Book: A Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain

Lots of fun traveling the world in search of the perfect meal

Anthony Bourdain
A Cook's Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal
Bloomsbury, 2001
ISBN: 1-58234-140-0
274 pages

Fresh from the success of Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain persuaded his publisher and The Food Network to finance a year-long series of junkets in which he'd travel the world, notionally in search of the perfect meal. That's not an enormously inventive theme for a book, but it could be a good one. And, happily, in this case it is. Mr Bourdain goes to a bunch of interesting places, many of them places that few tourists visit, he conjures their atmospheres well, he eats interesting things, and he's almost always good company while he does it.

Mr Bourdain begins the book with a chapter called "Where Food Comes From" in which he goes to a small town in Portugal that's the hometown of a colleague. He goes there for the traditional butchering and cooking of an entire pig. And the people there use every part of the pig. That was once surely a matter of economic necessity for them. But having learned over centuries how to make every part of it delicious, they are justifiably proud of their tradition and are glad to show it off. There's also a sense of respect for the animal that comes through in the process.

In the next chapter, Mr Bourdain goes back to the part of France where he spent summers as a boy. Perhaps not surprisingly, he finds that you can't go home again. Even though he doesn't find what he's ostensibly looking for there, the stories he tells about the trip are good ones. And since a year-long search for the perfect meal is bound to be disappointed pretty often, it's a good thing for the book that his narration is good enough that he can make the disappointments as well as the successes interesting.

Mr Bourdain goes to all sorts of places. He looks for the perfect meal in food stalls on Asian streets, in fancy restaurants, in the middle of the North African desert, and even in remote Pailin, Cambodia. That last trip is one where Mr Bourdain's sense of adventure goes a bit over the top. He says:

    The road to Pailin. It's not a Hope/Crosby movie --
    and Dorothy Lamour is definitely not waiting in a
    tight-fitting sarong a the journey's end. I'd wanted
    to go up a no-name river to the worst cesspit on
    earth and, for my sins, I got my wish. (p .173)

But even that isn't as daunting to him as the prospect of going to a vegan potluck in Berkeley.

Happily, Mr Bourdain mostly has rather better experiences than those. His descriptions of the delights of Vietnamese food were especially likely to make my stomach growl.

The book is fun; Mr Bourdain is often funny, he keeps the narrative's pace up, and he's thoroughly unpretentious, especially about himself. Of course there's no such thing as a perfect meal, but in the search for it even the occasionally crass and profane Mr Bourdain communicates an almost spiritual connection with food.

There are a couple of minor factual mistakes in the book. For example, bovine spongiform encephalopathy is a prion disease, not a bacterial one (p. 186). But they don't detract from the enjoyment.

Posted: Tue - June 3, 2008 at 05:21 PM   Main   Category: