Nasty, Brutish, Shortish

Anthony Bourdain's newest, The Nasty Bits, is perfect summer reading: Riveting to pick up, easy to put down

I have a very special beach routine. First, I get a good book. Then, I spackle on a few gallons of 55 sunblock, hire barkers to roam the beach to warn the innocents of impending atrocities, and, once I feel the populace has been duly warned, crack open said book, unveil my ghostly limbs to the snickering hordes, and strike them blind with the glare. As ambulances clear the beach of bodies, I read a few pages of said book, and then am knocked into unconsciousness, as if Tasered by that terrible stuff that comes out of that big hot light that banishes the moon. Eventually a loved one throws me in the trunk of the car, and I consider summer well lived for another year.

As you can imagine, it's terribly important to me that the book really says quite a bit in a page or two. I consider a perfect summer beach book to be one that is easy to pick up, and even easier to put down. Pick up, put down. Pick up, chat about drowsily, fuel some thoughts, put down. Too much has been made, I think, of books that can't be put down. To them I say: For crap's sake, leave me alone already! Everyone's on my case, and now you, you can't be put down, what am I, Hercules now, I gotta carry you and every other goddamn thing everywhere I go? Take your deckled edge and your fancy dust jackets and find some other sucker to ferry you all over God's green earth!

But I digress. If you too want a book that is stimulating and amusing, but not a demanding pain in the ass, I can't say enough good things about ersatz chef and Kitchen Confidential scribe Anthony Bourdain's newest, The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones (Bloomsbury Publishing; $24.95). As the title implies, this is indeed an anthology of previously published work, but unless you keep up with the Financial Times, Town & Country, the British version of Esquire, and Best Life, whatever the hell that is, the material will likely be as new to you as it was to me.

The chef as anthropologist: Anthony Bourdain at Macchu Picchu
Tracey Gudwin
The chef as anthropologist: Anthony Bourdain at Macchu Picchu

New, and also riveting. The book, which contains three dozen essays and one longish short story that's kind of like a profane, vodka-and-sautée-station-involved version of A Christmas Carol, is conversationally provocative on nearly every page. There's the essay about eating freshly killed seal with an Inuit family, which quickly turns into Night of the Living Dead meets Norman Rockwell (don't ask about the eyeballs). There's the one where Bourdain ponders Woody Harrelson's culinary leadership, wondering why anyone would consult the star on anything "but how to make a bong out of a toilet-paper roll and tinfoil" and concludes, "I fear for the planet." There's the passionate plea to end racism against Hispanic kitchen talent. The rant against British gastro-pubs. The bit where he finds the scorpion stinger lodged between his teeth. And even the bits in the back where he recants his rant against British gastro-pubs, and the one against organic foods, and those mean things he said about Billy Joel, and that thing when he said fat people are hurting our war against terror.

Entertaining? As hell! Do I seem to be cursing more than usual? Shit, you will be too after reading this profane, witty, and occasionally profound book. The wonder of Bourdain, or Tony, as he insists I and every other writer, busboy, and morning TV host call him, is that he seems to think only in cocktail-party-appropriate bursts of quick fascination. And since I had his phone number in my Rolodex, I called him up to make him do it some more—reaching him at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, no less, where he was enjoying a noontime Negroni cocktail.

So, I asked, really? A Negroni?

"That evil Mario Batali got me hooked on them," said Bourdain, "He's a bad, bad man." He let out a puff of cigarette smoke. (Bourdain is always smoking, or getting up to go or getting back from smoking.)

Okay, I said, I need to ask you the one thing that's been plaguing me: At exactly what age does being a pain-in-the-ass rebel stop being annoying to powerful people, and start being cute and profitable?

"Oh, I don't know," groaned Bourdain. "Lately I've been saying that not giving a fuck is a really good business model for me. I notice that I'm writing for the New York Times and Gourmet now, and it's flattering to get invites and things from the Beard House, but fuck if I know how it happened. I actually don't even know what I do now—what is my job? I have no idea. I'm outside of America 10 months a year [filming his television show for the Travel Channel]. I don't live anywhere, I'm not a bad boy chef anymore. For one thing, I'm not a boy, I'm turning 50 in a week. And I'm not even a chef, my hands are soft and I rarely cook.

"There are people who still come up to me and say, 'What's up with the fish on Monday, should you still not order it?'" In his first bestseller, Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain wrote that the fish on Monday had likely been in the restaurant since the prior Friday. "And I say, 'What the hell do I know, I don't cook anymore.' I don't even know what I do for a living. Two weeks ago I was flying in a military helicopter over Ghana, the "Flight of the Valkyries" on my iPod. That's apparently my job now. I'm happy to provide the shows, though: The show is completely schizophrenic and bipolar, there's not any consistency in point of view and I love it. I get to sit down, get drunk, and storyboard completely inconsistent, self-indulgent stories. I make 13 independent films a season.

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