A Vegetarian Watches Bourdain
Vegetarians are in the minority, so it often happens that we end up watching food shows and reading food mags that are not really intended for us. We learn to sort out the things we can use, and not take too much personally. Listening to chefs wax poetic about lardo and foie gras doesn’t bother me. I don’t even care that they diss vegetarians. Really.
I’ve always enjoyed reading and watching Tony Bourdain, whether it was his books Kitchen Confidential and the one about Typhoid Mary, or his travel shows. He is a compelling writer and presence. He’s the cool guy, way too cool for you, sharing his cynical take on faraway places. His voice is rebellious, funny, sarcastic, yet sympathetic.
Unfortunately, Bourdain hates vegetarians.
Maybe that is too harsh, perhaps he hates the sin but loves the sinner, but he definitely enjoys taking shots at the meat averse. From the very beginning, he was a defensive meat man, deploying his rapier wit on the veg world as a whole. We can’t cook, not even vegetables, according to Tony, and are a bunch of fascists for trying to take his foie gras away. He is ready at any moment to go on a rant about how vegetarians are the evil authoritarians, organizing our sleeper cells for a major assault on meat eater’s rights.
Good thing we are only 3% of the population at best, and in truth, getting us organized would be like herding cats. Good thing we don’t take this stuff personally, as I am sure I am not the only veg watching and buying books, weeding out the smacks.
So the first time that I saw Mr Bourdain’s trip to Argentina in season 3 of No Reservations, I knew there was going to be lots of meat worship and probably veg bashing. I was not disappointed, Tony spent time riding with Gauchos, who claimed that when vegetarians come to visit, they are converted quickly to the carnvorous lifestyle of the cowboy. “You’re doing God’s Work,” he tells them, approving heartily as he gnaws on rabbit and soaks up liquor. Like most of his shows, he journeys from one drink to the next as much as one glorious vista or meal to the next.
One of the drunken cowboys shares a mug of mate-admitting that his no-vegetable, all meat and alcohol diet requires it in order to go to the bathroom. Ahem.
The twist is when Tony goes to watch actual ranch work, and practically falls to pieces at seeing the pain of the cows. Yes, Mr Meat and his crew are such city-fried greenhorns that they actually have never seen the real-life pain of a simple branding-just a little branding, for cripes sake. And a castration. Insert joke here. After all these years of preaching nose-to tail, entrail cookery, junk food like giant greasy burgers made from cheap, factory farmed beef, and complete disdain for the concept of vegetarianism, Bourdain can’t take a little branding.
Seriously, as someone who grew up in farm country, I have witnessed the realities of animal husbandry and been moved, obviously in a different way. I give him credit, he puts the scene in the show, and narrates how uncomfortable he is, at that moment, with participating in the process that causes so much pain and suffering in these animals. He speaks eloquently on how it hits home with him. He is a sensitive guy.
Then he declares that skipping his steak that evening will get him through this crisis of conscience, and the storyline snaps instantly back to the celebration of carnivorism. Hundreds of sides of beef are crucified on metal crosses for the Festival of the Lake, where thousands of Argentinians line up as they roast next to open fires. Tony’s only qualm is that he wants his steak less overcooked than the masses-he makes a point of selecting a choice cut and cooking it nice and bloody.
The pain and fear in the eyes of the calves is forgotten, or perhaps, like many shows, the thing is shot out of sequence, so the ever-so-brief epiphany has not happened yet.
He would not want to ruin his meal, or for that matter, upset his audience by challenging their own choices.
This striking scene really serves to lay bare the kind of duality, putting it nicely, or hypocrisy, to be a little more frank, that goes on in the minds of most meat lovers. I guess I don’t get how you can eat the stuff without being ok with how it got there. The farmers I know who raise meat humanely also kill those animals themselves, without a shred of sadness. They have a lifestyle built on this cycle of birth and death, and if they were troubled by it, they would not be able to live it. As much as I don’t want to participate in the meat part, I can respect the fact that they look it in the eye and don’t flinch.
On the other hand, Bourdain swaggers and trash talks the other side, when he is apparently in huge denial. I don’t even get how he can be so far in denial, with all his years in this business, with all the awareness of the factory farming system that has reached headline status in the professional food world. In another season, he killed a pig and freaked out about that, too. He says he is respecting these cultures, and I get that. The folks he visits are into this, it’s a travel show, we are ugly Americans.
Maybe he is just a guy who doesn’t like to think too deeply on things that might upset his apple cart. Lots of us have those blind spots. Still, give us vegs a break. Some of us would have that moment of empathy for the calf, and maybe, just maybe, at least respect the choice to abstain.