Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Indian food won't kill you!

Anthony Bourdain: Indian food won't kill you 

It’s true, over the years I've enjoyed my share of "cooking shows." There was that wonderful, low, low budget PBS show, The Frugal Gourmet with Jeff Smith, a charming, slightly odd-ball, raconteur who shared with his audience in his buttery voice, his peculiar brand of down to Earth reasonableness as he prepared appealing dishes and set them down in front of the camera. And there was that mega-popular network half hour show that I'd watch with my mom, The Galloping Gourmet. This one starred Graham Kerr who was for us, not only charming, but fascinating with his somewhat flamboyant dress, his British accent not quite like any other we'd heard before, and his habit of sipping a bit too much red wine as he cooked for us… or so I recall. There were many others, of course, Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Emeril, Lydia Bastianich, and on and on.  But as entertaining and heartwarming as they were, they were hardly ever challenging, hardly ever inspiring (beyond getting you into your own kitchen to venture further than scramble eggs, that is), and certainly, hardly ever truly thought provoking. They were easy to categorize, put in a box, and see as television fluff. Pperhaps fluff with style and substance, but fluff none the less.


Over the past decade, this has changed radically, as has American appreciation for food and the event of eating it. Somewhere along the way "cooking shows" have become "food shows" and food, its origins, its preparation, and  its presentation and consumption have become hip! One of the hipsters who has led this charge, who has made being food-wise, food-sophisticated, even food-snarky, and at the very least, food-centric, something that we now all want to be, is Anthony Bourdain.

Unlike Smith and Kerr, though, Anthony is NOT a goof ball, not a food geek or a food dork, he's not even, I believe, by his own admission, a great cook. He comes off, somewhat paradoxically, as a guy who has earned his slightly curmudgeonly outlook on things by virtue of having been through  the mill, a tough mill at that, but one who's still "hungry for more" (one of the intro tag lines from one of his shows) which is why he explores the world, ferreting out the good stuff and providing insightful perspective on our world gone astray, explaining what's cool and what isn't and why. If you haven't seen his shows (that's plural - I'm aware of A Cook's Tour, No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown. Did I miss any?) you really need to find your way to some episodes and pay attention,  because THIS is GREAT television!

And, before I forget, I've got to mention that if you surf YouTube's search engine you'll find dozens and dozens and dozens of young people who are playing the game of being Anthony Bourdain, posting online their own "show episodes" of themselves traveling the world, sharing their food experiences and their reflections on life for their audiences, wherever and whatever they might be.  When I was growing up kids wanted to be rock stars, now they want to be like globetrotting, tattoo getting, not at all embarrassed to admit that, like Woody Allen, he has no credibility on the dance floor and never catches any fish in contrived food show fishing scenes,  Anthony Bourdain. Hope I did you justice, Anthony!

I'll also mention here that unlike so many other popular TV shows, I can never find free past episodes of Anthony's shows on YouTube. Nope, you can find tons of those little excised snippets of them that give you an idea of what happened in those episodes, but not full ones. But who knows, maybe for someone simply trying to squeeze hours and hours of high quality television viewing into the unrealistic space of a short period of time, this is just as good? But, nah!

OK, enough background and context. Here we have an atypical Bourdain video of Anthony sitting down  to dinner with another grey haired, 50 something-ish, super appealing cable TV personality, Anderson Cooper. As is quickly established in this episode, Anthony plays the role of the experienced guide to planet Earth and the worthwhile and wonderful things it has to offer members of the human race. And Anderson plays his straight man, a self styled naive who has yet to dabble in the pleasures of potentially dangerous vices like... Indian Food.  And Anthony, showing his mellow side, patiently and knowingly is a good friend and makes it alright for Anderson to be himself and find out one of those truths about real life that apparently has thus far escaped him; namely, that Indian Food Won't Kill You and it's actually pretty damn good!

5 seconds into this extremely economically and effectively edited clip we hear Anderson say "Your show has started to make me think about... about food. And about that it's more than just fuel... and, that uh, I don't know... I actually went to Tangiers because you had gone there and done your show on it and I enjoyed your show and I thought... Yeah, that'd be a cool place... so, you've had a big impact ...). And Anthony, as all of this is said to him is smiling that wonderful little smile of his. A smile that seems to me to reveal that he is very pleased to be there at that moment, on television with another of its stars - a kind of "This is SO cool, pinch me so I know I'm not dreaming", smile - a sort of bemused, "Yes, my magic is powerful!" smile - a kind of "You know, this is SO simple, all I had to do was be who I really am and work my ass off for years to make it here!" smile. And he, knowing full well that he is on camera and how to look good on camera, turns to Anderson Cooper and says in a sort of understated, I don't want to brag, but thanks for the compliment,  way "Well, I've done some good in the world." And yes, Anthony you have because Anderson, who is clearly enjoying himself too, and clearly not anticipating any unpleasantness in his mouth or stress to his digestive system, apparently has chosen for this dinner (or was it the show's producer who actually chose) an Indian restaurant. And this launches a discussion accompanied by clips from a variety of Anthony's shows, of India, Indian food, Indian restaurants in India, Punjabi vegetarian food, etc. And let me say that I thoroughly enjoy this video's 2 and half minutes of these  2 experienced, well spoken  gentlemen trading observations about food and travel.  Good stuff!

Just a couple of months ago I took a 2 week tour of India and, as is often the case when one books a commercial tour, you have no choice but to get to know your bus mates somewhat intimately. Astoundingly, there were people on this tour, who for its duration, insisted that they didn't like Indian food even though they hardly had ever tried it. Let me repeat, there they were accompanying me on a tour of India, meal after meal shying away from the glorious food set before us because they were certain that well, you know, "It's curry and it's too spicy!" However, as was plainly demonstrated for us over the course of 35 meals, Indian food offers many, many other things beside curry (the spice) and Curries (the category of dish) and most of it is NOT spicy, unless, of course, you ask the waiter to do you a favor and have the cook make it spicy for you. We had some extraordinary Indian food and some ordinary Indian food and, no, I didn't get Delhi Belly and have to run to the toilet constantly, although I did put on a few pounds due to over eating. And I suppose that at the end of the day, that my having chosen Idly with coconut sauce instead of corn flakes with milk at the hotel breakfast buffet in Agra, for instance, isn't such a big deal. Certainly doesn’t make me a hero. But, this is a big world with all sorts of people, people who over the millenia have scoured their environment for good things to eat and have developed ingenius and very tasty ways to prepare them. And sampling these comestibles is a way to acknowledge that there is much to appreciate on this planet and that part of life’s purpose is to experience and reflect on its variety, and who knows, there may be things to learn and love, and trying unfamiliar stuff may enrich one's life significantly. At least, so it seems to me. And for those fellow travelers on this spinning globe who are tone deaf to the key of life, who just can't seem to hear the song of Planet Earth,  let me finish up here by repeating Anthony's words "Indian food won't kill you!"

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