Book Review: “Medium Raw” by Anthony Bourdain

I am an Anthony Bourdain enthusiast. I am not entirely sure how I go to be such a fan of his. It might have something to do with the fact that I like food, writing, and traveling. Mr. Bourdain does all three and I suppose the fact that I am a fan is particularly fitting.

I remember reading an article in a local magazine about Mr. Bourdain shortly after seeing him on Top Chef. He was talking about his life now and his wife and daughter. I thought it was sweet. The article only alluded to his past drug abuse and time spent in the kitchen. For the gory details, I had to do some research. This came in the form of reading his most recent book, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. Arguably, I should have started with Kitchen Confidential, but I excel at doing the first part last.

I really enjoyed reading Medium Raw for several reasons. First, I like the way Mr. Bourdain writes. In one episode of “No Reservations,” his show on the Travel Channel, he talks about how he hasn’t learned anything about writing in all the time he’s been writing and publishing books. (He’s written 9 books.) He asserts that all he does it write how he talks. I teach writing and I tell my students that writing is a process and that you get better over time. I also tell them to never, ever write how they talk. It’s a recipe for disaster if one is aggressively inarticulate. Mr. Bourdain, however, is not. I like how he talks and when I read this book, I could hear him telling me his stories. I am a big fan of story telling.

The second reason I liked the book, and this may be a downfall for some, is that a lot of the stories he tells in the book, he has already shown the world through his travels on “No Reservations.” Because of that, I am sure he was writing this book as he was filming the last few seasons of his show. To me, filming the show was a form of prewriting and planning for this book. I don’t know if he planned it that way, but I am going to give him credit for it anyway. I am a visual learner and I found it really beneficial to read the book and be able to see the people he talked about, the food he ate, and the faces he made as he was eating these delectable dishes.

I adored how he approached the subject of the amount of meat Americans consume and the alarming way our country produces meat through factory farming. I appreciate that he mentions Food, Inc. in this book. Though Mr. Bourdain is deeply offended by the principals of vegetarianism and veganism, he agrees that there is something really messed up with the way meat is handled in this country. Also, like a lot of people who cook, he is also offended by fast food entities and their genius marketing toward children. Rest assured, he and his wife are making strides to counteract said marketing when it comes to their daughter.

I will admit to falling asleep twice while reading this book, but it’s not because the book is didactic. Trust me, if I thought it was boring, I would have taken it back to the library days ago. (This is a lie. I live around the corner from my library and I have yet to return anything on time let alone early.) The middle chapters of the book namely, “‘Go Ask Alice'” and “‘Heroes and Villains'” were a bit long, but necessary to the success of the memoir. By the way, Alice Waters, though her visions for how we should all eat are noble, it is clear from Bourdain’s depiction of her that she has never been poor and been forced to buy inorganic produces flown in from Guatemala. For that, she needs to have a seat.

One of the things I like about Mr. Bourdain’s “No Reservations” is that he spends a lot of time eating with the locals in establishments where poor people often eat. He is constantly talking about how the foods he eats in places like Azores, Panama, and Istanbul are all foods that people had to eat out of necessity because they couldn’t afford the kind of fine dining he writes about in Medium Raw. In the episode filmed in South Carolina, he mentioned how the flavors were African, meaning they were brought over by enslaved people. The folks he was talking to grew visibly uncomfortable at his repeated allusions to the legacy of slavery. Over shrimp and grits, the preacher he was talking to implied that the enslaved Africans came here voluntarily and offered up their culinary bounty. That was so odd. Anyway, I think it’s a brilliant juxtaposition. I think it puts him in a position to be more objective about the places in which he dines. I’ve seen him eat on Top Chef and his reaction is nothing compared to when he was eating a pig’s head in a rough neighborhood in Argentina. Maybe it’s TV magic. Maybe it’s not appropriate to make the “O” face when you’re a guest judge on a prime time TV show. Maybe he was just being polite because he was surrounded by locals at these places. I’m not sure. What I do know is that Mr. Bourbain has a genuine love of food that shows on his face and in his writing.

I don’t watch a lot of TV. In fact, I don’t own a TV. I have a Netflix account and try as I might, I can only manage to watch things that are educational. Except for the seasons that are not available for instant view, I have watched almost every episode of every season of “No Reservations.” Watching the show and listening to Mr. Bourdain has exposed me to foods and cultures I am still too broke to be able to experience on my own. Likewise, Medium Raw has exposed me to fine dining in restaurants in which I will never dine. And I think that’s cool.

If you are in the Philadelphia area and you don’t have Valentine’s Day plans, Mr. Bourdain will be speaking at the Keswick Theater in Glenside, PA. If you happen to go out and see him, tell him I said hi and thanks.



2 Comments Add yours

  1. Thaniel says:

    Nice! I’ve always enjoyed Bourdain’s show precisely because he seems to eat what regular people eat, and he makes the effort to uncover the “whys” behind it. It sounds like this comes across in his book(s) as well. Interesting point about Alice Waters as well. She’s clearly never lived in a food desert!
    So thanks for this. I may well seek out the book now. And the Netflix!

    1. cooktivism says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I highly recommend the book AND the series on Netflix. Though some of it is an account of the more recent episodes, there is a lot more to the book. He’s an incredibly smart and well versed man. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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