When Memory Lane Is Full of Potholes (FBC2)

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.

Provincetown
Provincetown takes some serious effort to get to. (Apple Maps)

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.

Provincetown
A long-established local seafood joint in Provincetown. (Photo: BostInno)

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.

A small drink is for savoring

Years ago when I was in college, I was in a special singing group at the University of Illinois called The Other Guys. In one year, we sang a hundred or more shows in the Midwest, on the West Coast, and in Europe. It was an exhilarating time for the eight of us.

On a trip to the San Francisco area, we sang for a distinguished group of Illinois alumni and had a ball hobnobbing at the St. Francis Yacht Club on the bay. We felt like big shots. Although we had a sumptuous dinner there, I can’t for the life of me recall a single thing we had. The food was surely good but must have been unremarkable. We were among strangers.

What I do remember well, and it made a sizable impression on me, was a single shot of espresso.

The scene:

My best Other Guy friend, Mike, and I were hosted for two nights by a husband-wife pair of surgeons who lived on a swanky ridgeline overlooking the city and bay area. The first morning, we arose to find a lovely breakfast on a spare table facing an entire windowed wall. Beyond the glass were the city, the bay, and the distant mountains:

View of San Francisco from Diamond Heights
The view at breakfast was much like this.

The male Dr. M. (host) invited us to sit and produced a single shot of piping hot espresso for each of us and himself. They were presented in the little ceramic demitasses customary for espresso, each accompanied by a pair of sugar cubes and a sliver of lemon rind. Neither Mike nor I had ever tasted espresso, so Dr. M. gave us a tutorial:

First, twist the peel to break the cells and rub the oils on the rim of the cup. Check.

Second, sip the espresso carefully—it’s hot!

Third, hold a cube just so one corner contacts the surface of the coffee. Watch it leech upward to saturate the cube (fascinating). Decide what you want to do: either drop it into the cup or pop it into your mouth.

Finish what remains in peace and contentment.

In that way, we shared wonderful, warm conversation and learned a little bit about savoring—a strong, flavorful treat, a view, one’s companions, and an everyday moment that can be special every day. This was a big lesson for me which I try to employ as regularly as possible.

Pic of mocha maker
A good moka maker. Italians differentiate between moka and espresso.

FWIW, I don’t have an espresso machine (I’m holding out for a real one, a very expensive one). I do have an Italian mocha brewer. It’s an excellent and inexpensive stand-in. I’m still waiting to get that Diamond Heights view out my own window.

Food as reminiscence

Although consuming food is done in the moment, right now, mouth chomping and mind activated, all of us know that food connects with memory and emotions. Lots of you will recognize this place: Great American Donut Shop in Bowling Green, locally known and beloved as GADS. My family lived in BG for almost a decade while I was a full time professor in Folk Studies there. We have many happy memories in Bowling Green, especially since my two sons did a lot of their growing up there.

We get back to town every few years and visit WKU and colleagues, old friends, and return to some favorite haunts. Most of those favorites are food establishments, highlighted by Yuki and GADS. We always make sure to step into the tiny little retail floor of the donut shop to get the tasty treats. We all agree that, for us, they’re they best donuts anywhere. Are there better donuts by many different measures? Sure, but that’s valuing them according to specific criteria like sweetness, flavor, appearance, texture, what have you. On those grounds, we think GADS is pretty great, but it’s more than that.

GADS gives us the whole bundle: donuts we love and the familiar surroundings that hosted lots of happy times in our young family’s life. Going to GADS, we get lots more than yummy donuts. We get to remember and feel things that made us who we were when we were all younger . . . and when we all fit more easily at one of those small booths for four.

IMG_2017.jpg
Toby and Tris are a lot bigger now, but they still love their GADS.

Food is definitely about more than nourishing the body. It’s part of who we are and who we have been, and we can often summon that with a bite.