Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Anthony Bourdain: the bitter end

So we finally got down to it, the ultimate act of gastronomy, the most outlandish, esoteric, downright repulsive dish ever served--a dish that in fact recalls a film in 1972 (the title will become clear, I think, when you read on).

But let me backtrack: I've been a fan of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, a sort of badass travel show where this cook (executive chef at Les Halles, in New York) goes to some foreign country--sometimes even Miami, or the Pacific Northwest--and makes snarky remarks, tastes the food, tries a few things, and if we're lucky, generally makes an ass of himself.

It's fun; I'm not going to defend it as prime TV or an example of the broadcasting arts, but I love it for his attitude, and for the quite real possibility that he'll break his fool neck (which he almost did once, when he was riding some kind of dune buggy and it turned turtle, hundreds of pounds of metal rolling on top of him--showed the footage, too).

But I like his pretensions too. He's often snarky when in rich European countries--Iceland comes to mind, and he took a few potshots at Sweden ("so Sweden--big blondes, meatballs, ABBA--that's it, right?"). Relatively underdeveloped countries are treated with more kindness--I remember him seriously thinking of settling in Indonesia, of positively loving Ghana, of enjoying a meal of slaughtered seal with a family of Inuit in Quebec, which included frozen blackberries rolled in the inside of the seal carcass (picking up blood and fat) for a dessert, and the piece de resistance--the seal's eyeball, presented to the honored guest. Bourdain downed the jellied orb and declared it tasty.

When fighting in Lebanon broke out and Bourdain's crew was in the middle of it, they did the smart thing and stayed in the sidelines. Bourdain was respectful and full of angst--almost an hour's worth of angst. But I'd rather hear his uninformed angst (which, to his credit, he's the first to admit is uninformed) to any attempt by him and his crew to actually go out and try make sense of the madness there, probably blow their fool heads off. I appreciated that episode.

Anyway--so he goes to Namibia, is choppered to the Bushmen near the Kalahari Desert, and they come upon a nest of ostrich eggs ("he found it earlier, but was afraid to pick them up alone for fear that the mother would come back." "are ostriches dangerous?" "they have powerful legs with huge claws that can rip your belly open"). A Bushman broke a hole in the egg, scrambled the contents with a long stick, then after building a fire with a cleared flat space in the middle, poured the contents of the egg in the middle. The egg cooked; when it formed a skin, they pushed coals and hot ash on top of it. After half an hour, the Bushman tapped the omelet with a stick to shake off extra ash (not that he managed to remove all of it, not by a long shot), and handed the 'dirt frittata" to Bourdain, who chewed it with a wide grin.

Later they hunted for warthog. The Bushman bow and arrow is a tiny affair, more like a dart shot by a bit of elastic; the Bushman has to sneak up to the prey close enough to prick him with the dart, then track it for hours until it's overcome by the poison in the dart (Bushmen are renowned for their tracking skills).

Hours later, they come home with the carcass--which, in the desert heat, was already rotting. They cut off the head, bury it in hot coals, dig it out afterwards. Bourdain reports that the tongue--and most of the head--tasted of the soured grassy effluvium the pig had been chewing on before he died.

But the best, of course, was to come: the fattest, juiciest, downright tastiest part of the warthog: the rectum. The Bushmen pull it out the long, bloody tube, squeezed out the contents (a green ball the size of a (what else?) hockey puck dropped out), and without the benefit of a cursory wash (this was the edge of the desert, remember), plopped it in the fire. Where Bourdain gazed at it with a sickly, nervous grin ("this is one time where 'well done' is definitely good"). They cut off a slice, hand it to him; he pops it in his mouth, smiles. "It's chewy," he says. "Great food."

Later he's walking, presumably out of earshot, with the camera following, and he declares it "the worst meal in my life," noting how every word he had preached about how one must eat the native food, how one must suppress squeamishness have come back to haunt him. "I have my limits," he admits. He doesn't think it's hypocrisy to smile and thank his hosts, though; it might be an unwashed rectum to him, but it was still a feast for the Bushmen, and he had been treated with great generosity.

Later they walk through the Bushmen's market--which turned out to be a field of grass, through which they passed, picking out berries and things. One of the things they plucked (from a thorny bush that pricked Bourdain's fingers badly) was a beetle the size of one's thumb; the Bushmen quickly pulled the beetle's legs and wings to keep it from escaping. When they got home, the beetle was roasted in a fire, dipped in salt, and popped in the mouth. Bourdain's eyes widened--this wasn't good, this was delicious--a little chili to go with it, and it could be served in any restaurant. It was the best thing he ate that day, he said.


V.A. Jeffrey said...

After munching down blood sausages, chicken butts and raw seal meat, blood and eyeballs all, he shouldn't have a problem with cooked warthog rectum.

Noel Vera said...

1) I admit I'm a little jealous, and 2) there has to be a way to make those things appetizing. I mean, grilled chicken butts are pretty good.

Anonymous said...

Who cares what this pompous ass eats? I mean the entire purpose of the show is to shock us . If he thinks eating al that stuff is worth his salary so be it. I personally just watch his show in hope one day he will have to vomit.

Noel Vera said...

Basically, I'm 1) the kind of guy who looks over at the other table's plate to see if what the other guy's ordering is interesting, and 2) looking at his show and thinking how my show's going to be so much better.

hbrennan said...

What a wonderful and insightful post "Anonymous". Thank you so much for sharing. BTW - I can see why you have chose "Anonymous" as your handle.