20 Books of Summer: Bourdain, Ozeki and More

Over halfway through the summer and my numbers are looking poor. It’s not that I’m not reading a ton – in general, I am – it’s just that I’m having trouble finishing any foodie books. I’m in the middle of two food-related memoirs plus Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham, and have recently started buddy-reading Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn with Annabel, so more reviews will be along eventually, but I predict August will be a scramble.

Today I review an in-your-face tell-all about the life of a chef, and a novel set between Japan and the United States that exposes the seamy side of meat production. A lite road trip and an iffy California classic follow as bonuses.

 

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain (2000)

(20 Books of Summer, #5) “Get that dried crap away from my bird!” That random line about herbs is one my husband and I remember from a Bourdain TV program and occasionally quote to each other. It’s a mild curse compared to the standard fare in this flashy memoir about what really goes on in restaurant kitchens. His is a macho, vulgar world of sex and drugs. In the “wilderness years” before he opened his Les Halles restaurant, Bourdain worked in kitchens in Baltimore and New York City and was addicted to heroin and cocaine. Although he eventually cleaned up his act, he would always rely on cigarettes and alcohol to get through ridiculously long days on his feet.

From “Appetizer” to “Coffee and a Cigarette,” the book is organized like a luxury meal. Bourdain charts his development as a chef, starting with a childhood summer in France during which he ate vichyssoise and oysters for the first time and learned that food “could be important … an event” and describing his first cooking job in Provincetown and his time at the Culinary Institute of America. He also discusses restaurant practices and hierarchy, and home cook cheats and essentials. (I learned that you should never order fish in a restaurant on a Monday – it’ll be left over from Thursday’s order.) The pen portraits of his crazy sous-chef and baker are particularly amusing; other subjects include a three-star chef he envies and the dedicated Latino immigrants who are the mainstay of his kitchen staff.

My dad is not a reader but he is a foodie, and he has read Bourdain’s nonfiction (and watched all his shows), so I felt like I was continuing a family tradition in reading this. I loved my first taste of Bourdain’s writing: he’s brash, passionate, and hilariously scornful of celebrity chefs and vegetarianism (“the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food”). Being in charge of a restaurant sounds manic, yet you can see why some would find it addictive. How ironic, though, to find a whole seven references to suicide in this book. Sometimes he’s joking; sometimes he’s talking about chefs he’s heard about who couldn’t take the pressure. Eighteen years after this came out, he, too, would kill himself.

(See also this article about rereading Bourdain in the 20th anniversary year of Kitchen Confidential.)

Source: Local swap shop (free)

My rating:

 

(These two are linked by a late chapter in the Bourdain, “Mission to Tokyo,” in which he advises on a new Les Halles offshoot in Japan and gorges himself on seafood delights.)

 

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki (1998)

(20 Books of Summer, #6) I don’t know what took me so long to read another novel by Ruth Ozeki after A Tale for the Time Being, one of my favorite books of 2013. This is nearly as fresh, vibrant and strange. Set in 1991, it focuses on the making of a Japanese documentary series, My American Wife, sponsored by a beef marketing firm. Japanese American filmmaker Jane Takagi-Little is tasked with finding all-American families and capturing their daily lives – and best meat recipes. The traditional values and virtues of her two countries are in stark contrast, as are Main Street/Ye Olde America and the burgeoning Walmart culture.

There is a clear message here about cheapness and commodification, but Ozeki filters it through the wrenching stories of two women with fertility problems: Jane, whose reproductive system was damaged by DES, a synthetic estrogen her mother took during pregnancy to prevent a miscarriage; and Akiko, the wife of Jane’s boss, who struggles with an eating disorder and domestic violence.

Jane starts sneaking controversial subjects into her shoots: a lesbian couple, a family formed by interracial adoption, and a five-year-old who has already undergone puberty due to the hormones used on her family’s cattle feedlot. What is “natural,” and what gets branded alien or invasive? From the kudzu that strangles the South to a murdered Japanese exchange student, Ozeki probes the related issues of nativism and racism. Her two protagonists’ stories – one in the first person; the other in the third person – come together in a surprising manner as Jane decides that she has a more pressing obligation than creating a diverting television show.

This is a bold if at times discomforting novel. At first it brought to mind the exaggerated comedy of Julian Barnes’s England, England and Jane Smiley’s Moo, but as it grew darker it reminded me more of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. It’s tricky, when a work of fiction tackles ethical or environmental matters, to balance storytelling and consciousness-raising, but Ozeki pulls it off with style. The only aspect that didn’t mean much to me, perhaps simply because of my unfamiliarity, was the excerpts from The Pillow Book of Shōnagon. How sad to think that I only have one more Ozeki awaiting me, All Over Creation. She averages a book every 5‒10 years; we can only hope that another is on the way soon.

Source: Charity shop

My rating:

 


I picked up another two food-adjacent books that didn’t work for me, though I ended up skimming them to the end.

 

America Unchained: A Freewheeling Roadtrip in Search of Non-Corporate USA by Dave Gorman (2008)

(20 Books of Summer, #7) I read the first couple of chapters, in which he plans his adventure, and then started skimming. I expected this to be a breezy read I would race through, but the voice was neither inviting nor funny. I also hoped to find more about non-chain supermarkets and restaurants – that’s why I put this on the pile for my foodie challenge in the first place – but, from a skim, it mostly seemed to be about car trouble, gas stations and fleabag motels. The only food-related moments are when Gorman (a vegetarian) downs three fast food burgers and orders of fries in 10 minutes and, predictably, vomits them all back up; and when he stops at an old-fashioned soda fountain for breakfast.

Source: Free bookshop

 

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck (1935)

(20 Books of Summer, #8) I read the first 25 pages and then started skimming. This is a story of a group of friends – paisanos, of mixed Mexican, Native American and Caucasian blood – in Monterey, California. During World War I, Danny serves as a mule driver and Pilon is in the infantry. When discharged from the Army, they return to Tortilla Flat, where Danny has inherited two houses. He lives in one and Pilon is his tenant in the other (though Danny will never see a penny in rent). They’re a pair of loveable scamps, like Huck Finn all grown up, stealing wine and chickens left and right.

Steinbeck novels seem to fall into two camps for me. This is one of his inconsequential, largely unlikable novellas (like The Pearl and The Red Pony, which I studied in school – I’m lucky they didn’t put me off Steinbeck forever), whereas The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden are masterful. It may also have something to do with the slight air of condescension towards characters of a different race: Steinbeck renders their speech with “thee” and “thou,” trying to imitate a Romance language’s informal pronouns, but it feels dated and alienating.

Source: Free bookshop

28 responses

  1. I’m doing TERRIBLY at the 20 Books challenge – could be the first year I don’t finish it!

    I love Bourdain’s work (I think I’ve read nearly all of them??). One of my good friends (who works in the restaurant industry) sat next to him at a dinner 15 years ago – she said he was charming and very entertaining (so then I loved him even more, obviously!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m going to need some cheats if I’m to finish! (Or at least to pick the absolute shortest ones from my pile.) It’s just that my attention keeps going elsewhere: to library books now that my library is fulfilling reservations again, to review copies I feel obligated to cover on my blog or for Shiny New Books, to stuff I started ages ago and keep meaning to finish…

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  2. I read the Bourdain ages ago and all I remember is finding the man and the book very unlikeable
    I must have gone wrong somewhere!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s a certain bravado there that might rub people the wrong way. It sounds like chefs in general have foul mouths and a filthy sense of humour! (Gordon Ramsay would be his equivalent over here.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Gosh, I thought I’d loved Meat but it sounds too strong for me now! I love Ozeki though, and still have it – would I dare to return to it (maybe in this Year of Rereading I keep talking/thinking about!)?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was a bit surprised to see that you’d loved it, as I think there are themes there that you might avoid these days? (Also a slaughterhouse scene that’s rough, though not as bad as I expected.) But it’s SO well done. I wish she wrote a novel every couple of years!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I read it in 1999 – I must have been tougher then!

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  4. I remember being riveted by Kitchen Confidential. Such stressful conditions to work under – I’m not surpised that there’s a good deal of partying once shifts end just to let off steam. Both Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter and Merrit Tierce’s Love Me Back echo that theme.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would never want to work in such conditions … but I do like reading about them!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Glad you enjoyed the Bourdain – he was a great writer

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was pleasantly surprised — you don’t always know if TV personalities will be able to write well. I think this book preceded his TV success, though.

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  6. I loved that Bourdain. I’ll always remember to never order fish on a Monday. I like the sound of Ozeki, I think I have the other one you mention on my shelves. I’ve never found Dave Gorman more than mildly entertaining in small doses though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My husband thinks we watched the Dave Gorman series this book is based on, but I have no memory of it. He’s enjoyed another of Gorman’s books, but I don’t think I’ll try again.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Really intrigued by the Ozeki. As you know, I was also a huge fan of A Tale for The Time Being, but I couldn’t get on with All Over Creation, so I hope this one might work better for me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hmm, I don’t know anything about All Over Creation, so I can’t decide whether you’re likely to get on with this one or not. It was only separated from AOC by 5 years vs. ATftTB was a whole 10 years later, so it may be that there’s a sharper divide between her early work and her latest novel.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’ve seen a couple of people on GR calling All Over Creation Ozeki’s weakest novel, so that makes me more hopeful for My Year of Meats.

        Liked by 2 people

  8. I really liked the Bourdain book, and loved all of his shows. I am still sad about his passing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a real shock. I can hardly believe it was two years ago.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I also loved A Tale by Ozeki, so this sounds good!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Well… there you go then! It is right now my #1 of my “best of the best” since I’ve been blogging http://tcl-bookreviews.com/2020/01/07/the-best-of-the-best-top-5-list-for-2013-2018/ Mind you, Hamnet might beat it out for that spot when I do my next one!

        Liked by 1 person

  10. […] Anthony Bourdain (see my review of Kitchen Confidential), Asimov was drawn into foodie culture by one memorable meal in France. […]

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  11. Kitchen Confidential sounds so much like The Dishwasher by Stephane Larou – I was horrified by the drinking and drugs and stress and pressure and cursing and backstabbing all the other shenanigans going on in the restaurant business. But fascinated!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure I’d enjoy that, too, if I can ever get hold of it. It’s funny how we can enjoy reading about situations we’d never want to be in ourselves!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. You loved My Year of Meats! I’d love to reread it and see if I enjoy it just as much. At the time, it seemed as though all of those themes were fresh and strange to find in fiction (and maybe in non-fiction, too, at that time, but maybe I simply wasn’t seeking them out and didn’t know about them). I’ve enjoyed all of her books and All Over Creation was no exception. I remember taking a lot of notes in All Over, but I also seem to think it was more about story there (and being very invested in some of the characters, in the way I got attached to Kingsolver’s and Hegi’s characteers). Maybe you’re just naturally a grazer when it comes to foodie-books, but your summer project was designed for a binge-reader?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do wonder if one’s success with this Ozeki depends on how familiar the information on industrial meat production and environmental toxins is. She was preaching to the choir with me, but I didn’t mind the overt message because the story and characters were so great.

      I’ve got another two great food memoirs on the go at the moment. Perhaps concentrating them all into one summer was a mistake, but I do like to have a guiding theme.

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      1. buriedinprint

        I’m a sucker for theme-reading, too, as you know. And, if one doesn’t give oneself a goal, often entire sections of shelves get ignored. 🙂

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    2. Exactly — it’s my excuse for getting through (at least) 20 books from my own shelves every summer!

      Like

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