Thursday, April 18, 2013

Bourdain: a win and a fail

So, Anthony Bourdain.  Professional irreverent jackass, travel show host, chef.  Cool guy.  I read Kitchen Confidential a few years back at the urging of a good friend (hi!), and fell in love with his prose and attitude.  He's a New Yorker through and through, so is callous at times, but also tends to not take himself too seriously.  And as I learned from his travel show No Reservations (he has more shows now, but I've only watched NR so far), he's supremely devoted to being a respectful guest when in someone else's domain.  He eats whatever the people he's visiting bring to him, no matter how disgusting it might seem to our American sensibilities about food.  He does his darndest to be a good guest.

He's touring, and we got to see him last night.  Awesome opportunity.  He mostly talked about food and travel and his show, of course, but I have a few slightly tangential observations to note.  These were smallish moments in the show, but I want to talk about them.

1) During the question-and-answer portion of the show, a lady asked something along the lines of 'what do you think the role of women should be in the restaurant industry?'

First off, it's kind of a weird question to ask, in my opinion (isn't this 2013?).  BUT!  Tony surprised the hell out of me by providing what might be the best possible answer to that question.  His response (possibly slightly paraphrased because my memory ain't perfect)?
'What women should do?  I don't think that's a question I should be answering.  Anything that comes out of my mouth is going to be, let's face it, mansplaining.' 
Holy shit.  Holy shit.  This dude is self-aware enough to know that being in the food business for decades and being a famous chef still makes him unqualified on the general topic of 'what women should do,' even in his field.  He acknowledges that and is quite ready to say so.  And he even knows (and used in a public forum!!!) the word 'mansplaining.'

I don't know that I can quite convey how happy this makes me.  

So much squee.

2) Apparently a while back there was a big brouhahaha wherein Tony was pressed to tell who he thought was the worst celebrity chef.  He's always insulting people, especially famous people, so that's no real surprise (such as the whole Kwanzaa cake thing, which I actually found to be quite funny).  See the 'irreverent jackass' thing above.  His response was to name Paula Deen, because of her being the most 'dangerous' chef to America.  Because of cooking fatty food and thereby corrupting the moral fiber of the country, I guess.  Then he got to feel all sorry for himself because he subsequently got verbally attacked online a bunch by people sticking up for her and admonishing him for picking on a nice old lady and insulting Southern food.

Okay.  I have things to say about this.

He (correctly) pointed out that her cuisine isn't actually particularly Southern or traditional.  He pointed to her 'lady brunch burger,' which consists of a burger patty, fried egg, and bacon between donuts.

Okay, fine.   He also, naturally, had scare-tactic stats of the calories and fat content of the thing.  Then he criticized her for having Type 2 diabetes (um, okay), for waiting to tell the world about her disease (which is obviously everyone's business everywhere because, um, reasons), and then for partnering with a diabetes drug company for sponsorship and being open about things (she can't win).  These are all the same things that were said a bunch of times when the whole diabetes thing first came out.

And it's all bullshit.

Paula Deen owes no one an explanation of her personal health.  Full stop.  I don't care that she's a celebrity, and I don't care what her show is about.  Her health is her own business.

She had (has?  I don't actually watch television) a show about making delicious food that happened to be really dense and made with a lot of butter.  Shows have themes.  A chef's life is not necessarily a reflection of hir show (does that sweet genuis guy subsist entirely on cupcakes?  I doubt it).  I certainly wouldn't want a lady brunch burger every day; it's a silly oddity and ought to be treated as such.  If you actually think she eats this food all the time, I have a bridge to sell you.  And Tony?  Supposing that you can lecture a person on what her personal life must be like because of your Super Objective and Truth-Telling Perspective while refusing to listen to her words about her own lived experience is, I'm sorry Tony, 'splaining.  You know, that word you used so eloquently and appropriately to the question about women in food?  Yeah, that.

For more eloquent and kick-ass words about the Paula Deen affair, read this.  Ragen says it so much better than I could, and it's well worth a read.

Tony, you're wrong.  You're so wrong.  

Then it got worse.

He proceeded to wax poetical about the declining health of America, and how intervention is necessary.  I got more nervous as it became obvious what was about to happen.  He talked about McDonald's, of course, which I have no love for for a myriad of reasons.  And sure, he's gonna insult people and institutions.  Irreverent jackass.  Comedy.  I get it.  But he wasn't being funny, here.  He was being serious.  He's concerned about the health of the nation.  As exhibited by using this topic to segue into a rant about how people's fat asses can't get up off couches and are in his way on airplanes.


One, stop conflating weight with health.  There are skinny people who are unhealthy and fat people who are healthy.  Some factors correlate weakly, but it's simply bad science to think you can make assumptions about health from a person's body size.  Some studies suggest that having more body fat might actually provide some protection from disease, and be a predictor of lower risks of mortality.  Health is complicated, and reducing it down to fat = unhealthy is profoundly disingenuous.

Bad food does not necessarily make you fat.  Tony, you yourself exemplify this.  You are quite open about your past, with its terrible health choices, and you seem to have always been a pretty scrawny dude.  This means there must be other factors.  It is usually not a choice to have a particular body size.  Know that friend (maybe you, Tony) who can eat anything and stay skinny?  Yeah, I guarantee there are corresponding folks who eat relatively little and healthily and stay fat.  Bodies are funny like that.  We all have weights at which we are personally healthiest, and those weights are different for different people.

A body size is not a diagnosis.  Of anything.  At all.  It is not a diagnosis of personal habits, level of activity, or any sort of disease.  Looking at a fat person tells you one piece of information.  That they're fat.  Obesity is not a disease, and even if it was, we'd be going about dealing with it in a profoundly terrible way.

If you want to talk about health, great!  Talk about actual health.  Poor nutrition and being sedentary do cause health problems, but they do that to people with all kinds of different body sizes.  Know what you're talking about and (crucially) what you're not talking about.

Two, good grief, man.  Did it never occur to you that you're talking about actual people here?  Actual people, who already endure ceaseless hatred, judgement, criticism, and bigotry because of their bodies. Just for existing.  Jumping straight (via 'common sense,' of course) from a criticism of shitty American food to being pissed off at a hypothetical fat person for being in your way when evacuating an airplane, or drawing the equivalence that fat = useless and sedentary is profoundly horrible of you.  There was a heavyset man sitting in front of me during your talk, and I could feel him kind of freeze and tense up at that.  And I absolutely 100% do not blame him for maybe feeling a little defensive when you were attacking him*.

Above, I said that fatness is not a good predictor of disease or death (science!).  Want to know what is a good predictor?  Being the victim of social stigma.  Yup.  It turns out that being preached at and judged and admonished for one's audacity to exist causes stress!  Funny, that.  So by mocking and judging a segment of society that has to put up with this shit every day of their lives (it's not like you can walk around without your body to avoid the stigma), the same people you probably think you're 'helping' or 'saving,' you are being part of that very problem.  You are contributing to the cultural pressure that tells fat people that they're worthless, that they're disgusting, that everyone except them knows what they need and what their lives are like.  That they have to exercise more (but don't actually do so in public because you'll be shamed for that), that they have to go on fad diets (as it turns out, dieting not only has never been shown to cause long-term weight loss in more than a tiny fraction of the population and is a really great predictor of weight gain but also is extremely detrimental to health --- you know, that health thing you're on about?), that being thin is more important than being fulfilled and pursuing things they think are awesome (and of course they couldn't possibly be good at things in their actual bodies), that they have to change their bodies before they can receive reasonable health care when they're injured or sick.  You are not criticizing people for their behaviors here.  You are criticizing their right to exist in their bodies, and layering even more abuse on top of a really shitty lifelong experience.  You might want to think about that.

I would have hoped that someone with the awareness and sensitivity to provide the best answer ever when questioned about women's place in his industry would have actually thought about these things or done a tiny bit of research instead of launching into a humiliation and judgement tirade that serves only to uphold a nationwide campaign to get people to hate themselves.

Stick to food, Tony.  It might be a good idea to lay off the moral preaching.

*Note: I do not presume to know what this fellow may have been thinking or feeling at the time; I am not him and do not know him.  I only have my observations of his body language and my knowledge of how I would probably feel in his place. 


  1. Dude. Duuuuude. Okay.

    A) Yes. It was the best thing ever to see Tony Bourdain refuse to mansplain something.

    B) Once he launched directly into how much he hates fat people, I could feel this post coming. It was inevitable. Dude had gone so off target it was crazy. I was literally sitting there thinking "Oh man. Zadi is gonna have THINGS TO SAY and she's gonna be RIGHT AS HELL."

    C) I do want to defend him a tiny bit in regards to his assault on Paula Deen. I'm 100% totally in agreement that her personal health is her business. I just feel like a part of his presentation there, and this is something he alluded to in the beginning, was about "Paula Deen" the multi-million dollar 'Southern food' brand, not Paula Deen the person and his original point was that he was being attacked for attacking the person when he was just way more concerned with the brand and its overall effect on American health. I think once he got into her diabetes, though, that's when things went to hell. It's a cruel sort of schadenfreude to see "Paula Deen" the brand and then mock Paula Deen the woman for having a nutritional health disease which very likely isn't even related. It's not okay.

    I don't know. In the end: fuck, marry, kill: Tony the badass world travelling chef, Tony the awesome publisher, father, and husband, Tony the judgmental privileged manguy.

    1. Yeah, you're totally right about his bizarre kinda-not-really separation of the woman and the brand. I can kinda see his point about the Paula Deen Evil Empire (TM) exerting influence on the dietary preferences of the nation. Okay, yeah, sure. That could be a conversation, but it would be kind of boring. I don't really care what you eat --- I care that you have the choice of what you want to eat. If we start legislating that everyone must eat a Lady Brunch Burger every Sunday, then we'll talk.

      And then there's his whole fanboy moment about Bloomberg's pointless soda ban and the First Lady's shitty anti-fat-kids campaign. I just don't even.

      As you say, he segued pretty quickly into mocking her specifically by criticizing her handling (and the existence of!) the whole diabetes thing, while showing photos that were designed to present Paula Deen The Actual Real Live Human in the most unflattering light possible. And I really didn't even get the bit where that shot of her licking some dude's chest overruled her statement about her eating habits off the show. Quoi?

      And yeah, comedy. I get it. But... seriously, dude. How can he be so awesome in some ways and then fail so horribly in others? It makes me confused and sad.

      I like your choices, there.


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