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ANTHONY BOURDAIN: America’s Falling Behind

Anthony Bourdain. Photo Courtesy of Travel Channel

Anthony Bourdain. Photo Courtesy of Travel Channel

This is an excerpt from an interview by Jason Cochran on AOL Travel (Posted Feb 28th 2011 12:00 PM).  I really like the points Anthony makes concerning how good food can be made inexpensively.  While Anthony Bourdain is not vegetarian, he does encourage people to try new things and be more adventurous with their food, which I can really appreciate.  The point Anthony makes about the rising cost of food supports the fact that like it or not (I definitely like it), people are going to have to reduce the meat in their diets.

To read the interview in its entirety click here.  To learn more about Jason Cochran click here.


Your show seems to be very much about turning other people on to what’s out there.

I think that, like eating, travel should be a fairly submissive experience. You should open yourself up to stuff and let things happen. Generally speaking, it’s an amazing world. People may or may not agree with you, but when it comes to eating and drinking it’s a world full of peace and proud people doing the best they can. Hospitality is a feature of a lot of cultures that you might not expect to be welcoming.

Americans often see fine food as something of a consumer item or something for the wealthy, but abroad, as you show time and again, it’s the simplest expression of tradition and of human connection. How did we get so high-minded here?

I think it’s not high-mindedness. Post World War Two, we got lazy. We got spoiled. We could eat 20-ounce steaks. There were restaurants everywhere. It’s all about excessive portions and meat and potatoes. We lost touch with having to cook well because we didn’t have to. The nation had just been through a war, and suddenly there was a period of incredible prosperity, relatively, and it was all about convenience and things other than food. American culture is all about assimilating and moving away from your roots, moving away from your small town or your poor background. Families changed, populations moved, and everywhere we went there were cheap hamburgers and chicken without skin or legs.

And yet on the road, you’re often finding the most satisfying, nuanced food is the cheapest stuff. Why isn’t it that way for us?

We weren’t forced into a situation where we had to find ingenious ways to make something that was not very good, and there wasn’t very much of it, into something delicious. Where people have to cook well, or are forced by circumstances to cook well, they learn to make the most of it. It was just as easy to go out to a Howard Johnson’s or a Horn & Hardart back in the ’50s than it was to eat at home, in fact you were encouraged to do it. The TV dinner was seen as a godsend for people who had more important things to do than feed themselves. That’s changing. We’re much more aware of where our food comes from.

What will it take to get the average American care about their food the way so many people who live abroad do?

I hate to say it, but I think we will see it. As the price of raw ingredients rises, we’ll reach a point where a lot of working families will have to figure out how to cook again to make the most out of what they have. A lot of foods we take for granted now are going to be out of reach. We very well might have to start cooking eventually more like the Chinese, where meat, for instance, is less the main event than the garnish, the condiment, the flavoring ingredient. So we might be forced to eat better, cook better, and eat healthier just by virtue of these food items we take for granted being out of reach economically. Even at mid-range restaurants, any chef could put a big fat fillet of wild salmon on a plate. Now? Not so much.

What do your travel food experiences teach you about yourselves?

You realize how damn lucky you are and how good you’ve got it. In the Egypt show we shot over a year ago, I realize now we documented an important moment without realizing how important. Our government fixers and handlers did not want us – did not want us – to show the everyday, standard, staple breakfast of the working Egyptian. It’s a dish called foul. It’s served everywhere in the streets in Cairo, and it’s basically a watery chickpea stew with a big stack of flatbread. They did not want us to show that, and I didn’t understand or realize at the time what they were so afraid of. But the fact is there had been some bread riots recently, the army owned the bakeries, the price of flour had gone up. Just the change of a few cents per pound for the price of flour or bread – the whole security of the regime rested on a thing like that. I think they well understood and were terrified of that. They understood the power of us saying, “Hey, this is what most Egyptians fill their bellies with every day.” That’s the sort of fact that topples governments, as we’ve seen.

Is there something you want Americans to take away from that? I think some would hear a story like that and be afraid to ever go to Egypt, but I don’t think that’s what you intend.

No. I am not political. I’m not an advocate. I call myself an enthusiast. I’m an old-school lefty from New York. I don’t have a lot in common with the Tea Party. But I’m guessing that we both like beer and we both like barbecue. And I’m pretty damn sure I could sit down with just about anybody in the Tea Party and have a pretty good time at the table drinking beer and eating barbecue. That’s something. That’s about as political as it gets from me. If the people aren’t getting fed in a country, I’m against you, whoever you are. But I think Danny Ortega’s going to be very unhappy with our Nicaragua show.

Do you wish Americans would travel more?

Travel changes people for the better. The more you walk around in another person’s shoes, the more you’ve seen of the world, the better a person you are. If I can convince somebody who’s got the money to do it, the freedom to do it, and if one of our shows has inspired them to, then sure. I hear it a lot. People come up to me a lot and say, “I went to Vietnam, and I tracked down some of the same business that you ate at and I had a good time.” Sure. That makes me happy. I grew up with books and movies and I dreamed of seeing places like those I’d read about. It’s unimaginable to me that people wouldn’t yearn for a peek at the other side of the world, an undiscovered beach, a tiny little food stall that serves the perfect bowl of noodles.

Are you aware that you may be changing lives just by visiting with your cameras?

Yeah. I know the show has been good for a number of small businesses, but I’m also changing the character in negative ways as well sometimes. I have mixed emotions about that. We worry sometimes that that tiny, out-of-the-way, unspoiled place suddenly, after the show, there are people in ugly shorts and fanny packs. But I think on balance it’s something I can live with. And yet I want [to reach] people who wear silly tourist clothes and don’t know how to travel or haven’t traveled well in the past. I want them to have fun. There’s good stuff out there and good people.

Good people is a big theme with your show. You have a reputation as a hardass, but really, your writing is all about finding joy and wonder and connection with strangers. I don’t think your reputation is fully deserved.

I’m angry and hyperbolic about a lot of things, but I’m also very sentimental about a lot of other things.

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