Tamar E. Adler won’t be inviting Anthony Bourdain over for any earnest celebration around the Thanksgiving table this year. Adler is the author of An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. Last week The New Yorker published “When Meals Get Macho,” wherein Adler does the genteel equivalent of putting a cap in Bourdain’s ass. She finds him intolerably crude and vulgar. Bourdain’s swagger, the way he strokes his big, fleshy ego out in public, or how his id throbs when confronted with a glistening lob of foie gras: He’s the Stanley Kowalski of food.
“He’s left a crude hickey on this country’s food culture,” Adler writes, like a crusader from the Anti-Saloon League. “We’ll be cleaning up his mess for years to come.”
Look, Bourdain is a good writer, and he’s smart, aware of his own bullshit mannerisms even as he goes on perpetrating them. Medium Raw has all the swagger Bourdain’s fans adore (and that has Adler clutching her genteel lace neckline, appalled), but it’s self-critical in ways Adler hasn’t noticed, or fails to mention. With Kitchen Confidential (a book Adler sort of admires), Bourdain showed us that restaurant workers sweat, cheat, take pride in their work, fuck up, and manage various addictions—just like people who don’t work in restaurants.
Medium Raw is a more honest book. If you don’t trip over Bourdain’s signature flourishes of fuck and nutsack, it asks why someone who grew up loved and cared for is haunted by alienation and self-loathing. Food is a curious kind of salvation from a despair that isn’t easy to understand. It’s the buttress against a destructive id.
For most of the 20th century, cookbooks and magazines told us that food is pretty and ennobling, a vehicle for upward social mobility. (I remember telling my mom how much I wanted to have brioche and fresh-squeezed orange juice after seeing them in a heavily styled photo in Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook. “Maybe someday, if you work hard enough,” she told me.) In the 1990s, writers like Alice Waters used food as an expression of politics. (Waters is Adler’s mentor, and a woman Bourdain has often publicly slammed.) Bourdain’s genius was to find the dysfunction in food.
By doing that, Bourdain became a populist hero. A lot of us would like to eat the food that Alice Waters eats (or the tripe that Adler—in strangely antique-y, elite-lady language—describes eating in Rome “thrice,” in “a state of pure gustatory contentment”). But we eat shit-quality meats from taco trucks, grease-bomb sandwiches from corner liquor stores, and the boiled goat that always embarrassed us as kids when friends came over and could smell it. These are all things Bourdain has championed, without judgment.
Bourdain makes ordinary Americans feel like the stuff they eat matters. And if he rips a juicy belch afterward or readjusts his nutsack at the table, that just means he’s one of us.