This month’s selection was The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones by Anthony Bourdain.
Anthony Bourdain is probably best known for being the bad boy host of the Travel Channel’s No Reservations where he swaggers across the globe drinking, cursing, and eating regional “delicacies.” I’ve seen the show and have enjoyed it, but this is the first time I’ve read his writing.
The Nasty Bits refers less to offal and more to the “darker” side of the food world. The book is a collection of essays and articles from his travels and travails, sometimes gritty, sometimes earnest, sometimes a bit off-putting. The author is known for being blunt, almost crude, and an unapologetic New Yorker. Even knowing that going in, he still managed to surprise me from time to time.
On a whole, I found the book to be uneven. I didn’t like it at first. Since the stories have been published in various media some of them overlap in content or topic. They aren’t sequential chapters of a story, so some information gets repeated out of necessity for a single article, but feels redundant in book format. A few stories sounded more like exercises in name-dropping than anecdotes. I started to resent mentions even of chefs I follow and respect. Even the chapter called “Are You a Crip or a Blood?” which dissected the choices of eating locally or sourcing high quality imported ingredients ended with what I felt was a cop out.
Eventually we got into the swing of things. The essays are divided into sections titled Salty, Sweet, Sour, Bitter, and Umami. Salty just wasn’t doing it for me off the bat. The chapter that really swayed me was pure happenstance. It’s titled “China Syndrome,” and it was the chapter I was on when I asked my friend semi-jokingly if I should read her a bedtime story and she said yes.
It was a short chapter, but really satisfying to read out loud. The content was amusing and I related to it after our trip to China two years ago. Instead of finding the writing abrasive, I now found it to be almost rhythmic and percussive. Maybe my optimistic self needed the Sweet section to sway me, but I really enjoyed the book from that point on.
Another favorite chapter was “What You Didn’t Want to Know About Making Food Television,” which provided a reasonably candid glance into the making of an episode of “No Reservations.” The Umami section really was meaty, providing insightful and thought-provoking ideas — two highlights were a dinner with Ferran Adria and a “research” trip to Brazil — along with wit and wisdom.
After a rocky start, I did enjoy the book. There were chapters that left me cold and a few that grated on me a bit, but by the end I would say the good outweighs the bad. I would think that a bit of experience with Bourdain would be very helpful as I think I would be less generous if I had never seen his show (despite his reluctance to be a “television personality”). His earnest love of good food, whether simple street food in Asia or commercial haute cuisine in Las Vegas, shines through his vitriol and attitude towards other things. Life can’t all be tropical cruises and free dinners. That’s why it’s called The Nasty Bits.