As Indian food reinvents itself, we could do with more Bourdains.
Pick your Bourdain: Anthony or Ruth? Tony Bourdain is the man who brought sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and multiple substance-induced hangovers into the world of food writing, with his 2000 memoir of being a chef. Kitchen Confidential unleashed hell —and an avalanche of foodies who now knew, or thought they did, why not to touch hotel buffet food, what knives to buy, what drugs to offer a chef (Anthony Bourdain kicked his own crack cocaine addiction a few years ago), and why you should eat meat regardless of whether it’s bad for the environment.
His new book, Medium Raw, will be devoured by foodies everywhere, and shows off the best and the worst of Bourdainism.
I define Bourdainism as an approach not just to food writing but to the larger adventure of eating out and the shifting politics of being a foodie.
A Bourdainist will embrace all streetside, ‘true’ food while saluting the best work of new, talented chefs; will sneer at food pieties and fads and diss vegans as the worst kind of food Nazis; will wear their hangovers, diarrhoea attacks and kitchen burns proudly, like tribal scars; and will embrace Tony’s sensualist philosophy — it’s all about loving food. Sometimes in a kind of pornographic way, and that would be dark, kinky, Japanese-style porn, not the vanilla Mills & Boon variety: “Figs, Armagnac, dark flesh slightly infused with the salty taste of my own blood.”
I loved Bourdain’s book and his manic TV show because of what they opened up for me: the insider world of chefs, the passion behind great ingredients, family-style cooking, the lack of pretension and the adrenaline-driven celebration of appetite. But after years of doing the same shtick, Bourdain suffers from the same problem that afflicts many of the great food writers. The rants against celebrity chefs, the evilness of McDonald’s and food snobbery are getting old. He’s not responsible for this, but his Burroughs-meets-Sid Vicious writing style influenced a torrent of “I wrote this when I was smashed out my skull which is why there’s no punctuation!” imitations.
That’s where “Ruth Bourdain” comes in. A few months ago, an anonymous Twitter account set its sights on two of the current gods of the foodie world — Tony Bourdain, and Gourmet editor and former New York Times critic Ruth Reichl. No one knows who “Ruth Bourdain” is, except that s/he is very funny, and very much on target. “For the record, I cook my own crack. And so should you,” reads a recent tweet. #ruthsrules skewers a certain kind of High Pretentious food writing: “After scraping off the edible portion of an artichoke leaf, use the pointy end to slash anyone who attempts to eat the heart.”
It’s great fun, and Ruth Reichl and Tony Bourdain are among the host of “Ruth Bourdain” fans. But beyond the cut and thrust of the relationship between culinary god and irreverent mocker, the two Bourdains raise an interesting issue. It’s hard to be a foodie today without being accused of food snobbery; and it’s not easy to celebrate the pleasures of the table without sliding into food porn. (For myself, when asked whether I’d rather be called a “gourmand” — translation: you read French cookbooks for the frisson, don’t you? — or a “foodie” — translation: you would die if you didn’t know what the five top undiscovered restaurants of the moment were, wouldn’t you? — I say I’d prefer “glutton”.)
Bourdain’s rants, for instance, are very much mirrored in the Indian context. We have great foodie shows — and we have cooking shows hosted by celeb chefs who last chopped their own onions in the Harappan era. We have some excellent restaurant reviewers, and we have those who couldn’t tell foie gras from agar agar, but who know which restaurant is trending on the hotlist that month. We’re terminally confused about the organic food debate — even more so in India, where one person’s “fresh produce” is another person’s bioengineered muck. And as Indian food reinvents itself, we really need several Bourdains — both Anthony and Ruth. n
[Nilanjana S Roy is a Delhi-based freelance writer and editor]