Bourdain being Bourdain
Jun 08, 2010 02:56PM ● Published by Anonymous
Though I haven’t read any of his books—he’s supposedly a great writer in his own right, not just a shock jock with an interesting story—I have to say that his travelogue show, No Reservations, is one of my favorite things on television. It takes Bourdain all over the world, eating whatever is offered to him (most of it very good, some of it cringe-worthy), absorbing as much local culture as he can along the way.
In an interview with Slate about the tendency of chefs and food lovers to apply absolute terms like “right,” “wrong,” “good,” and “bad” to something as inherently subjective as taste, Bourdain has this to say about the ethics of eating factory-farmed foods, in response to a question about books on the subject by Michael Pollan and Jonathan Safran Foer:
Pollan is hunting big game, in the sense that he's wrestling with big issues. I think he's discussing them in a way that allows for honest disagreement. He's not an absolutist. I think he's a very valuable addition to the discussion. Safran Foer, while I liked the book, I disagree completely with it. I don't understand how we can acknowledge the importance of the human dimension of turkey dinner yet forgo it anyway. I guess it's just a question of priorities.
During an event at the Hippodrome two weeks ago with fellow celebrity chef Eric Ripert, he said something similar. Essentially, he said the idea of a vegetarian turning away his food, or the food of another meticulous, passionate chef, because of an absolute belief against the eating of meat is no different than would have been his refusing to eat something offered to him by a tribal elder on his show. For instance, in one episode of No Reservations, he’s offered uncleaned pig’s anus while visiting a tribe in Namibia. While he didn’t want to eat what was in front of him, he never would have dreamed of offending his hosts.
It’s fair to draw a distinction between making a personal decision on one’s own habits in a necessarily luxury situation like eating in a restaurant, and committing a cultural slight in a third-world nation of limited resources. But Bourdain’s point, I believe, was largely that eating is communal, presenting a ritual that goes beyond the ethical, political, or economic factors that bring the food to our table. No one, not even a five-star chef, would be shamed by a diner asking for a vegetarian option the way the tribal elder would have been had Bourdain refused his food. Still, I believe Bourdain was merely highlighting using the cultural importance of eating.
Earlier in the interview, Bourdain rejects the notion of absolutism:
I'm a relativist, mostly. But racism is just wrong, right? I believe that absolutely. And yet many of the places that I love most in the world—Southeast Asia, Japan—are deeply racist in ways so engrained in their culture as to put the Jim Crow era to shame. There's a loathing of dark skin, an aversion, a phobia, that's extraordinary. Why is that acceptable to me? Why don't I have a problem with that, or not much of a problem?
Safran Foer would point to this quote in disagreement with Bourdain’s response to his book, Eating Animals. To Safran Foer, and many others, eating animals is like racism, in that it is universally and unavoidably wrong.
I can’t say where I stand here. For instance, as a Marylander, it would be hard for me to imagine cutting crab feasts out of my summer schedule. But what if we learned—due to new scientific evidence—that crabs possess the same emotional intelligence as dolphins? Would I still be able to enjoy the “human dimension” of cracking open steamed crabs with my family if I knew a living thing with that capacity was steamed alive in order to make it possible?
I don’t have any conclusions here. As anyone who watches No Reservations or has read Bourdain’s books would expect, the interview is thoughtful and well worth a read. Maybe you’ll have something more conclusive to say than I do.