I enjoyed this a lot more than Kitchen Confidential, primarily because Anthony Bourdain allows himself to fade into the background in several chaptersI enjoyed this a lot more than Kitchen Confidential, primarily because Anthony Bourdain allows himself to fade into the background in several chapters of the book. I loved his descriptions of meals across the world, and almost every single chapter made me hungry and/or made me laugh out loud. There's a pig roast in Portugal, a market in Vietnam, taco stands in Oaxaca, vodka-soaked dinners in Russia and sake-soaked dinners in Japan.
Bourdain has a true gift for writing about food and about meals. This book is about the search for the perfect meal, but he makes sure to qualify that - the perfect meal is "very rarely the most sophisticated," because "context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one's life." This is absolutely true, at least for me. The thought of venison sausage brings me back immediately to the Texas hill country in the early 2000s, and there's probably nothing better (or less authentic) than my mom's spaghetti. The adventure in this book is less about the search for the perfect meal, and more about reading other cultures through his culinary explorations. The chapters that I enjoyed the most were the most contained and conveyed an absolute sense of place through the meals (Basque, Morocco, Russia, and Portugal).
I found the structure of the book a little odd, as well as the choice of locations. Bourdain has three separate chapters about Vietnam. I could certainly read about Vietnamese food forever, but because the chapters are split up through the book I was continually surprised by each return. There's also, rather shockingly, a chapter set in Cambodia, where he pays locals to take him to a Khmer Rouge stronghold. The history lesson on Cambodia is useful, but I found the entire idea that Bourdain would drag (1) his crew and (2) a bunch of local Cambodians to Pailin to be so distasteful that it soured the second part of the book for me. Bourdain repeats a couple of times that he wants to have Adventures, potentially in the style of a Joseph Conrad villain (!); he also mentions that his TV producer gently suggests that he look at a map before he goes to a country. This is certainly an honest representation of why he's choosing to travel, but it veers into a reckless arrogance that I don't particularly like.
Bourdain also spends part of an entire chapter defending Gordon Ramsay for being crass and confrontational in his kitchen (I wonder why Anthony Bourdain would do that?), and writes a chapter about San Francisco that seems to be specifically targeted towards demeaning vegetarians. It's certainly possible to go to San Francisco after visiting Cambodia and feel that Americans are lucky to have accessible meat, at all, but Bourdain's attitude towards vegetarianism is so antagonistic and puzzling. If kids in Cambodia are starving, should everyone around the world say, "You're right! We should be consuming as much factory-farmed meat as possible, because that's an authentic expression of our cuisine?" There's a world of difference between Bourdain's elevation of the Portuguese pig farm slaughter and his cursory few sentences about the bland and fattening mass-produced food of the Midwest. Are we all supposed to ignore climate change until we've solved world peace? If he didn't want to go to a vegan restaurant in Berkeley, couldn't he have decided to visit India, or Israel, or Ethiopia? You don't have to be popping entire roasted birds in your mouth in Vietnam in order to experience the world's cuisine.
Anyway, I liked this a lot, and Bourdain is a gifted writer. But I'm still puzzled by his position as an elder statesman of American food culture. I don't think I particularly like him....more
I read this for a book club, or I probably would have abandoned it. I found the first part of the book incredibly difficult to get through - the entirI read this for a book club, or I probably would have abandoned it. I found the first part of the book incredibly difficult to get through - the entire concept of the "year of fear" felt self-indulgent and gimmicky. Noelle spends the first few weeks of her year signing up for activities like trapeze classes and trying to hook up in closets at weddings, and then writing about it in a way that's supposed to be breezy and funny but ends up being cliched and cringeworthy. It's even worse because then she contrasts herself against Eleanor Roosevelt, whose life story is incredibly rich, nuanced, and interesting. (Typical Noelle Hancock contrast: "Eleanor Roosevelt spent extensive time flying thousands of miles to field hospitals during the second world war and providing aid and comfort to the wounded. I had hoped for my own stories like this, making milkshakes in the oncology ward of a hospital.") Then she goes into her therapy sessions with "Dr. Bob" (someone who I fully believe is made up) and has surface-level conversations about What It All Means.
But then, against all odds, the story started to pick up about halfway through once Noelle stopped writing solely about the scary things she was doing "every day" and started really exploring what fear means and what fears are worth conquering. There's a great moment where she practices for and then delivers a stand-up routine at a benefit. She's elated because she's succeeded, but also notes that this fear is different from the rest - while she didn't want to skydive or fly a combat jet, she's always wanted to make people laugh, but didn't know if it was possible. I really liked this distinction. She also gets deeper into discussing mindfulness as a way to cut down on anxiety, worry, and fear, three emotions that are related through adrenaline and are akin to positive emotions like excitement. I found her later experiences more interesting to read about, and she hits her stride writing about the skydiving trip - it's genuinely funny. The pieces about Eleanor Roosevelt feel even more shoehorned into the book as it progresses. I think this would have been much better as a memoir or as a collection of essays. I honestly started skimming some of the facts about Eleanor's life. I'd rather read the autobiography myself than get a slimmed-down version through the lens of Noelle Hancock.
Two asides on the content of the book - the sleeping pills (omg) and her boyfriend, "Matt." (view spoiler)[The sleeping pills section is honestly one of the craziest things I've ever read! Progressing from one shot of whiskey to five (!) prescription drugs per night that cause hallucinations is bananas. That's the point where I became more invested in Noelle and her "journey" (ugh, kill me). I found this riveting, even when she tried to say that working with cancer patients was what inspired her to give up the pills. And as for Matt, I spent the book convinced that there was no WAY that they ended up together. I found the wedding announcement for "Matt" and another woman in the NYT after finishing the book. I am validated. (hide spoiler)]
Caroline Knapp is a gifted writer, and her memoir feels authentic and painful in a way that I have rarely experienced. It's about her alcoholism, butCaroline Knapp is a gifted writer, and her memoir feels authentic and painful in a way that I have rarely experienced. It's about her alcoholism, but also her relationship with her father and her struggle to find meaning and purpose. I will be thinking about this for awhile.
There’s something about sober living and sober thinking, about facing long afternoons without the numbing distraction of anesthesia, that disabuses you of the belief in externals, shows you that strength and hope come not from circumstances or the acquisition of things but from the simple accumulation of active experience, from gritting the teeth and checking the items off the list, one by one, even though it’s painful and you’re afraid.