kokei photography | On Eating

On Eating

June 15, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Growing up in my family, I ate a lot of different things from different places. My mom cooked Vietnamese dishes, of course, but often went out of her way to dabble in other cuisines too. French, Japanese, Filipino, Italian…Unfortunately, that didn’t work out well for me — as a child I was the opposite of a foodie. I never really had an appetite, even for sweets like cookies or cake, and with 5 days a week of martial arts practice, you can imagine how thinly my flesh coated my bones. This concerned my parents, so they fed me more and more as I yearned for less and less. Thus was my childhood.


“Eating more things will make you a better person” my mom often said. I nodded to her in sarcastic agreement, not understanding why. Would I someday find myself stranded on an island? Then could I finally put to use my skills in eating grass and insects and whatever else I might find laying around? My mom continued cooking, unaware, uncaring of my disdain. If she ate it, then I would too. Escargot, balut, natto, gizzard, solidified blood, thousand-year-old egg — these were not unusual to see in our house.


Needless to say, things didn’t go much better at school. I was teased in grade school for the things I brought for lunch. Not the standard PB&J for me. I had the Vietnamese dishes that I couldn’t yet describe in English, the bánh cuốn chả cá or the cà chua nhồi thịt. I was very popular with the classmates who smelled fish sauce or saw a mishmash of mystery meat. Luckily for me, I only had to endure about 8 years of that before finally getting to high school and getting enough allowance to buy my own lunches.


At the same time, somewhere else in the world, Anthony Bourdain was working in a kitchen, making food while barely making ends meet. He was likely piecing together bits of an essay that would later day be titled “Don’t Eat Before Reading This”, an essay that would transform his career. Today, however, Bourdain is no longer with us. While I wasn’t a devout fan, I've enjoyed a few episodes of Parts Unknown. I’ve watched and rewatched his visits to Taiwan, Japan, and Hong Kong, 3 countries I’ve frequented in recent years. Through these episodes, I can reminisce and relive my adventures or discover something new that I previously missed. I greatly enjoyed watching his visit to Vietnam, nonchalantly eating bún chả with President Obama as if it were just another day.


Bourdain played himself on his show, an even-tempered explorer who wore his heart on his sleeve. He felt to me to be the most real, the most down-to-earth of TV chefs. Of all celebrities even — the actors and singers, the writers and entertainers, I imagined Bourdain to be one who truly understood the beauty of this world and the people within it. The value in living life. But not all things are understandable, or rational. Especially the conundrum of humanity. After hearing about Bourdain's passing, I binged upon the several Youtube videos mourning his loss, remembering his accomplishments, and paying tribute to his life. There's a good one with Anderson Cooper making the rounds, and in it, a segment that moved me in particular. 


“People are telling you a story when they give you food, and if you don’t accept the food, you are, in many cultures, whether in rural Arkansas or Vietnam, you are rejecting the people. And we see it many many times. Because I’m accepting the food, because it’s either out of my comfort zone or outright appalling, because I’m an audience saying ‘yes I’ll try it, thank you,’ people open up and the relationship proceeds from that point and becomes something very different."


"Have there been times when you’ve said, 'I just can’t eat that. I know it’s gonna make me sick'?"


"No...mission one on the show is, if you have to take one for the team, you take one for the team. I try to be a good guest. There have been times where freshness is clearly an issue; I know I’m very likely going to pay the price, but in almost every case, a magic moment is happening, and I’m going to see a lot more if I just suck it up and eat the nasty bit. The vast majority of those experiences are in fact very pleasurable journeys of discovery, but every once in a while it’s unpleasant. What’s the worst thing that can happen? A course of antibiotics. What do you get in return? I think a lot."


Suddenly, what my mom said made a bit more sense to me. But still, solidified blood is not "chocolate", mom...


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