Thursday, October 27, 2011

Anthony Bourdain and Moby in Asheville

The other day, Jason got a text from Mackensy Lunsford, the most excellent food writer for the Mountain Xpress, asking if, as a local chef, he had any questions for Anthony Bourdain, who's coming to Asheville next weekend and who she was interviewing.  We talked about it, and he wrote back to ask a question.  Bourdain's response is in today's Xpress.  You can read the complete interview here. 

Here are some excerpts, including Jason's question:

Anthony Bourdain has not been to Asheville recently, despite rumors to the contrary. But he has a vague understanding of what we're about from a previous trip years ago for a book-signing. "I remember this hip island of enlightenment," says Bourdain, who doesn't recall much else about the visit, including the date. 
And while some may choose to attribute that lapse in memory to Bourdain's purportedly high-partying lifestyle in years past, it's more likely that it can be pinned on the fact that the chef-turned-writer has been, quite simply, just about everywhere you want to be — and plenty of places where you might not.

Bourdain is coming to Asheville again on Saturday, Nov 5, this time to talk about food and travel, and how life in general relates to both. He took more than a few minutes out of his day to chat with Xpress from the back of a car taking him from New York City to Waterbury, Conn. He lost reception several times (lucky for us, he was game about being called repeatedly). Bourdain had plenty to say about vegetarianism, food trucks, hunger and mediocrity.


Plant's Jason Sellers wants to know if you would be willing to visit his vegan restaurant to "quell some of that open animosity with some open-mindedness."

Listen, I'm perfectly OK with vegetarians practicing whatever they want to do. I just think they make for bad travelers. That's what pisses me off. If you're eating vegan for religious reasons, fine. What you do in your home — or hometown even — in the industrialized world, I'm OK with that. That's your personal choice. I think the notion that you can travel — and I'm not talking about Rome or Paris, of course you can call ahead and say, "do you have any vegetarian options?" You can't do that in the developing world without offending people ... It's awkward and hurtful to go to grandma's house and turn down the turkey. I just see it as rude and incurious.

OK, so thing the first: kudos to Mackensy.  There's this nice and not-too-subtle Bourdain's-a-bit-of-a-drunk-and-can't-be-bothered-to-remember-when-he-was-here bit.  Then there's the inclusion of the backhanded compliment that we're a "hip island of enlightenment" in what I can only assume is a state of redneck provincialism, which counts as nothing more than an insult to the entire state of North Carolina.  But I love Mackensy mostly because she's always been supportive of Jason, has always helped him promote his work, going so far as to mention both Jason and Plant prior to introducing Sandy Krebs, the new chef at the Laughing Seed, in an interview that she conducted last week with Krebs.

So back to that Bourdain interview.

First of all, Bourdain's response doesn't really seem to answer the question, to respond to the invitation to break bread and to "quell some of that open animosity with open mindedness."  My friend Lori started a Facebook page devoted to getting Bourdain to Plant.  And I know that there are people out there who will be openly protesting, because of his harsh anti-vegetarian rhetoric, Bourdain's presence in Asheville.  In Jason's question is a genuine effort to engage in dialogue, and it's an effort that is met with complete dismissal.  And not even dismissal: Bourdain's response is a rehash of his tired diatribe against non-carnivous diets.

At least this time, he doesn't invoke the term "hezbollah."

Second -- and apropos of absolutely nothing -- Bourdain goes off on how offensive vegetarianism is to people who live in the "developing world."  We're in Asheville, but whatever.  

Of course, Bourdain's "developing world" argument completely ignores the fact that the Western world, the so-called "developed" world, has historically been the part of the world where meat has been central to diet; in terms of diet, many of the cultures of the so-called "developing world" have been based on a starch with animal protein added only occasionally.  In The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol J. Adams links increased meat eating with capitalism and patriarchy in the West and with racism towards plant-based cultures: “into the twentieth century the notion was that meat eating contributed to the Western world’s prominence” (31).  As support, she quotes nineteenth-century English physician George Beard’s analysis of the superiority of “civilized” meat-eating peoples over the “rice-eating Hindoo and Chinese and the potato-eating Irish peasant” who were all kept in subjugation to the English, which he refers to as a “nation of beef-eaters” (qtd. in Adams 31).

Third: "vegetarians make for bad travelers," says Bourdain.  My sense is that stupid arrogant carnivores make for bad travelers when they turn down the hospitality of their vegan hosts, eh?  Oh, and both Jason and I have been to this so-called third world and eaten vegan and had really significant discussions with people we've supposedly offended.  Anywhere on the planet, I imagine, people are, and should be, willing to talk about what they eat and why they eat it just as much as they should be willing to engage in any other political discourse -- and in our experience, they have been.  

People elsewhere -- people in the "developing world" -- aren't such children that they need protection from differences of opinion, or differences in diet; they don't need to be championed by the patronizing impulse of someone like Bourdain.  What he does when he makes his pro-developing world argument is to speak for the developing world.  And don't let Bourdain's rhetoric convince you that food isn't political -- or that it's only political in the sense that veganism functions as a silencing of other perspectives; the opposite seems to be more accurate.  Vegetarianism and veganism function as affronts to Bourdain's white male carnivorous Western privilege: his speaking for other cultures is more of a silencing than an act of communal eating.  

Anthony: pretend to give a shit about "other" cultures.  Use this argument to sound like a humanitarian.  Gorge yourself on the foods of "other" cultures.  Come home.  Get drunk.  Talk shit.

Then: "What you do in your home — or hometown even — in the industrialized world, I'm OK with that." And then: "it's awkward and hurtful to go to grandma's house and turn down the turkey. I just see it as rude and incurious."  Grandma doesn't live "in the industrialized world?"  Fallacy from tradition much?  Just cause something's been the case, it should always be the case?  People have always eaten turkey, at grandma's house (in the industrialized world); therefore, people should always turkey at Grandma's house.  

Perhaps a bad analogy: I had a great uncle who died when I was about 15.  When I was very young, he sat me down and made me repeat after him: "eeny, meeny, miny, moe.  Catch a nigger by the toe."  As I said, I was very young.  I did what he asked.  What's the harm, right?  He'd always used that word, I suspect.  Refusing to repeat after him would have been "awkward and hurtful."  

I can't help but think of a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving when reading Bourdain's quote above.  Thanksgiving, the holiday with which I (and I would imagine most U.S. citizens) associate turkey and grandma, is based on a colonial model of genocide.  Turkey, likewise. At least in its current, often factory farmed incarnation.  The Meleagris gallopa, wild North American turkey, was a symbol of sacrifice for many native peoples: "the spirit of turkey is free, and opens up the channels between us and others on a meaningful level."  Open channels allow for communication, even about such subjects as why one might not want to eat turkey.

Oh, and "rude and incurious"?  That's what you are, at least in the developing world, if you don't eat meat.  Sounds more like Bourdain than anyone: rude not to respond to Mackensy's question.  Incurious not to take Jason up on the invitation.

Anyway: I did an internet search for "Moby contact information."  Moby will be in town for Moogfest tomorrow.  We called the number that came up. The person who answered is no longer his agent, but he forwarded our invitation to break bread on to Moby's current representation.  That was yesterday.  

Today, we got a call letting us know that Moby will be at Plant for lunch tomorrow.  All it took was an invitation, an offer to break bread, here in the "first" world.  And this is not a plug for Moby...except that it is.  Thanks, man.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Why Margaret Atwood Should win the Nobel Prize in Literature

I came home last night after dinner with friends (at Plant, of course) and collapsed on my sofa, wanting nothing more than to watch something mindless on television.  So I flipped channels, landing first on 127 Hours, Danny Boyle’s self-proclaimed "action movie with a guy who can't move," the story of Aron Rolston's ordeal trapped by a boulder that falls and pins his arm to the wall of a canyon in Robber's Roost, Utah. I've seen it, several times, so I flipped more, and caught the end of Sean Penn's Into the Wild, an adaptation of Jonathan Krakauer's biography of Christopher McCandless, the Emory University graduate who abandoned his family in 1990 and headed into Alaska, where he eventually died. 

McCandless's last self-portrait

I sat there watching for a minute, thinking the rather ungenerous thought that men get immortalized, their narratives becoming part of the mythology of masculine individualism, for doing some stupid, selfish shit.  Rolston went out on his own and told no one where he was heading; early in the film as he prepares to leave his house, his mother calls.  He listens as she leaves a message, asking him to call her.  He ignores it.  McCandless is even worse, as he cuts all contact with his family, leaving them worried and desperate to find him.

And then there's a pang of envy on my part as well: as a woman, I know that I'll never feel free enough to embrace such adventure, however misguided and stupid it may prove to be.  And I feel relatively certain that if I did, and if the results were the same, the narrative that would be told -- if any narrative was told at all -- would be much more lurid, more gruesome (if anything can be more gruesome than James Franco's portrayal of Rolston severing his arm to escape), more about the idiocy of placing oneself in harm's way and less about the spirit of individualism that makes heros of men who do just that.  

The tourniquet and dull knife Rolston used to sever his arm

By the time I got to HBO and Martin Scorsese’s portrait of George Harrison, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, I was just annoyed.  And this is not to say that I don't think Harrison deserves a biopic; my sense is that he does.  But by then I was just tired of the mythology of men, so I kept flipping.  What I landed on finally was a Dateline ID show, something about Canada; I caught the image of a rope on a bed and flashed immediately to the opening pages of Margaret Atwood's 1981 novel Bodily Harm, in which the narrator comes home to find police in her house, men who let her know that someone broke into her home: "we don't think he was a robber. . . .  He made himself a cup of Ovaltine" (5).  They then escort her into her bedroom and show her "a length of rope coiled neatly on the quilt.  It wasn't any special kind of rope, there was nothing lurid about it" (5). 

As it turns out, the Dateline show was about Russell Williams, the Canadian Air Force commander who was jailed in 2010 for rape and murder and some 80 other counts of breaking and entering and stealing women's underwear.  Williams confesses, on videotape, to police, in part, he says, because he is worried about his wife. 

Here's part of the confession.

I thought of Margaret Atwood's poem "Marrying the Hangman," that begins thus: 

She has been condemned to death by hanging.  A man
may escape this death by becoming the hangman, a 
woman by marrying the hangman.  

The women Williams killed: Marie-France Corneau and Jessica Lloyd

Atwood's assertion that women find themselves in the precarious position of depending on men to protect them from men is as much a part of my daily thought processes as is her claim that "men are afraid that women will laugh at them.  Women are afraid that men will kill them."  Atwood's words, her narratives, fictional characters, and politics are so much a part of my everyday existence that they form much of the fabric of my consciousness, indistinguishable, in many ways from my very sense of self.  And this has been the case since I first encountered her work in the form of her 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale, which I read in 1989.  I was in college; I wanted to be a novelist myself.  I read Atwood's work and realized that everything I wanted to say at that point in my life had been said by her already.  And had been said better than I ever could have said it.  Reading that novel destroyed me.  

Reading Atwood's work -- her novels, short stories, and poetry -- has always made me feel this way, that she's somehow already charted the territory that percolates in bits and pieces in the semi-conscious parts of my brain; her writing is by turns terrifying and prophetic, satirical and funny. Atwood plays with language, ever conscious of the power of words, both to create and destroy personhood, nature, and society.  In the poem "You Fit into Me," for example, she takes apart a seemingly innocent image, a clothing fastener, to reveal a disturbing duality:

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye  

And Atwood's work is filled with this duality, with the problematic and imbalanced nature of relationships -- heterosexual, national, interspecies.  Her female characters are often initially complicit in their victimization, even as they ultimately cast off such a subject position.  As Atwood's unnamed narrator states at the end of Surfacing“this above all, to refuse to be a victim.  Unless I can do that, I can do nothing” (222). 

I have long wanted Atwood to win the Nobel Prize.  The sheer volume and scope of her writing, its variety, its quality, its prescience, its astute examination of gendered, national, and species based power politics, and its deconstruction, via both satire and scathing critique, of our contemporary world warrant her winning it.   

Perhaps more significantly, though, than even her subject matter, in writing Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), Atwood in many ways articulates and, more importantly, authorizes, via a thematic analysis of Canadian literature (based on the inclusion of certain works and the exclusion of others), Canada’s national narrative.  In this work, Atwood states that the central theme in Canadian literature is survival and she locates in Canadian literature four “victim positions”—ranging from denying that one is a victim, to acknowledging that one is a victim, to becoming a creative non-victim. These victim positions, according to Atwood, are universal, “whether you are a victimized country, a victimized minority group, or a victimized individual” (46).  It is, therefore, not only through the trope of survival that Atwood reads Canadian literature and interprets Canadian national identity, but also through the trope of victimization.  Indeed,  in order to survive, one must first be a victim of something else.   

Atwood’s work not only established Canadian literature as the articulation of a survivalist mentality, but it also established Canadian literature as a legitimate entity; Atwood, I contend, "invented" Canadian literature.  As she remarks:
The few dedicated academic souls who had cultivated this neglected pumpkin patch over the meager years were affronted because a mere chit of a girl had appropriated a pumpkin they regarded as theirs, and those who had taken a firm stand on the non-existence of Canadian literature were affronted because I had pointed out that there was in fact a pumpkin to appropriate. (4)
As Atwood notes, teaching Canadian literature “is a political act” (21), and Survival conceives of such literature not only as a mirror for Canadian identity but also as a map, “a geography of the mind” (26). 

I'm currently teaching Atwood's Year of the Flood, her most recent work, and the second in a series of what will be three novels (the first being Oryx and Crake), that explores a potential apocalypse delivered in the form of the BlyssPlus pill, a pharmaceutical that delivers excellent sex and protects takers from STDs...that is, until it kills them.  The work, set sometime in the near future, includes much of what is already familiar -- genetically engineered animals and food, rampant global warming, viral internet pornography -- as it leads us to some logical and horrific conclusions about what might be probable.  As Toby, one of the God's Gardeners, a sect of vegan preapocalyptic hippies, notes, "how easy it is, treachery.  You just slide into it" (217).  After the world ends, so to speak, Adam One, the leader of the Gardeners, realizing that veganism may be impossible in the current moment, preaches to his flock, "which is more blest, to eat or be eaten?" (346), even as he entertains the idea that survival may, at some point, depend on cannibalism.

We're told by Ren, another of the survivors, that "Adam One used to say that people can believe two opposite things at the same time" (229), and I asked my students to speak about this idea.  There was silence, and then one offered, "it's like watching 'Toddlers and Tiaras.'  You know it's wrong, but you can't look away."  Good point.  And that's why I ended up watching a TV show about Russell Williams's victimization of women instead of any number of shows about the accomplishments of men.  Men are immortalized, and women are murdered; at least that's what last night's channel surfing showed me.  Men act stupid and become mythological heros; women get killed for leaving a window open...  A man comes in, with a coil of rope, and it's curtains.  And we all revel in the grotesque aftermath.

Atwood's writing acknowledges and then resists this reality; it always has.  Today, I'm happy, I guess, for Tomas Transtromer, whose work I don't know at all, but who, I have no doubt, deserves the Nobel as much as the next guy.  And I'm sorry for Atwood who, I feel certain, deserves it more.  As she says, "a word after a word after a word is power."  Maybe next year.

* And I realize that this post has next to nothing to do with veganism.