Dear Tony: It's not you, it's me.
A young food writer reconsiders her relationship with Anthony Bourdain
This essay is part of a feature, Food Writer Friday, which highlights a significant food writer and explores the ways they have shaped us as writers, thinkers and cooks. Tag us online with #foodwriterfriday to share your greatest influences.
I want to be be Anthony Bourdain—but I am a girl.
I want to be be foodie cool in my own black tee shirt and skinny jeans, squatting next to an oxcart in Hanoi, slurping a bowl of noodles. I want to dig agave out of smoking pits with Mexican farmers, butt to camera.
I want to fill the frame, my hands greased by the blood of grilled innards, and talk about how motherfucking delicious lamb kidney cooked over a live fire can be—but I am a vegetarian.
I was 14 years old, living in suburban California with my mother when I first saw Tony—as his friends call him—and I saw my future.
I wanted to eat the world and be bad.
My mother might have been ok with that; my father, by then three states away, definitely not. I had top grades. I had my sights set on a competitive liberal arts college. I wanted to be an actress. Talking motherfucking good lamb kidney on-camera was not in the best interest of my career.
The women I saw in TV kitchens—Ina Garten, Giada DeLaurentiis and Rachel Ray—did not talk about motherfucking good innards. They talked about floral arrangements for fabulous dinner parties and easy weeknight dinners. They lived in a world of pastels on well-starched white.
There were a few hard-ass women chefs. Cat Cora shot ouzo with her cooks. Jennifer Carroll cussed out the judges on Top Chef. But in thickening their skin, these women lost tenderness and a connection to nourishing others. To me, cooking has been about feeding others since I started playing in the kitchen as a child.
I moved to the East Coast to attend that competitive college, and I started reading about food instead of watching people make it. I found Michael Pollan, MFK Fisher and Ruth Reichl. Each book was a window into a larger food world. I found something more than dinner: a world woven of the stories that food can tell.
I ran into one of those stories five years later, volunteering on a female-run farm outside of Boston. I got to know Maryl, the head farmer, while carrying buckets of potatoes and bagging spinach at her farmstand. She’d waddle into the barn wearing construction-cone orange men’s waders, rolling up her sleeves with dirt impacted fingernails to reveal tattooed beets—part of a full garden of roots and leaves planted up her tanned arm. She grinned like a golden retriever.
There is nothing sexy about saggy jeans with a dirty butt print and sweat from hoeing peppers on a humid eighty degree day in July. Bourdain would not cast Maryl in his show, but I damn well wanted to know her story.
She knew the name of every member of her farm’s CSA, each of their children and often their favorite vegetable. And she fed them.
“I think there’s something super satisfying about bringing the food in.” Maryl told me. In today’s world, she added, “there’s so much floating and unknown and not real, but picking a vegetable is very real. Holding it, giving it to someone, eating it, it’s all very real.”
It’s more real than Tony’s constructed voiceovers, more real than Ina Garten’s birthday party for Jeffery.
I do not have Anthony Bourdain’s past—I’ve never been caught with a needle in my arm, I rarely drink more than one cocktail too many—but I do have his appetite. I want to eat the world, but my craving goes beyond that. I also want to feed the world—at least my own little piece of it.
I want to eat the noodles, sauce dribbling down my chin. I want to get dirt under my nails, to smell of dust instead of perfume. I don’t plan on handling innards anytime soon, but I’m happy to tell you that they’re pretty fucking delicious—if you’re into that sort of thing.
Tony, you may have been my first love in food, but I’m moving on. I’m past the bravado and the snide commentary. I’m no longer interested in breaking into the old boys club.
I’m building a new clubhouse, telling the stories of the new faces of food: women who want to get their hands dirty, women who can host impeccable parties and butcher the pig for the porkchops they’ll serve.
I’m blazing my own trail, Tony. I’m moving on. No Reservations.
Ariel Knoebel is a food writer currently living in Boston, Massachusetts. Her work explores identity, gender and community around the kitchen table. She holds an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University.