I will always remember exactly where I was on June 8th, when I got the news. I was sitting on the floor in a brand new meeting room at the Waterside Campus at Northampton University in England. I could smell the new carpet, fresh paint and chemical-y plastic of recently unwrapped office furniture. I had just received a text from my partner asking how I was doing. And, after reciprocating the compulsory questions and answers, I received a website link asking, “have you seen this yet?” I read the link and saw Anthony Bourdain’s name. My first thought was “oh gawd, please don’t tell me he’s dead.” I opened it, and it was exactly as I had feared. The tears that slowly rolled down my cheeks were involuntary. As I sat on the floor in the middle of a workshop, I searched for some Kleenex in my bag trying my best not to draw attention to myself. But, it was inevitable; people would notice my crying and eye dabbing during the prosaic session.
I think about Bourdain’s death and I feel a wave of dull sadness. He was the first food/travel writer and television personality that I saw who categorically embraced the experience of being in other countries, cultures and socio-political circumstances. As he moved through each destination, he did so without criticizing or judging the people, places, cultures or even the foods that he encountered. He was courageous in his consumption. Beating cobra heart in Vietnam, done. Balut in the Philippines, sure, why not. Warthog anus in Namibia, eaten with valiant effort. It amazed me and still does. It was a fearless act of diplomacy that I haven’t seen duplicated by any other globe-trotting food personality on TV.
But, it was Bourdain’s prolific and brainy prose that I truly admired. I was consistently dazzled by his extensive vocabulary and his unapologetic politics. He embraced emotions often ranging in a single episode from empathy, sadness and compassion, defying the prerequisites of standard masculinity. He saw and deeply felt the injustices and inequalities of this world. He freely commented on the structural inequalities and systematic bias that made life hard, unfair and unsafe for so many people. He continually recognized and ardently defended the black and brown bodies that toiled in the hot kitchens in North America who were never recognized for their backbreaking labour in the restaurant write-ups in magazines, newspapers and blogs. Not a small or insignificant recognition when he was someone who readily benefitted from that system.
As a way to commemorate the profound passing of one of my culinary heros I took to food and writing. A no brainer. I was gifted a copy of his last cookbook - Appetites: A Cookbook, two Christmases ago and I had yet to make anything from it. One of my close friends, another Bourdain fan, had suggested we make a dinner dedicated to him. And that was exactly what we did. We earmarked the recipes that we wanted to make, over a dozen in total. Ultimately, we narrowed it down to just four items: iceberg wedge salad with stilton (I used gorgonzola because that’s my preference) and pancetta, deviled eggs with sardines, fried polenta crescents (which became something else entirely), chicken milanese (though the recipe called for veal, again, a personal preference). This meal ended up being one of my favourite meals I’ve made in ages - stomach distending and deeply gratifying.
THE TRIBUTE - A QUADRIPARTITE MEAL
They may have fallen out of fashion for some, but not for me. Deviled eggs are simple and delicious despite their pedestrian appearance. This recipe offers a rich, fatty and salty trifecta of deliciousness. The egg yolk was amped up with creamy mayonnaise, salt, pepper, parsley and anchovy. Each egg white half received an overflowing amount of soft, creamy yolk filling, topped with a half of an anchovy in all of its lubricious and briny glory. Parsley was exuberantly sprinkled all over for much needed freshness, balancing out the decadent and fatty filling. Each bite was followed by uncontrollable “mmmmmmm” sounds. I couldn’t even help myself.
This salad was a distinctly good decision. I would *hell yes* make that salad again. People hate on iceberg lettuce because it’s mundane and has “no flavour.” What it lacks in actual flavour it makes up for tenfold in texture. Crunchy, sweet, rigid, water swollen leaves are perfect for cutting into wedges to be dressed with literally any pungent dressing you desire. That night, however, there were specifications to meet: meaty and salty cubes of pancetta that had been fried to crispy perfection and, deep fried crispy shallots offered perfectly light and airy crunch that added sweet depth and flavour to a very simple dish. And, the star, a gorgonzola dressing that literally made the whole dish sing like Measha Brueggergosman. My entire body was delighted and entranced by this combination of flavour and texture.
POLENTA - WHATEVER YOU WANNA CALL IT
This was a polenta adventure that went from upset to success. Our goal: fry polenta crescents, as the name strongly suggested. It never happened. The polenta should have been cooked longer, so that more of the liquid evaporated. Even after cooling down the mixture in the fridge for a few hours only polenta gloop remained. Not at all how I imagined my food tribute. I was feeling like I had failed and my tribute meal was going awry. But I could hear Bourdain in my mind, “fuck it! It doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to be good.” It was an opportunity to doctor that mess into something good. No. Better than good. Something magically delicious. The too wet polenta was poured into a hot, buttered cast iron skillet and baked for 45 minutes. When it was done, it was flipped out of the pan to reveal this beautiful, crisp, perfectly browned crust. The polenta cake was cut into wedges and served. The crisp and creamy cake was saturated with rich butter and nutty parmesan flavour. My teeth cracked the exterior of the polenta and it gave way to a soft and creamy interior. Not at all what it was intended to be, but it was a delicious mistake rectifying the initial disaster.
CHICKEN MILANESE (THE RECIPE CALLS FOR VEAL, BUT I CHICKENED OUT… AYEEEEEEE!)
Chicken milanese is the kind of thing you make when you like someone. Like, really, really like them. Chicken pounded until thin, coated in flour, egg and panko makes for a delicious fried dish. Fried chicken in whatever form is never really a bad thing, is it? Crispy, juicy and delicious. What more do I really need to say about it? Except, that I felt that our efforts had truly come together in a successful tribute when I had completed frying two pieces of chicken, one came out in the shape of a heart and the other, a penis. An accurate and spot-on reminder of who Bourdain was. A man who loved fiercely and never shied away from euphemisms or references about sex.
With that I leave you with a quote:
“I'm asked a lot what the best thing about cooking for a living is. And it's this: to be a part of a subculture. To be part of a historical continuum, a secret society with its own language and customs. To enjoy the instant gratification of making something good with one's hands--using all one's senses. It can be, at times, the purest and most unselfish way of giving pleasure (though oral sex has to be a close second).”
― Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
Bourdain I miss you terribly. I hope that you finally found your peace.