By Brian Westbye
I have come to realize that all around the world the ingredients are the same: only the presentation differs. And we would do well to think a little more deeply about our ingredients and presentation.
I’ve long been an acolyte of Anthony Bourdain. His landmark 1999 expose/memoir in The New Yorker, Don’t Eat Before Reading This, unearthed some nasty restaurant-industry trade secrets, making him the Jim Bouton of the culinary world and I have followed his rise from cranky middle-age ex-junky chef to renowned author to television phenomenon. I greatly enjoy his snark and love of gastro adventure. I have watched Bourdain transform from cartoon misanthrope adrenaline fiend to fiercely intelligent and engaged father and world citizen.
His earliest Food Network show was A Cook’s Tour to his current CNN offering Parts Unknown which is a brilliant show because, unlike Bourdain’s earlier travel-and-food-porn entertainment series, it offers a view of the socio-political lay of the land around the world, seen through the lens of…food. There is much more meat on these bones. In this series Bourdain’s interviews are thought-provoking, and his questions and conclusions challenging. It’s not just Tony inhaling tripe, blood sausage and enough pints to drown Parliament in a London pub anymore. Now it’s “What happens to London post-Brexit?” and “What does the newly normalized relationship between the United States and Cuba mean for Cubans?” One gets a glimpse at how the rest of the world lives in addition to food porn.
This geo-social focus allows us to look at our own lives and think about how we live and where we fit in in the grand scheme of the world. This is a good thing and very much welcome.
We tend to think of food on differing levels at differing times: as a necessary element for survival; as a means of physical and spiritual nourishment and sustenance through sharing; as a cultural template—a touchstone of native custom and tradition as exotic as the locale.
I love cooking at home in myriad ethnic styles and eating myriad ethnic cuisines, and I think of the cuisine in terms of the elements.
Indian: exotic, earthy, dominated by spices. Thai: balance, fiery hot chilis and cool mint and cuke. When preparing a meal, I think of the base ingredients at hand, as components that make the whole. But at the time I tend to think of those components as they specifically relate to this meal at this time: X ounces of crushed tomatoes plus Y amount of diced onions and garlic = dinner is served. It’s a myopic vision that allows for a broader context after the fact.
In every episode of Parts Unknown, from Punjab to Quebec, to Porto to Tokyo, to Jerusalem to San Sebastian, Anthony Bourdain visits a local family for a meal and conversation. Watching the Koreatown, LA episode, I salivate as the family of the artist David Choe prepares Korean delicacies with greens, peppers, tomatoes, onions and rice. Watching the Mississippi episode, I drool over down-home soul food with greens, peppers, tomatoes, onions and rice. Watching the Beirut episode, I long for fresh Syrian food with greens, peppers, tomatoes, onions and rice.
Because I tend to think of food as a cultural template or as components specific to time-and-place (meal-and-place, if you will), the most obvious quality of food completely escaped my notice. All around the world the ingredients are the same—only the presentation differs. With a tomato, an onion and some curry powder, I can create an Indian curry. With a tomato and an onion and some paprika, I can create a barbecue sauce. With a tomato and an onion and some oregano, I can create a marinara sauce. And on and on. A tomato and an onion can transport me to any part of the world, and I can get a taste of how the natives live. This was a mind-blowing revelation for me.
Yes, at the end of the day this does boil (sorry) down to a hackneyed, overwrought cliché: we are all much more alike than different; we all have much more in common than not. True enough. But realizing that the basic elements of food are the same all around the world really makes me think about human connectedness and the human condition around the world. And I am grateful for this gift.
Like it or not we are an interconnected interdependent world.
I am a citizen of this world, and I therefore feel an obligation to make it better. This means understanding. The plight of Syrians living through brutal conflict affects me. The value of the Yuan in Beijing, and its effect on the US dollar, affects me. Abject poverty in Mississippi affects me. And if I am to be a responsible, benevolent citizen of the world, I need to understand how the people—the ingredients—of the world live and how we are ALL affected by each other.
On visiting Paris a few years ago, I went in with an open mind and a healthy dose of respect—for the people and culture. Paris is not my home, so I wanted to experience Paris. I failed high school French a quarter century before, but one will get much further being respectful and making a modest effort with a few key phrases in French than barreling in with a cowboy hat and screaming, “I SPEAK AMERICAN!” Thus, I could order steak-frites avec rouge vin, s’il vous plait without causing an international incident, and without any spit in my food. It doesn’t take much: just a little respect and effort, and a willingness to see how the other half lives.
Perhaps we could all start to think about the ingredients of life and how each ingredient effects the other. If we can understand how a tomato and an onion work together in a dish of Cuban Picadillo we can understand how a tomato and an onion work together in a dish of Southwest Chili (and perhaps that knowledge will make our chili that much better).
If we can understand that all people all around the world use the same ingredients—merely with different presentations—we can see that we are all interconnected and interdependent, all around the world. With this knowledge, perhaps we can learn to cultivate more compassion and empathy in our relationships, with others everywhere and with ourselves.
Because hokey metaphor though it is, the truth is that the ingredients (and people) are the same everywhere. What matters is how we treat them.
In 2015, at age 42, Brian Westbye returned to the University of Maine at Augusta, after twenty years, to complete his Bachelor of Music in Jazz and Contemporary Music: Sonic Arts (i.e. audio recording and filmmaking). A failed corporate drone, he is feverishly recording a solo record at home, creating films from scratch, penning op-ed, memoir, fiction and poetry, and working on his first book, a memoir ode to the Great American Road Trip and the Great American Midlife Crisis. World Domination will follow. Check out his site here.
Editor: Dana Gornall