Along with that, he says, is the evolution of the American palate. “As a general statement, our palates are changing. We’ve seen a few really big moments just in the last 30, 40 years. The moment Americans decided that raw fish was desirable. Huge! Nothing could be more repulsive to the traditional American table than raw fish. And yet suddenly, very quickly, we all wanted it. It doesn’t really matter why—whether it was because we saw Sarah Jessica Parker eating it on TV or it was just brightly colored, or we were drunk. Whatever. Suddenly now we like it.”
And there’s the realm beyond raw—the one he calls “the funk zone, the rot zone.”
“One of the most serious things happening now is people like Korean food now. Clearly that funk zone, the rot zone, the kimchi zone people have learned in their lifetimes to like. People are learning to like liver and kidneys. They’re learning to enjoy textures that would have been profoundly repulsive to them earlier in their lives.”
“What kind of textures?”
“Rubbery, chewy, cartilagey, fatty, tendon, jellyfish, pig’s tail, pig’s ears. Very hot item on menus now, pig’s ears.”
“Pig’s ears? Is that true?”
“Yeah, serious hipster cred. And I think another huge thing is how spicy they’re willing to accept their food. We have entered a new zone of true scaldingly, spicy, hot food.”
“Do you think there are tastes that we have not yet gotten to, that are still awaiting us?”
“Well, we’ve embraced umami [the Japanese term for their version of the savory and pungent funk zone] in a big way. Lot of chef research going on in that subject. And people like their sushi older.”
“Whoa, wait a minute. Sushi older?”
“Lots of people have begun to understand that sushi has almost nothing to do with freshness. It’s all about the sweet spot during its decay.”
It’s a great line, “the sweet spot during its decay.” But it doesn’t make me want to run out for aged raw mackerel.
“I think we’re reaching our human potential, food-wise.” He conceded in one of his later books, No Reservations, that he reached his limit when he agreed to share rotting shark innards with the locals in Iceland. Even as he speaks of it a shadow of horror crosses his face.
I ask him if he thinks the revolution or obsession we’re going through with food is as meaningful as rock ’n’ roll, or psychedelic mind expansion, or various spiritualities. Is it a genuine cultural revolution or just a wave of self-indulgence?
“It is powerful,” he says. “What it does have something in common at its best with rock ’n’ roll, with great rock ’n’ roll: There’s a sense that somebody’s talking to you. You used to get an old 331⁄3, you’d listen to the music and if it moved you, then you’d go, ‘Wow!’ What else were they trying to say to you? And you’d pore over the cover and the back liner and say, ‘I want more. Someone’s talking to me and I want to make sure I understand.’”
Bourdain sounds like he’s describing a consciousness raising, an expansive way of connecting more deeply with other people. He’s almost evangelical about it.
“The little moments that I have regularly in places like Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Libya, Borneo, Barcelos in Brazil, Liberia, the Congo—the moment they’re looking at you and you put your hand in [a repugnant-looking offering] and you eat and you experience that thing with them. You share an intimate moment. You can’t say, ‘No, it’s OK. I’ll pass.’ If you blow that moment, it’s done. They’re not telling you the interesting thing they might have said afterwards. Because you’re rejecting everything they love. You’re rejecting their mom. It’s a simple thing. But openness to that, simply a willingness to say, ‘I’ll have that; I’m interested. Wow, where’d you get that?’ Then people tell you.”
For someone who comes across a bit like a wise ass cynic in his books, someone who might scoff, Bourdain offers what seems like a genuinely idealistic take on it all: the spiritual globalism, you might say, at the heart of the food frenzy culture.
The food we were eating was simple but perfect. For the record Bourdain ordered terrine and Garganelli, a classic pasta Bolognese, while I had that as a side dish and chicken as my entree. I almost never order chicken, finding it almost always boring, but it was probably the best chicken I can recall having, uncomplicated but flawless.