The Digest

The Misadventures of Anthony Bourdain & Other News

14th February 2017

Words: James Hansen

This week’s food-writing roundup covers culinary politics, queuing for beer and Haruki Murakami’s metaphysics of food

To begin, Giancarlo Buonomo writes on Heat and the Hustle for The Los Angeles Review of Books in answer to a friend’s question: “Why would anyone want to read a book by a chef?” The book in question is Mincemeat, from Leonardo Lucarelli. Spanning 20 years spent in Italian kitchens, it’s “about our choices, conscious and unconscious, and how they inform who we are”. Buonomo’s review is generous in its praise and constructive in its criticisms – a lack of observation here, a touch of myopia there – as well as being sharply insightful on the perils of culinary translation. Meatloaf does not a polpettone make.

Anthony Bourdain’s Moveable Feast bulldozes into print, steered by Patrick Radden Keefe for The New Yorker. Keefe’s writing – attentive, brisk and peppered with evocation – pivots around Bourdain’s dinner with Barack Obama in Hanoi: plastic stool, cold beer, bún chả: “springy white noodles, smoky sausage, and charred pork belly served in a sweet and pungent broth”. The piece is entertaining and revelatory, Keefe balancing transparent narration with infrequent but vivid flourish – “he is Apollo in drag as Dionysus”. Bourdain’s character is thoroughly excavated, though some commentators have raised issues with the piece. George Reynolds writes confidently and unflinchingly about it at Civilian Global, arguing that Keefe endorses Bourdain’s imperialist machismo, his fetishising of cultures and the cheapness of food. Frame the two pieces with this in-depth look at value and price from Diep Tran at NPR (in short: beware the listicle).

Casting an eye over Twitter, we find Michael Twitty unearthing a piece from 2014 over at Afroculinaria. Taken from “The Life & Times of Frederick Douglass”, it recounts the dread experience of those enslaved on Maryland plantations through interlaced narratives of scarcity and abundance: “the close-fisted stinginess that fed the poor slave on coarse corn-meal and tainted meat, that clothed him in crashy tow-linen and hurried him on to toil through the field in all weathers … wholly vanished on approaching the sacred precincts of the ‘Great House’ itself.” Twitty frames Douglas’ memoir with generous and discursive notes throughout; a fitting pair would be his recent TED talk on culinary justice.

Staying with politics at The New York TimesCaitlin Dickerson and Jennifer Medina reflect on the double bind of California’s farming industry: farmers in favour of the new administration are now being hit by incoming immigration policies. There is a bracing candour about the realities of California farming: illegal labour props up a vast culinary economy; Dickerson and Medina tell the stories of the people who put the produce into “the world’s fruit basket” with compassion and honesty. For another side of fruit, follow a day in the life of Mitch Spitz – owner/purveyor of celebrated Brooklyn produce shop The Orchard – with Sophie Brickman at Saveur.

From fresh to fermented, Joshua M. Bernstein examines the price of popularity for microbreweries, also at The NYT. Relishing the momentous occasion of a new beer release, the piece profiles the supplicants who will literally camp out for that treasured first sip, and the brewers who worry about their welfare as much as their quickly-vanishing stock. Delving into the cloudy world of professional line-sitters, restorative doughnuts and hazy IPAs, Bernstein’s writing is a loving, if sceptical portrait of the most dedicated hopheads. Frame this with one from the archives: a profile of the warring Bjergso brothers from Jonah Weiner.

We finish for this week with Elaheh Nozari diving into Murakami on food at The AWL. Its intelligence is lightly-worn, and the piece is punctuated by sprightly authorial intrusions about the relatability of enjoying Denny’s Chicken Salad (we, in the UK, will just have to imagine). Her parallel between satiety and itinerancy regarding Kafka on the Shore is particularly incisive, and an affection for Murakami’s work runs through her writing. One to savour for the evening as dinnertime approaches, to remind you of food’s place in our emotional lives, and the way it can illuminate the lives of others.

Posted 14th February 2017

In The Digest


Words: James Hansen

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