Memories maketh the masticator

My father was working as a piece keeper in former Yugoslavia, when I was just six. He lived in place called Vukovar, where houses were peppered with bullet holes, the grass wasn’t safe to walk on and it was normal to see houses reduced to rubble. He was heading up a de-mining operation, the reason we couldn’t go in the grass. The house where he was staying (my mother, brother and I were living in Slovenia at the time) stunk of something that I would guess was rotten onions. We would visit him and we’d tour this war zone as fit were very normal. Now I can’t say that I was completely aware of the horrible things that had preceded my visits to this city, but I was certainly understanding of the fact terrible shit had gone on. I knew that’s where dad worked and he was an army man, so we were safe with our very own Action Man. This was the place where many of my first food memories took hold in the back of my mind. Recounting the numerous trips there are some that really stick out. Whether it was iced lollies, cured meats or weird cheese, I remember a lot from the kitchen table.

 

But it was a visit to a local family’s farm that sticks with me now. Driving in the white UN marked Toyota Land Cruiser, we snaked up and through a farm to the main dwelling. What was sitting there was something that really piqued my interest, gruesome or not. I could smell it before we even got out of the car. Rakija and beer was likely poured, as my father spoke to the locals. He was no doubt trying to get the lay of the land, while avoiding the inevitable drunkenness that comes from just a sniff of their moonshine. I first tried for the stuff a couple of years ago, it’s like jet fuel, singeing everything on its way down your gullet.

I was entranced by this ugly, alien-like quadrupedal on a metal stake.   It was a primal sight.

It spurred primal impulses. Gently rotating on the spit, fat dripping onto the hot coals below, I think it was the first time I connected the dots. Those dots were that I was putting a formerly-sentient being in my mouth for pleasure. I’m thankful for that, because I see so many people these days who eat meat willingly without actually thinking about where it comes from. I remember having impulses to go up and just rip off a tranche of this beast. Looking back, I have to be honest. I don’t know whether it was lamb, goat or an old ram. No matter, even if it was a gaunt-looking animal, it looked incredible. I remember being disappointed at the fact I couldn’t try any. That fatty animal looked incredible.

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Vukovar’s water tower, which I have vivid memories of scaling, remained a totem of endurance and tenacity for the people of the city.

I have to say that is one of the earliest and most formative memories I have, in regard to my attitude to food and cooking.

However, I only started to love food when my family moved to New York in 2001. It was there that I was treated to some fine dining experiences I don’t think I would have ever had otherwise. You know: scallops with some sort of foam, thrice-cooked pork belly, duck fat everything. I loved the experience of going to Bobby Flay’s now-defunct Mesa, or Daniel Boulud’s DB Bistro Moderne. That would be wasted on many folk at that age, but it lit a fire in my belly. I loved food. I started watching the Food Channel.

I started watching the likes of Mario Batali, Emeril Lagase and Rachel Ray. I thought, ‘hey, this is cool. I like what they’re cooking and these guys are kinda charismatic’. I was still in it for the food though. Then I began watching amateur cooks going head to head in various shows that were typically cut-and-dry. There’s the shots, the reflective cut-away monologues and the over-produced emotional stories telling us why they love to cook and how they yearn to open a gastro pub or bake artisan cupcakes in their neighbourhood. It wasn’t until I started watching the likes of Anthony Bourdain that I was transported back to Dalmatia.

Bourdain, lauded as a rock star of the cooking world, is the reason I love food. He’s a chef who’s done just about everything. Not only was he a great chef at New York’s Les Halles, but he has character. He is someone with depth. He’s unapologetic about his past, whether that be spending money on hookers in Amsterdam or talking about his grisly past as an addict.

While that’s cool, talking about all that kind of stuff with brutal honesty, what’s even cooler is how he tells people’s stories. He uses food to segue into culture, into people’s lives and draws parallels. I think the one episode, while I’m not saying it’s my favourite, was when he went to Beirut. He and his crew were trapped there because of the Israel-Lebanon war. While I didn’t watch it until 2010, about four years after it was filmed and released, it was something that stuck with me. It was a shitty situation and they made the most of it. He took the chance, on a cooking show, to talk about what was actually going on. He talked to people, something not many cooking shows were doing and are only beginning to do now. He starts on food, then zooms out with the camera and takes into account the entire culture. That’s where my love of food comes in, it’s about the people. It’s not so much about the food, although I’m not fat without reason, but it’s about the culture that’s created the food.

I’m going to follow this blog post with one of Anthony’s most famous recipes, his bouef bourguignon. He is always seen cooking this bad boy, and I would hazard a guess to say it’s delicious. I’ll give it a try and tell you how good it is, then show you how.

 

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