’s b-day if my mom didn’t feel like cooking it from scratch (the frosting is a serious pain)

  6. Wow, interesting stuff–I might have to do a whole post on red velvet cake. So many stories about it! I had never associated it with African American culture and always thought it was part of white, wealthy southern culture until I actually lived in the south. Nathan, are there any vegetarian/vegetarian friendly soul food places in harlem?

    Funny, I used to go to Magnolia bakery years and years ago and I just recently found out it had been on sex in the city–I mentioned it to some people and they looked at me a bit askew and much later I found out about the connection to the show.

    • Yeah tour buses just pile up in front of the Magnolia. Lines down the block. It’s just crazy. I mean cupcakes taste good but c’mon!

      I can heartily recommend some fantastic veg spots up here! So good, particularly this one spot Mo’Bays which is more like Caribbean/ soul. Some great places…also juicing is super popular up here over where we are, so there’s some fantastic juice places, mostly with Rasta flavor which I feel kind of mixed about….nonetheless I just drank an amazing carrot/ beet/ ginger juice at the place across the street (called NATURAL ENHANCEMENTS, cos the only other shit they sell is like roots and potions for “sexual prowess”…oh and Haile Selassie swag). They have a huge sign that says 2 BLESSED 2 BE STRESSED, and all these funky homemade paintings of Obama, MLK, Malcolm X and black Jesus, looking heavenward, beatific. I love it.

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