This entry concerns the “Massachusetts” episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.
Featured image Anthony Bourdain (left) poses with fellow kitchen staff at his first restaurant job in Provincetown, Massachusetts. (Photo: zsreport on Reddit)
I have seen about half of the nearly 50 episodes of Parts Unknown, the foodways-travel-cultural-critique show hosted by chef and cynic Anthony Bourdain. “Massachusetts” was not even close to the first episode I saw, but I choose to write about it now because it’s a good one to start with. Bourdain visits Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he lived as a young man.
Bourdain reminisces about his young adulthood spent frequently high and almost vagrant in that beachside community. It was a bit of a Bohemian refuge, far out on a peninsula, and so it supported a community of various kinds of nonconformists—in terms of attitudes toward recreational drugs, sexual orientation, politics, and you name it. I admit that I was at first caught off guard by Bourdain’s revelation that he had been a heavy drug user, including heroin and other very dangerous ones. On the other hand, I found it refreshing that he was secure and courageous enough to own up to it and face it squarely—as a fact of his youth and as a sadly worsened scourge of rural areas all over that state.
Ultimately, what I want to point out is that we will occasionally push the boundaries of what you might consider foodways to include things that might be dangerous, offensive, even frightening for some. If we gather it, prepare it, ingest it, we can propose to understand it in personal and cultural terms. In this way, the current Massachusetts heroin epidemic (and Bourdain’s past with it) are certainly worth studying.
Incidentally, it was in Provincetown that Bourdain found himself working at his first kitchen job. It was the first step on a long and winding and occasionally bumpy path that led him to be the subject of this and perhaps a dozen or more of my class’s blog posts.
My mom is a relentless and talented cook, very creative and able to stretch short budgets into long meals. She was raised in Germany during WWII and still carries a “waste not want not” sensibility. Food was nourishment but always delivered with interest and as a social thing for our family. When we traveled to different regions of the U.S., I learned it is fun to sample the new things I might encounter there—often unheard of, usually enjoyed, sometimes best forgotten.
I became an adventuresome sampler. Perhaps my favorite such surprise was a New England dessert called Indian pudding. I had it in a sandwich shop in Vermont and it slayed me. November in my house now is not certified until I’ve made Indian pudding for the family. I’ve added my recipe to the Recipes discussion.
After traveling a good amount as an adult and living in different regions of the U.S. and twice in England, I discovered that the best first thing to do when I go somewhere new is . . . visit a grocery store. Go shop for food where locals do their shopping. If you want to get a crash course in the basic parameters of a group’s foodways, go where they get their eats and look around.
In Chicago’s and New York’s downtowns, you’ll find small, cramped stores with an economy of high-interest items targeting those who live within a few blocks (see the featured image, above). In Germany, you’ll find a preference for mouth-watering baked goods and fresh meats. In England, the fare seems bland until you discover they sell beer in plastic litre bottles like we sell soft drinks. And in the American South: A better selection of biscuits (fresh and frozen) than anywhere else.
In the long run, I’ve discovered I am a foodie and enjoy experimentation. What I love best of all when away from home is “reading” how a community’s or region’s foodways grant us insights into what makes the locals tick. It comes as no surprise to me, then, that I find myself teaching a university-level foodways course.
Featured image info.: Inner-city groceries like Westside Market in New York often spill out onto sidewalks to draw passers-by into the incredibly maze-like warren of goods. (Photo: Grocery Headquarters)
Today is my elder son’s twentieth birthday, and I write this with a birthday songs playlist ready to start as soon as I hear him get up. His mom just left to get what we think will begin another tradition: The Pandamonium Birthday Cake Doughnut.
Long story short, one of my co-teachers and her husband started Pandamonium Doughnuts (check out their Instagram feed), an artisan doughnut company, and now it’s A Thing. Their food truck is brilliantly awesome, and their doughnuts are spectacular. They cost a lot ($2-3 apiece) but they’re made from fresh ingredients daily, and each is a handmade work of art. Flavors include Bacon Maple Fritter, Fresh Raspberry, Earl Grey Tea and Meyer Lemon, or Nutella Royale. They rock.
The Pandamonium truck visits sites around Champaign-Urbana on six days per week, most of them to the area of the University of Illinois campus. My elder son studies Engineering at the U of I, and he faithfully treks across campus for a doughnut at least once per week. He’s a fan. This morning, he’s going to get his first-ever Pandamonium Birthday Cake Doughnut. It is the first, but I am willing to be it won’t be the last. Next birthday up in our family calendar is my own (April), and I expect I might have one for breakfast too. And so on.
That’s the nature of tradition. We do things all the time, rarely thinking much of most of them. Sometimes, though, a Thingwedo strikes us as good, meaningful, and worth repeating. Then we repeat it and it becomes a tradition. That’s the formula; simple as that. Folklorists will stand by this. It’s gold.
Back to birthdays. I write this blog post while my wife treks downtown to get the big-ass doughnut. Will he wake before she returns? Will there be bites out of it before he gets to it? These are new things to worry about on birthdays in my household.