FOOD POLITICS - September 2018 Laura Alexander

Anthony Bourdain, The Memory Magician

Written by Laura Alexander

I’m lousy at food, and as far as I know his show was never broadcast in the UK, so when Anthony Bourdain died this summer, it was more or less the first I’d heard of him. Over the week or so before the next big story, obituaries filled my newsfeed and the home pages of my standard news sites. Reading them, I was amazed by the outpouring of love on the screen. My head is firmly up my own arse at the best of times, but it seemed crazy that so much love could exist for a person in the public eye without a word having even vaguely trickled through to me – I couldn’t even remember having heard the name. Before I knew it, clips of Bourdain were making their way into my killing-time-on-youtube-when-I-should-be-doing-something fare. He seemed nice, this gangly, grey haired figure standing around on street corners getting excited about things, asking questions and bouncing with enthusiasm. I searched for clips of him in the cities I’d visited, and the cities I’d hoped to visit, and salivated every time the camera zoomed in on some cheese. And then, while I was explaining to him how to make a Negroni (clearly the most delicious of summer drinks, as Bourdain, it turns out, also knew) the editor of this magazine asked me to write him a piece on the guy. All of which is a convoluted way of saying that I’ve been thinking about mussels.

My mum doesn’t like them at all, and my dad will eat them if they’re there, but isn’t really fussed, and so I went my whole childhood and adolescence without ever tasting a mussel. I knew they existed, sometimes I saw them on menus, but it would never occur to me to order them. The same is true of most seafood, but it’s the mussels that stand out. As far as I was concerned, I just didn’t like mussels, right up until the moment after my first year of university that I went to Istanbul for a week. It was the farthest I’d ever been from home on my own, and I was planning on staying there a week or so and then meandering down the coast and entering Greece through the islands.

I was nineteen and ready to explode with excitement. I’d been put in touch with a friend of a friend who could give me a couch to sleep on, and as soon as I arrived he took me out to hang on a street corner with his friends, drinking gin and playing the guitar and spitting the husks of sunflower seeds out onto the street. All of them were much older than me, nobody I’d ever met knew where I was, the night air was warm and I didn’t understand what anyone was talking about, I was in heaven. Someone looked up and across the street suddenly, at a vendor setting up a tiny stall, and then ran off and came back with a couple for mussel shells.

If you’re new in town you have to try this, they said, or something like it. I would have said I didn’t like mussels, but I was scared of losing face so I didn’t, so I slurped it down.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

I found out later it was called midye, mussels stuffed with slightly spiced rice and served with a twist of lemon juice. Fresh, salty, ever-so-slightly spicy, smooth-mussel-texture against the slightly rougher rice. Down in one bite and swallow, you can just keep eating them without stopping until you’re full. Sold on every street corner, with judicious warnings from everyone that the street trade in them was totally unlicensed and possibly illegal, and if you happened to get a bad one the food poisoning would lay you out for days. I had at least ten every day for a week, and then I went away and I haven’t had them since.

That was four years ago, and yet I still find myself dreaming of them, in the nostalgic way a lost love is dreamt of, like remembering the look in someone’s eyes on a particular night, like the smell of jasmine. They’re still, probably, the best thing I’ve ever eaten (although I tried steak tartare for the first time a few months ago and that suddenly became a serious contender for the prize), but it’s more than that. Alone in a big new city for the first time, a romantic and impressionable teenager with no self-preservation instincts, they were the new, the unexpected, the opening of a door I hadn’t quite known was there.

Midye shows up in Bourdain’s work. Half an hour into an episode on Istanbul from 2010, there they were. Sampled fresh down by the water with the general lack of food safety highly emphasized.

“Nothing I like better,” quips Bourdain as he strolls along the waterfront, “than unlicensed seafood of indeterminate provenance”. They are favored with a quick these are in fact excellent before the camera moves on.

No matter. My magic doesn’t have to be his. But even a cursory glance at this guy’s output is enough to get you thinking of all those meals the memory of which locks into place with the right trigger. Neapolitan pizza out of a box on the steps of a church, whiskey old fashioned out of mugs in Paris, gyros in deep-fried pitta in Athens. So much food over the years since Istanbul, mostly eaten ad hoc, outdoors and in moments of such intense joy. I don’t know much about the guy Bourdain, and I probably never will, but this gift alone, to be able to share these little jolts of magic, is enough for me to mourn, just a little, that he’s gone.

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