Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Eastern Passage


I've read almost all of Farley Mowat's books...and he is always atop my list of favourite authors (he varies from first to third). I have a strange connection to his books, his life, even his view of the world. Like him I started life in Ontario then moved onto Saskatchewan and eventually returned. We have that Quinte Bay (Trenton & Belleville) connection. We have a similar interest in nature...and now Eastern passage has cemented this connection even further. I will elaborate: My dream job - writer. What I've been reading lately (and fantasizing about) - a magazine about living off the land, living off the grid, 'homesteading'. Strangely enough, this book starts out with those two things. It's FM's account of the beginning of his writing career, and as it turns out his homesteading experience...at the same time!

This book is just full of surprises. After his return from WWII, Farley meets up with France and gets married. This is a surprise to me since I've never heard of this lady. I didn't even know he was married? Anyway, FM can't stand the city (Toronto at the time) and manages to buy 10 acres from a friend for $50 or $500, don't quote me but it was cheap. The land in way out in the country, lot 4b on cty ln 10 off RR#30 just past the old burned out yurt...you get the idea? There is barely a road, there is no house, there is no electricity, not even cell phone coverage. Farley takes the spring and summer to put up what sounds like a solid log house. Made with his own hands, a shovel, and a jeep. The next year he takes on the land, which sounds like it was pretty worn out from previous logging and farming. He starts a giant garden, gets a few chickens, and starts reforesting the land. During these first couple of years he writes his first book - The People of the Deer - and sells a few magazine articles. His breakout success with this book brings more confidence and more ideas, pretty soon he has a few books on the go. One of these book ideas, eventually leading to And No Birds Sang, takes him and his wife on a European Vacation. Not the fun Griswold type (we're pigs), but, to reconnect with the battlegrounds and experiences he had during his war years. Then, to my surprise he starts a family?! Another shocker! I never knew he had kids? But, a little boy is born a year or so after the Europe trip. Then Farley promptly takes a voyage on a boat down the St.Lawrence river out to Nova Scotia, where the story suddenly ends. There is some foreshadowing that implies the trip was a bad idea and it would probably ruined his fragile marriage and new family life.

The book was laid out in an interesting way. Farley tells his writing story mostly through letters he had with his editor and his agent. Now, I know writers can be a bit strange and unconventional, but, Farley has to take the cake on this one. In most of his letters to his editor he writes very unprofessionally. He dismisses most of the changes his editor suggest (even if predicted to sell more books), which is normal I suppose. But, then mentions how he could write more if he wasn't always spending his time on that garden. How if he was just sent an advance, even $500, he wouldn't worry about him and his wife starving this winter. Or, he pushes that he should come meet with the editor, if of course they would kindly pay for travel food hotel. Then there are letters that he chats about the weather or some other topic that has nothing to do with writing. He rambles, he swears, he rants, he criticizes the government...in letters to his editor.

There seemed, to me at least, to be a theme running through the book - independence. Mowat shares stories about his homesteading, stressing how his eventual goal was to be self-sufficient. Then there is the a big section about a trip he takes to visit some old army friends who live in the northern part of Hastings county. These people were not part of mainstream society. They were living off the land; fishing and hunting. Farely's stories brought out the best in these rough outliers lives and I felt his tone bordered envy. Then there was his boat trip. What can be more blatantly isolating than being secluded on a boat in the middle of a large body of water...that's one way to get away, especially if there is a strong current pushing you. It was pretty clear by the end of the book that Farley was trying to get away from something at this part of his life. What? I'm not sure, but, that's what good writers do, leave you hanging...and/or encourage you to buy the next book! Or, leave you thinking? Was he running from his war memories? his wife? responsibility? growing up?


As a post script/side note: I find it really weird when you are reading and obscure things pop up in multiple books. For eg. in Eastern Passage Farley rants about Jerusalem artichokes. Kind of an obscure thing to mention. Strangely enough, Jaime Oliver praises these things multiple times in The Return of the Naked chef. Weird, weird, weird. I have never heard of this 'vegetable' in my life, now all of the sudden they are in every other book I read!?

What even makes this even funnier is the passionate contrasting views on these artichokes. Mowat complains about how they are like weeds, they never die and just keep reproducing. He rages that they are almost inedible, look like a 'turd' and are probably just as nutritious!

Oliver, on the other hand, promotes these things as nutritious, delicious, elegant looking food that is underused.

Now, isn't that strange? Almost a Monty python moment - now for something completely different.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Kitchen Confidential


Wow, is this book saucy! By that, I don't mean the one description of a great sounding chicken wing sauce, I mean the vulgar language, insults, rants, profanity, sexuality, blood, gore, drugs, dead pigs, rotten fish...you get the idea. Nobody under the age of say, 21, should be reading this, IMO.

Bordain uses his words like a chef uses his knife, to cut through all the bullsh** glamorized ideas that the food network cooking shows have given us (his insults on Emril & Rachel Ray are frequent and slightly funny). The world of the cook is not fun, easy, and thirty minutes...it's 18 hours, smelly, hot, sweaty, and well, working class! The book takes us into the culinary underbelly (as described by the cover of the book), and it kind of a frightening journey to tell you the truth.

In the preface, Bourdain states he only wrote this book for those in the industry, and truthfully thought nobody other than a handful of unemployed chefs/cooks with time to waste would read it...apparently it turned into a best seller? I can vouch for that; I would even buy it! Me, the guy who got mad over 70 cents worth of overdue library fines...it is that good.

This quasi-autobiography starts with a young Anthony travelling through France. He was a bratty kid, only eating hamburgers and french fries, shunning anything French. He was always a rebellious kid, which is what starts his food journey. It begins when the fam takes a day trip on an oyster fishing boat. Fresh oysters were offered up by the pirate like captain and nobody wanted to eat them (too weird, too slimy, etc). Anthony finally steps up and eats one, being the rebel of course. He loved it. From that point on he pushed the limits on all food, eating the strangest frenchest things on the menu.

Years later, on a summer break from college, he reluctantly takes a dishwashing job. It was that, or be evicted by his roommates. The restaurant he worked for was filled with crooked, drugged up, crude talking guys. Terrible sounding to me, but, paradise for Anthony.

It is incredible the outrageous stuff that went on in that kitchen was considered ok, even normal. There were lots of drugs, inter-employee 'relationships' (in the dry goods room!), bad food handling, gambling, stealing, just arrogant crass behaviour! And, the competitive atmosphere within the restaurant and with other restaurants down the street was mind boggling. The psychological assaults the cooks played on one other left me surprised that there were not any knife wielding incidents. The scary part - I think Bourdain toned down the stories. Your typical story teller enhances tales (ie makes stuff up). I think Anthony left much of the worst of it out. So, even as shocking as some of these stories are, I think there are worse ones left out.

The book is divided up like a fine meal. There is the autobiographical story of Anthony's career which makes up the entree - the real meat of the story. I say meat because any chef regards vegetarians as the bane of their existence, or at least Anthony does. There is also a side dish of stories about eccentric people Tony has worked with or worked for. This includes many junkies, megalomaniacs, and even the mafia. There are also small tidbits, appetizers and desserts, intermixed in the book. Mostly they are about how a restaurant actually works. You might get the impression these parts would have a textbook feel? Really, how interesting is it to describe what a porter does or how to order stock. But, instead of dry terminology and definitions Anthony gives us some tasteless examples of the criminal behaviour that he expects from porters (such as stealing food and booze). Some of the most effective parts of the book are these small dishes, effective in that they make you want to vomit. Like, why not to eat seafood on Monday. Or, why Sunday brunch should be called something like, 'stuff that should be going out in the trash but let's make a seafood fritatta out of it to save money'.

What I found this book did was bring me right into the noisy, hot, cuss filled kitchen and realize how much I've taken for granted being that diner who comes in for a relaxing meal on a Saturday night. But, other than make me feel guilty, Bourdain also does a great job of making the book relevant to anyone working in a cruddy job. Just like other jobs most of the time is spent in the drudgery of repetition ('the same dish 150 times a day' can easily be compared to 'the same data input into the computer 150 times a day'). Also the camaraderie of being on the same team, taking on the ever present enemy, be it the customer or the boss! The high point of this industry seems to be the personal satisfaction that comes with making a great dish (or 150 of them in a night). Anthony repeats many times that he often left work feeling satisfied deep down.

I do have to warn you, other than the three thousand foul words found in the book, that this is one of those books you are going to be quoting (hence, annoying others) for years to come. Most likely anytime you go out to eat you'll want to share some of your new found knowledge on the workings of the kitchen. Or, at least what NOT to order! Oh, and you'll probably never let anyone send anything back again, unless you like eating spit...or completely ruining the rest of the night for a few lowly cooks.

Overall, this was a book I didn't want to put down. It was a book I wished would go on forever. One of the best books I've read in years! I found the stories and writing just...entertaining on many different levels. The actual words Bourdain uses are all over the place, for eg. where is the last time you saw 'underbelly' used in a sentence? It's funny, which I like. It is also full of 'stuff' (words, phrases, life experiences) that I have never run across or for that matter ever hope to. This out of the ordinary 'stuff' is fascinating. Anthony's personal story, from lazy ass druggie to master chef, is so full of ups and downs you really never know what is going to happen next. So, get crakin'...readin'


P.S. What made me first pick up this book was Anthony's shameless promotion of it on his great travel/food show No Reservations. Funny though, the jokes on Anthony - he promoted his book, which I got free from the library, from his show, which I also got free from the library...oh boy, I'm quite the cheapskate!