Thursday, September 8, 2011

Dreams from My Food Network Stars: On the Couch with Paula, Sandra, Rachael, Guy, Giada, Ina, Tyler, and Two Fat Ladies

The insufferably self-congratulatory ex-heroin-addict/coke-head chef-manqué TV personality Anthony Bourdain periodically takes time away from his on-camera consumption of cod-sperm crème anglaise and sheep-testicle soufflé—and some molto serioso hangover braggadocio—to heap abuse upon the cast of Food Network characters who show Americans how to cook quickly and dine on a budget. Most recently, he took to the pages of TV Guide (golly, Tony, could you have gotten any more untesticular?) to insult Paula Deen, (among others):

The worst, most dangerous person to America is clearly Paula Deen. She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations and she’s proud of the fact that her food is f---ing bad for you. If I were on at seven at night and loved by millions of people at every age, I would think twice before telling an already obese nation that it’s OK to eat food that is killing us. Plus, her food sucks.  

Could be it sucks, though Low-country deep-fried chicken and peach cobbler don’t sound all that sucky to me; and could be it’s unhealthy, but I’m not taking any culinary or hygienic guidance from a thrill-seeking food snob who compares “just pure evil” Sandra Lee to Ted Bundy and eats unwashed warthog rectum and raw seal eye and thinks “cooking should be aspirational.”  

Anyway, Paula and the rest of the Food Network cooks, “just pure evil” Sandra very much included, are in my heart forever for the blessing of unaffected offerings that cossetted and comforted me through an ill year involving a lot of couch time and which, speaking of “aspirational cooking,” gave me something to aspire to—which is to say, eating—when it often seemed completely out of reach.
The GI doc is on the phone. I think he’s calling to confirm our appointment for the next day, but actually he’s calling to cancel it. “I’ve had some bad news,” he says. This sounds like the lead-in to “My sister Rose is dead,” so I prepare to condole with him. “I’m so sorry,” I begin. “No, no,” he interrupts. “It’s not my bad news, it’s your bad news. You have cancer.”  “Routine tests” have turned up the sneaky cell-multiplying bastard that’s made itself at home in my gut. “Routine tests” often disobligingly turn up things people would rather not have turned up. But whaddaya gonna do?

I take a deep breath and say OH, FUUCK!!! really, really loud. I am a walking lexicon of bad words—and wicked thoughts—but the essential bad word is what explodes out of my mouth. This doctor’s the kind of guy you can say it to without embarrassment—he’s about as blunt a person as you’ll ever meet, a likeable quality in a physician, if you ask me—but even if he weren’t, I’d still yell OH, FUUCK!!!, because hearing “You have cancer” can make a person peevish.  

Are there barrels full of butter and vats of mayonnaise in Paula’s kitchen, y’all? Yep. She’s not in there conceptualizing small plates of Arctic char foam or teaching culinary-science nerds to spin quails’ yolks into spider webs. She’s cookin’ up some Cornmeal Waffles with Spicy Chili and some Deep Fried Ham. Her food is an expression of her great generosity and good humor—“I’m your cook, not your doctor” —but don’t be fooled by all that fat and laughter; she’s a canny businesswoman with a sharp enough tongue to hold her own even with the likes of the contemptuous Mr. Bourdain. Her answer to his spasm of nastiness:

My good friends Rachael, Guy and Sandra are the most generous charitable folks I know. They give so much of their time and money to help the food-deprived, sick children and abandoned animals. I have no idea what Anthony has done to contribute besides being irritable. . . . You know, not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine. My friends and I cook for regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills. . . . It wasn’t that long ago that I was struggling to feed my family, too.                                                         

It wasn’t that long ago that I was struggling to feed myself, too. Here’s a tip: Food does not mix well with Oxaliplatin, Epirubicin, and Xeloda; it doesn’t much care for abdominal radiation; and it really, really hates the gastrectomy.

There was before March 2010, and then there was after. Before, we were going to celebrate our 30th anniversary by eating and drinking our way through the paradisiacal Napa Valley. After, I spent most of that trip on the phone making appointments with doctors: gastroenterologist, oncologist, and the surgeon who’d eventually remove my traitorous stomach and its irksome houseguest.

Before, all our familial revelries revolved around food and wine. After—for a good long while, and despite the heroic efforts of family and friends to get some food into the chemically/surgically-induced anorectic version of me—I was lucky if I could wash down a saltine with spoonful of chicken broth. What was I snacking on in the chemo room that first infusion day? Whatever it was had chipotles in it. Seventeen months later, I still can’t pass a Chipotle restaurant without shuddering—not the derisive Bourdain shudder over food chains, mind you—let alone eat something even remotely redolent of that chili morita.

Before, Fox News, reruns of Law & Order, CSI, Real Housewives of Orange County and New York City, and Sex and the City kept me company in my studio or the kitchen. After, Giada De Laurentiis’s Grilled Chicken with Basil Dressing, Ina Garten’s Pasta, Pesto, and Peas—and her amazing kitchen—the fantastically delightful Two Fat Ladies, Tyler Florence’s Ultimate Omelette, Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Rachael Ray’s 30-Minute Meals, and all the rest, soothed my spirit and satisfied my couch-bound stomachless food-longing daydreams.

With remission has come the return of my palate and the re-toughening of my soul, yet I’d still rather spend a half hour in the company of Sandra Lee while she semi-homemakes Chicken with Peach and Melon Salsa and sets the scene with one of her crazy frou-frou tablescapes than with Anthony Bourdain as he enjoys a “more honest relationship with our dinner”, sharing with his gore-smeared Inuit hosts a freshly-slaughtered uncooked seal. “Is this any worse, really,” he asks, “than eating at the Colonel’s or Applebee’s?”  

Well, yes, actually, it is. Of course it’s interesting and worthwhile (if you’re an anthropologist, maybe) to dip into the heart (literally, in this case) of another culture; it’s the contempt for the pleasures and conveniences of his own culture—the restaurants where people who can’t spend $58 for prime rib can afford to eat, and the TV cooks who show them how to do it at home—from a man who glorifies the Potemkin-village Cuba he visited recently (though he has “decidedly mixed emotions” about Fidel) that makes it worse. 

So thank you, ladies and gentlemen of the Food Network, for making a bad year tolerable. As for you, Tony, the reprobate rebel-without-a-country thing may still go over on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Georgica Pond, but for the rest of us out here in America, sick and well, it’s just over. Take the wish-I-was-still-a-junkie leather jacket off your tattooed back and the sneer off your too-old-to-be-a-bad-boy face and go back home and hit that $650 bottle of wine. I won’t need to watch to know how that episode comes out.


  1. I love you. I love your blog and I pray that G-d heals you and gives you comfort and strength.

  2. A reality check that unfortunately Bourdain can't understand.

  3. Brava!!! You have so wonderfully, creatively, and eloquently (yes, indeed) said what we have all been thinking for a very long time. You are a beautiful and phenomenal woman ... thank you!! Stay well and indulge yourself with something really yummy! Hugs to you and sous chef extraordinaire Em.

  4. Awesome. I'm like 99% positive I sat next to you at a Commentary dinner one year and thought you were just about the most interesting person I'd ever met.

  5. What Nora said.

    My lovely teenaged daughter tells me how much she loves Anthony Bourdain. Even before this episode, I was with Ms. Deen: he's just monetizing his irritability. But dear daughter happily regales me with his version of Saudi Arabia, saying that his show on it presents a very different picture than the one I (who have never been and therefore have less credibility) had painted. You know, he had a female guide and she didn't have to wear a burqa, and neither did her friends, etc.

    I told her how pleased I was that Tony was now shilling for The Kingdom. Did he mention that last year a 70 year-old woman was flogged for allowing two young men bring a cake to her house? Was he too busy tucking into the raw camel kidney to care?

    So he ate an unwashed warthog rectum? Um, as they say, you are what you eat.

  6. Please stay healthy and keep demonstrating to us your peculiarly ironic sense of humor so that we can continue to find your little island of sanity in a world gone silly when we need it most.

    Only 500 days to go.

  7. When I was going through chemo I couldn't watch any Food Network shows (CSI: Miami was somehow all my brain could handle). But now I love watching. I've never watched Anthony Bourdain but he certainly is lacking common courtesy in this case.