Anthony Bourdain, who was found dead in France today of an apparent suicide, was a gifted gonzo writer as well as a bad-boy TV star. My first taste of Bourdain was a 1997 novel called Gone Bamboo, a whacky tale of a CIA-trained assassin and rival Mafia hit-men on a Caribbean island. In 2001, I wrote this travel column for Canadian Press on another Bourdain book:
Anthony Bourdain is a famous New York chef, best-selling author, and chauvinistic carnivore.
But, he writes in his new book, “for my entire professional career, I’ve been like Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part II, ordering up death with a nod or a glance. When I want meat, I make a call …
“Every time I have picked up the phone or ticked off an item on my order sheet, I have basically caused a living thing to die. What arrives in my kitchen, however, is not the bleeding, still-warm body of my victim, eyes open, giving me an accusatory look that says, ‘Why me, Tony? Why me?’ I don’t have to see that part.”
At least not before he took his act on the road, traveling the world to write A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal.
Bourdain has now been up to his elbows in the butchery of a pig in Portugal, chowed down on a Mexican resort’s pet iguana, blasted bunnies in Scotland, and slurped down the still-beating heart of a cobra in Vietnam.
This is extreme sport for the wine-and-food-tour set. Bourdain approaches his itinerary with a heart-of-darkness hunger honed on Joseph Conrad novels and Francis Ford Coppola movies.
“I wanted adventures,” writes the executive chef at Les Halles in Manhattan and author of Kitchen Confidential. “I wanted to see the world – and I wanted the world to be just like the movies.”
He trips from Portugal to Spain, France to Britain, Russia to Japan, Cambodia to Vietnam, and across North America, gorging on cuisine and culture, drinking too much wine and vodka, awaking ill or hung over before spilling his guts into the story.
His arrival in a Portuguese village is greeted with the slaughter of a pig. Bourdain first stands dumbstruck, a bit queasy, as the critter’s throat is slit. But he soon joins the festivity.
“God help me, I assisted, stepping right in and putting my hands inside the warm cavity, pulling away heart, lungs, tripe, intestines, liver and kidneys,” he writes. “I felt bad for that pig, imagining his panic, pain and fear. But he tasted delicious.”
In Mexico, Bourdain is treated to a corn-husk-wrapped treat, after his host sacrifices the hotel’s iguana mascot. “When I unwrapped my tamale, I found I had been honored with the head and forearm – still on the bone. The texture was like chewing on G.I. Joe.”
He goes hunting for rabbits in Scotland, and finds himself surprisingly skillful with a shotgun. “To my shock and no small amount of dismay, I’d blown the spine out of something that had once looked very much like Bugs.”
The piece de resistance is served in Vietnam, where a snake handler cuts out the heart of a live cobra and presents it to Bourdain.
“I bring it to my lips, lift my head back and swallow. … The heart still beats … and beats … and beats. All the way down.”