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GP 10 August 2005: Anthony Converse

Spoiled Rotten.  At age 18, early in the 1970s, says Anthony Bourdain, “I treated the world as my ashtray.  I spent most of my waking hours drinking, smoking pot, scheming, and doing my best to amuse, outrage, impress and penetrate anyone silly enough to find me entertaining.  I was—to be frank—a spoiled, miserable, narcissistic, self-destructive and thoughtless young lout, badly in need of a good ass-kicking.”   

He neatly sums up the estate of many in the affluent tribe born in America after World War II and running well into the 1970s.  These were the Generation X-ers, and the Y’s and Z’s to boot.  Many were clever and verbal and up to neither good nor evil.  Often they were a whiney lot.  They had everything, including a fair measure of talent, but really could not get motivated enough to climb mountains.  As Englishman, outré gay wit Quentin Crisp was wont to say, they dealt badly with the central question of youth: “The young always have the same problem—how to rebel and conform at the same time.  They have now solved this problem by defying their elders and copying each other” (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Quentin_Crisp).  A tired bunch before they got started. 

This accounts, we think, for our present dearth of leaders.  We are peopled with talented, advantaged men and women.  But they lack purpose.  And purpose, as we suggested in “The Healthy Society,” is the lifeblood of a dynamic civilization.  The world has not shaped them; rather, it has been much too pliable and submissive to their whims.  Their lack of purpose leads to the epidemic, rising depression that afflicts most of the developed nations in the world.  

No Reservations.  We, too, have recently been gulled by Bourdain.  This wonderfully glib, charming fellow has a new show on the Travel Channel that is a powerful antidote to the travel commercials masquerading as programming usually offered there.  We just saw his picaresque tour through Iceland where he samples long festering, lye treated shark meat—allowing him to testify that this is easily the worst repast he has ever eaten in his short career on earth.  “Among his many epicurean exploits, Bourdain is famous for consuming lamb testicles in North Africa, eating ant eggs in Mexico, and enthusiastically consuming a whole cobra—beating heart, blood, bile and meat—in Vietnam” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Bourdain).  His gourmet credentials have prepared him to delve into all sorts of food the rest of us avoid, and allowed him to add kinetic energy to otherwise bland cable fare.  In fact, most of the cable channels need an impresario like Bourdain, someone to add a larger than life feeling to very pedestrian offerings.  No Reservations is on Mondays at 10 p.m. EST.  (See http://travel.discovery.com/fansites/

A Few Facts.  Bourdain was born June 25, 1956 in New York City.  But he was brought up in New Jersey, which sort of makes him like Martha Stewart, another showboat who took Gotham by storm.  As part of the Bridge and Tunnel Crowd (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B&T), he obviously wanted to make it across the river permanently and today is resident in Manhattan as executive chef or chef-at-large, whatever that is, at Les Halles, which has turned into a multi-city, pseudo-Parisian chain restaurant with a lot of patina, a cookbook, and all the rest (www.les
halles.net/).  He does not do much cooking anymore, caught up in books, tourdom, etc.  He has made himself into a chef, bemusing writer, wandering talker, and TV personality: all in all, above all, we consider him a  Phineas Barnum and master of the sight-bite (http://en.wikipedia.org/
wiki/Phineas_Taylor_Barnum).  Unlike Thomas Wolfe, he thinks he can go home again, and has an episode in the can about revisiting New Jersey (http://travel.discovery.com/fansites/

All About Oysters.  We learn from Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, his bestselling account of his doings in the food trade, about a seminal event on a trip to Europe with his parents back when he was in the fourth grade.  There, in the Gironde, he proudly had his first oyster, boldly stepping out and eating the offering of an oysterman, while his parents and brother timidly held back from the raw morsel.  We were surprised that his family were reluctant seafood eaters, since he styled them to be “foodies.”  Again and again, we find, so-called “foodies” are not really food people, having an eye, but not a taste, for rare fare. 

The oyster he found set him on course for a life as a cook and for experimentation in the delicacies of this world.  Since then the world has almost become his oyster, but it remains slightly out of reach.  Indeed, the oyster has been associated with a lust for life since time immemorial, apparently a prod even to Bourdain’s listless generation.  None of us can forget the licentious oyster scene in the classic 1963 film version of Tom Jones.  And all of us have heard that Casanova lined his belly with oysters aplenty as prelude to his amatory exploits (www.rakemag.

Somewhat Removed.  As we watch or read him, we find his ironic psyche to be somewhat present, but mostly absent.  You’re not quite sure he is all there, whether in a book or on a TV screen.  He says, “Most of us who live and operate in the culinary underworld are in some fundamental way dysfunctional.”  For sure he’s got it right about himself.  There seems to be some disconnect between him and the world where he finds himself.  In The Scarlet Pimpernel, Sir Percy Blakeney and the Prince of Wales catch at the same elusive quality of the Pimpernel: 

Blakeney: They seek him here.
Prince of Wales: They seek him there.
Blakeney: Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Prince of Wales: Is he in heaven?
Blakeney: Or is he in hell?  That damned elusive Pimpernel! 

Such people, we think, escape us, remaining just offstage, even to themselves.  Smiling but disconsolate. 

In Search of One’s Role.  Quentin Crisp, in his bravura solo performance off Broadway in New York, claimed that each of us spends our life in search of our true role.  When we are young and trying new things, people salute us for our experiments, hailing our several improvisations.  Later, finally, we find our role in life, which we then play out to the end.  At that point the world salutes each of us as a great classical actor which only means that we have finally discovered the one role that we can truly play well.   

This is perhaps Bourdain.  Indulgent wastrel, cook, impresario—all great parts in his youth.  But is it not possible that this man of talents has not discovered his one true, pre-ordained role yet? No wonder he eludes us—and himself.   

To Bourdain.  Someday the Oxford English Dictionary will admit a new verb—to “bourdain.”  To “bourdain” is to strut back and forth across the stage with no apparent purpose, like Sir Percy Blakeney or Prince Hal, though beneath it all there is a destination, yet to be revealed.  As one bloggist who did a parody sketch of him would have it, Bourdain is ever posed with a cigarette and glass of wine in hand,     “characteristically waiting for some bizarre dish to arrive…” (http://homepage.mac.com/dvdkingster/iblog/C1866100767/E260820101/). 

Heaven.  People who have not found their roles are condemned to wander the earth forever, like the Ancient Mariner, in search of themselves.  The question is whether they can find a green pasture.  Doug Tompkins, the founder of Esprit, for instance, has found refuge in Patagonia, where he is attempting a vast conservation experiment (www.nytimes.com/2005/08/07/
international/americas/07patagonia.html).  Bourdain, it seems, has purchased a little bit of heaven in Vietnam: 

Vietnam.  Basically the best thing that ever happened to me but it ruined my life because it made everything else flat by comparison.  Sitting on as low plastic stool in the street in Saigon, eating a bowl of pho, has just absolutely been one of the most magical experiences.  (See www.sautewednesday.com/bourdain.html.)

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