“I’ve said nothing so far
And I can keep it up as long as it takes
And it don’t matter who you are:
If I’m doing my job it’s your resolve that breaks
Because The Hook brings you back…” —Blues Traveler, “The Hook”
I’m in Lima.
No: Jack Maxwell is in Lima, drinking chicha. I’m in California, staring at an episode of Booze Traveler. Exotic locale, working-class-cred host, haze of excessive drunkenness and childlike wonder. City streets. Bustling markets. High-viscosity fermented stuff. A remarkably dreary-looking volcanic mudbath. This seems familiar. I’ve seen this. Actually I have written this.
“You and I,” the agent said, “are about to have some fun.”
I knew it. My first novel had bagged my dream-date agent. It was easily the most commercial thing I had ever written and probably would ever write. With a Midtown Rep-osaurus Rex in charge, it’d be a matter of weeks—maybe days—until I was being flown to New York to negotiate rights with bigwigs from Knopf over dirty martinis.
“I gotta ask,” she said, “how many years did you spend working in food TV?”
“What? None.” My novel was a part-satire part-love story about a sociopathic French chef-turned-TV star, told from the point of view of his beleaguered videographer, whose marriage was already on the rocks when his wife unexpectedly joined the crew (hijinks ensued). I’d had a blast writing it, but I certainly hadn’t been inspired by years as a roadie for Scripps.
The agent was stunned. To a red-flaggy degree, actually. “But… but you’re so… it’s so… real! How did you do that?”
You explain to the agent who represents the estate of Wallace Stegner (as well as a shit-ton of very much alive writers you have very much heard of) that in fiction we have this thing called an “imagination,” without sounding patronizing. I double-dog dare you.
P.S.: The reason you’ve never read or heard of this book is that the gobsmacked, chill-the-Dom-Perignon agent couldn’t sell it. Twenty editors called it brilliant and vivid and some of the best food writing they’d ever seen, but they… didn’t really get how they’d market it. (Seriously?) I suspect her tendency to pitch the book as “glib” and “chick-lit” might’ve contributed to the editorial confusion but, hey: I’m not the one with the Times Square office and Satan’s Own Rolodex. It’s OK. In fact, I’m kind of glad it didn’t end up being my first novel.
Why? For the exact same reason I was able to write convincingly about that world without ever having spent ten minutes immersed in it. For the same reason any actual chef can make a béchamel with his toque pulled over his eyes and one hand cuffed to the blast-chiller.
It’s a formula. And that has never been what I wanted to be known for.
Recipe: Place one “Personality” in front of a camera. Add voiceover in which Personality explains the microscopic dealiebob that makes him or her different from all the other Personalities being pimped by the same network and its sibling networks. Add one airplane, an exotic and intriguing destination, and a feisty local “fixer” to emphasize how novel and adventurous the Personality is. Stuff it like a foie gras goose with local delicacies, preferably insect, offal, or psychoactive in nature. Marinate in alcohol. For best results, add situations designed to induce squeamishness or schadenfreude in viewers. Garnish with pithy reflection on how genius loci is best understood through what folks put in their pieholes. Cut to black, see you next week. Easy-peasy.
Flashback: My former in-laws were visiting and we were making the most of our time together, watching TV and not speaking. XFIL had introduced me to a little show where a gruff, hardbitten-but-whipsmart chef was exploring a French beach strewn with oyster shells and recalling how childhood trips to this place, his father’s hometown, had sparked his love affair with food. It was A Cook’s Tour, Season One, and the lanky crank addressing the cam was Anthony Bourdain. And I was hooked. That foulmouthed, cynical, chain-smoking carapace was obviously, like the shell of one of those oysters, protecting something poetic and sublime. I mean… right? Hooked. As in, the Hook brought me back. As in hooked like a fish (though fish are notoriously and hilariously impossible to hook if Tony’s actually holding the rod. In Peru, he can’t even attract piranhas!)
Bourdain didn’t invent the explore-other-cultures-through-food paradigm. He has many ancestors, all the way back to Julia Child. But he did find a certain… recipe. It was immensely successful. Bourdain had ridden into Food Network on the success-swell of his book Kitchen Confidential, and A Cook’s Tour ran for 35 episodes. In a highly publicized spat with Food Network, he bailed to the Travel Channel and launched No Reservations, which ran from 2005-2012, at which point he developed… reservations about the Travel Channel, and popped over to CNN. Etc. As it turns out, a chef can be a seeker with a poetic soul and an egocentric malcontent. Who knew? Never mind. Networks saw dollar signs and started producing a mind-boggling array of food-travel programs with tiny variations. Subtract Bourdain, substitute… Guy Fieri? Sure! Also, here’s a killer recipe for an eggless, dairy-free soufflé. Bon appétit! We get the guy who explores the world’s weirdest foods (nom-nom: Witchetty grubs!). The gal who can Eat Great Stuff anywhere on a $40 a day budget (the secret? Starch. And FYI, there are plenty of countries where people feed large families on less, not that we talk about that). The guy who does the fine-dining world tour and the guy who does the whiskey-tango junk food tour. Endless, increasingly anemic and blurry iterations of the Same Damn Thing, like the cascade of receding reflections you get if you stand between two mirrors.
For those of you who skipped physics: The first law of thermodynamics states that in an isolated system, energy cannot be created or lost. The total energy in the world is basically constant. The second law of thermodynamics states that the quality of that energy will degrade over time, a process known as entropy.
You can apply that to TV without my help, right?
OK: Let’s go back to Lima, a foodie nirvana with a restaurant scene that’s bursting out of its skin. Peru is an amazing nexus of ancient and modern cultures with diverse influences. It’s got one foot in the ocean and one in the Andes, and it’s got the mind-boggling Larder of the Unknown that is Amazonia. It is the diversity-locus of the potato as well as ground zero for tomatoes, corn, quinoa, amaranth, and a head-spinning number of tree fruits. Also, unbelievable seafood. Also, guinea pigs. Also, a little vine called Banisteriopsis caapi, which can be handy if you would like to purge your body-mind of ailments or learn more about astral projection, but I digress. The point is, I get why every foodie TV personality on the planet has Peru on their bucket list.
Anthony Bourdain’s visit to Peru in No Reservations showcases one of his signature preoccupations: He is entirely comfortable being a television personality, but clearly itchy about being a “tourist.” His trip through Peru is a meditation on authenticity, and it isn’t egocentric or ponderous (he’s quite capable of being both). Not only can the man write (some of his voiceover musings are downright beautiful, not to mention funny), but he’s got a great rapport with his video and production team, so there’s a healthy dose of self-effacement, too. Bourdain’s never been coy about his history of drug addiction, so watching him munch coca leaves as an antidote for altitude sickness gives viewers a few chuckles, and my personal favorite was the scene where he visited a shaman and definitely, absolutely—because it would get him in Dutch with Legal and be totally against his nature anyway—did not, under any circumstances, drink the ayahuasca. Really. He was merely a humble learner-documentarian, observing the sagacious medicine man administering the mind-altering brew to someone else. Anyway, many years and an indefinite number of televised Peruvian Odysseys later, it’s still a pretty great piece of television.
Enter Andrew Zimmern, who, like Bourdain, hung up his whites for a Food Network spot, and who also shares with Mister I Didn’t Swallow the Banisteriopsis an alma mater (Vassar) and a history of self-destructive substance habits. These days, he’s following the travel/eat/televise formula, with a small twist: Whereas Bourdain simply stumbles onto food-poisoning-inducing tête de veau and discovers it ups ratings, Zimmern orders the nasty stuff on purpose. On his trip to Lima, he’s more about rotten-potato soup and a cringeworthy tonic whose main ingredient is a pureed frog. (Hence, this viewer learned that ayahuasca is not the Peruvian beverage most likely to make you barf.) So, okay, Zimmern is friendly and he does know food, and you learn quite a bit about ingredients and place from this guy—almost a “Hey, look, Rick Steves is eating a guinea pig” kind of deal. Does it pack the same punch as No Reservations? Nah. But it’s OK.
Enter Bourdain nemesis Rachael Ray. Her Peruvian episode of Tasty Travels definitely has its own little angle. This woman is a tourist. An explicit, gawking, camera-wielding tourist who goes to touristy spots and does touristy stuff. She’s wowed by a Japanese-fusion potato croquette in a restaurant that also has performance art. If you’ve seen Zimmern’s Peru you’d know a lot about the long and fascinating mélange of Peruvian ingredients with Chinese and Japanese cooking methods (the style of the dish she was eating is called “Nikkei”; Ray calls it “hipster”). If you’re a Bourdain person… well, you know he would not be caught dead squealing over a potato maki roll with tamarind sauce. OK: You know what? Bourdain’s endless capping on this woman is low-class shit and drives me insane. And if I keep talking about this episode I’m going to start doing it, too. So. Onward.
Though it’s as watered-down as the cocktails in that one dot-commer bar we used to go to in the Tenderloin (ugh), the premise of Booze Traveler is not un-charming. Jack Maxwell is not a chef; he is a character actor. And he was apparently a walking child labor law violation who was mixing drinks in South Boston when he was in fourth grade or something. In his voiceover self-intro, he says something kind of sweet and probably completely true (I’m paraphrasing): “If growing up in the bars of South Boston taught me anything, it’s that you sit down with anyone, with a couple of cocktails, and the world opens up.” Exact. Same. Recipe: He’s going to travel the globe and we’re going to learn with him; it’ll just be proxied through getting hammered rather than fed grilled rodents and supersnail ceviche.
Is it the weight of its own ancestry that’s making Booze Traveler feel as sticky and exhausted as the volcanic mud-pit Maxwell jumps into as a hangover detox? It’s a vastly diverse country, full of new and undiscovered things and full of ancient and still-here-for-a-reason things. There’s no way I’m getting tired of Peru, even if there’s only so much squirming over questionably-textured adult beverages I can handle, and even if I never again need to watch people suck roasted big-butt ants out of their rum drinks like so many evil tapioca pearls. Is it the host? I don’t think so; Maxwell ought to be a really refreshing alternative to smug gastronomy insiders with famous, high-price restaurants, and there’s nothing terribly off-putting about him. No, I think what we’re sick of is the freaking recipe. It’s like eating cabbage cooked the exact same way every day for a decade.
Bourdain’s Parts Unknown takes him back to Peru, this time with Eric Ripert, who manages to log a lot of minutes behind TV cameras and still run a Michelin-starred restaurant and who is, to quote Tony, “a lot more spiritual than I am.” This time, they’re inspecting some rare cacao trees because they’re buying the beans for their own side-hustle line of ultra-luxe chocolate bars. (Ripert also tastes a roasted big-butt ant, and resolves never to do so again.) Bourdain, always more in tune than average with the big picture, muses on whether their partnership with these hand-to-mouth farmers, in the service of producing candy you have to take out a second mortgage to eat, is “okay.” Like any wise person, he leaves the question unanswered, and the episode closes on Ripert performing a shamanic ritual to bless their endeavor.
Is it the same formula, again? A coming full circle in a good way? In an annoying way? I enjoyed it, but I still like Bourdain for the same reasons I liked him in the first place. He’s self-aware and has a sense of humor like a freshly whetted carbon steel blade. Ripert has those qualities plus the bonus of probably being a nice guy in real life (sorry, Tony), so, yes, it’s an example of the cult of personality transcending the drudgery of the overused formula. Producers should arguably have resisted the urge to greenlight a zillion limp replicas of a show that turned on the personality of the host. But I refer you back to the second law of thermodynamics and add that you (me, us, all y’all, people) are watching this shit and that’s why they do it. They know we have an unslakable hunger for content and if we can’t have fresh-caught halibut ceviche and heirloom corn, we’ll settle for Cool Ranch Doritos, and other products so bereft of nutrient-dense calories that they make you morbidly obese but hungrier than ever.
I’ve written previously about Season Three of Chef’s Table, which has a totally eye-popping episode set in Lima. That show is a formula of its own—Anatomy of a Chef—but it offers an esthetically brilliant and genuinely exciting look at the career of Virgilio Martinez, who’s making a hell of an effort to do what none of the traveling chefs have managed: Capture the impossibly complicated essence of Peru on a plate.
Maybe this is where we start coming full circle. Because recipes exist for a reason. We want to be able to reliably replicate a pleasurable experience. In television, as in pretty much anyone’s kitchen, we seek and adhere to formula because it makes us comfortable. (If you’d like a tougher gig than explaining “imagination” to my ex-agent without taking a fist to the mandible, I suggest you try joining my family for Thanksgiving and contributing something wildly heretical, such as a single-crust apple pie, or mashed potatoes with the skins left on. Go on. Attempt to justify this to my father and you’ll leave feeling like you violated the Geneva Conventions.) Humans have clearly and repeatedly demonstrated a need for consistency. And hey, let’s not give short shrift to safety! TV arguably won’t kill you if it’s mindlessly handled. A blowfish absolutely will.
But ultimately it becomes cloying, boring, exhausting. And we develop an insatiable hunger for novelty. And that’s where people like Virgilio Martinez find their power center. No one in Peru has done what he’s doing—he literally uses ingredients that have never been seen before in a restaurant kitchen, and he has taken the concept of place, of essence, of terroir to a new level. Or, several levels: His menus are “verticals” in which each dish expresses a particular altitude, from the Pacific to the Andes. Food as cartography, with a lot of expeditions into the unknown.
So, we want both novelty and predictability, and those aren’t totally compatible—whether onscreen or on a plate. And, whichever way you lean, you’re going to appeal to some people and irritate others. Maybe what it comes back to is the same in food, and food TV, as it is in fiction. There are only two plots in fiction (hero sets out on quest; stranger comes to town). The Amazonian diversity we get from those two patterns is driven by character development. Which is why Bourdain’s recipe works for Bourdain and seizes up like mishandled chocolate when you stick someone else in the same paradigm. Then again, how many times can you watch Bourdain being Bourdain before you need a palate cleanser?
In a pivotal scene in my unpublished novel, my chef has a violent meltdown in a Peruvian Pisco bar. And yes, everyone who read a draft wanted to hear stories about my travels in Lima. Dude, I’ve never been there. The recipe for writing food-travel softcore is so predictable and so consistent that you only need to know a little bit about the actual food (I did), and a little about the terrains and cultures (ditto), and, you know, maybe watch a couple of travel shows where a chain-smoking chef struggles to breathe in high-altitude Cusco or an actor-adventurer downs a bunch of gloppy-looking chicha beer to general local hilarity. Yes, get some ceviche and Andean potatoes and some grilled cuy in there so you know where you are. But your main area of expertise actually needs to be your character. And since I’d designed him, that was no problem. Instant Authentic. My fictional chef had a little secret: He was an identity-thieving fraud. Guess what his producers decided to do when they found out? You can find the answer in the second law of thermodynamics and the lyrics to that Blues Traveler tune.
I don’t know, maybe asking authenticity and television to coexist at all is absurd. You cannot really be a traveler—or a tourist for that matter—from your couch. But sometimes, it’s almost like you can taste it.
The season finale of Booze Traveler airs tonight at 10 p.m. on The Travel Channel. All new episodes of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern air Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on The Travel Channel. Season Nine of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown premieres this spring on CNN.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.