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Of the Earth: Bourdain’s honesty redefined ‘food writing’

  • Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain photographed at Tintol restaurant in New York’s Times Square in 2006. Bourdain was found dead in his hotel room on June 8 of an apparent suicide. Tribune News Service

  • BLIXT



For the Recorder
Thursday, June 14, 2018

I never ran into Anthony Bourdain, even though he did, at various times, visit some of my favorite haunts in Greenfield, Turners Falls, Havana in Cuba, San Sebastian in Spain and Portland, Maine.

Still, following his suicide last week, my sense of loss is acute. I am reminded that it is impossible for me to write authentically about food — where it comes from, how it is prepared, its place in culture and community, and its bloody physical reality — without first being astounded by Bourdain’s writing, his travels and his embrace of the world. We are left to yearn for what Barack Obama found with Bourdain in Vietnam — “Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer.”

I remember Bourdain’s first essay in The New Yorker in 1999. Titled “Don’t Eat Before Reading This: A New York chef spills some trade secrets,” it began:

“Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay. It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals. It’s about danger — risking the dark, bacterial forces of beef, chicken, cheese, and shellfish.”

“Gastronomy,” he continued, “is the science of pain. Professional cooks belong to a secret society whose ancient rituals derive from the principles of stoicism in the face of humiliation, injury, fatigue, and the threat of illness.”

It’s hard to sidestep prose like that, or to ignore Bourdain’s now-famous dictum on not ordering fish on Monday (“chances are that the Monday-night tuna you want has been kicking around in the kitchen since Friday morning, under God knows what conditions.”) That sensibility propelled Bourdain’s books, from “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” in 2000, to his recent cookbook “Appetites: A Cookbook” (see recipe below).

He remained a world citizen forever ready to embrace other cultures on their own terms, and to remind audiences of the often-bitter realities underlying their dishes. In doing so, he expanded what “food writing” is and can be, reminding us, says restaurant critic Pete Wells, that “high-profile New York restaurants would cease to function without the work and talents of Mexican employees.”

“A ride-along with Bourdain,” Patrick Radden Keefe wrote in The New Yorker in 2017, “promises the sidekick an experience that, in this era of homogenized tourism, is all too rare: communion with a foreign culture so unmitigated that it feels practically intravenous.”

The website firstwefeast.com has published three of Bourdain’s “Appetites” recipes for public consumption, including the following.

Macau-Style Pork Chop Sandwich

Ingredients:

4 boneless pork rib chops or cutlets (about 6 oz. each)

¼ cup soy sauce

¼ cup Chinese rice wine

¼ cup black vinegar

1 T sesame oil

4 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 T five-spice powder

1 T dark brown sugar, packed

1 large egg

½ cup all-purpose flour

1½ cup panko bread crumbs

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 cup peanut oil, for frying, plus more as needed

8 slices white sandwich bread

Chili paste, for garnish

Pound the pork to ¼-inch thickness, using the meat mallet. If using a rolling pin, wrap the meat in plastic before whacking it (and consider getting yourself a meat mallet).

In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, rice wine, vinegar, sesame oil, garlic, five-spice powder and sugar. Place pork in zip-seal plastic bag or nonreactive container and pour the marinade mixture over, turning the chops to ensure that they’re evenly coated with liquid. Seal the bag and refrigerate for at least one hour, and up to 12 hours.

Remove the chops from the marinade and brush off the garlic. Beat the egg in a shallow bowl, and place the flour and bread crumbs in separate shallow bowls. Season the flour with salt and pepper. You may need to add a tablespoon of water to the beaten egg to loosen its texture so that it adheres evenly to the meat.

Add the peanut oil to a large, heavy-bottom frying pan and heat over medium-high.

While the oil heats, dredge the chops in the flour, batting off any extra, then in the egg, then in the bread crumbs.

Test oil with a pinch of bread crumbs. If they immediately sizzle, carefully slide the chops into the hot oil, working in batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding the pan and bringing down the temperature of the oil. Cook for about five minutes per side, or until golden brown.

Remove the cooked chops from the oil and let drain on the lined sheet pan. Season lightly with salt.

Toast the bread until golden brown. Assemble the sandwiches and serve with the chili paste alongside.

Wesley Blixt lives in Greenfield. He is a longtime reporter and is the author of “SKATERS: A Novel.” Send him recipes, stories and suggestions at wesleyblixt@me.com.