The sub-title of this book is ” A Global Adventure in Search of Culinary Extremes” and it’s an apt description of it’s contents.Tom Parker Bowles, a British food journalist,decided to investigate foods that are considered odd, taboo or disgusting and embarked on a year long odyssey to do so. This book is an account of his adventures in China, New Mexico,Nashville, Korea,Laos,Spain, Sicily and Tokyo.
(Please read the entire post. Reading only the next few lines might give you some wrong ideas about the book and turn you off completely.)
He made separate trips to each of these destinations and he certainly sampled some very odd fare : sea slugs , cobra bile extracted from a live serpent, seahorse satay, millipedes, locusts ( China), Blowfish or fugu which if not properly prepared can result in a quick death ( Japan), baby bees, live shrimp, ant eggs, dried moss ( Laos) and dog ( Korea) to name just a few.In between , he sampled more ordinary fare, attending a Fiery Foods show in New Mexico and serving as a judge at a barbeque contest in Nashville, Tennessee.Two other chapters deal with Spain ( where he went in search of percebes or goose necked barnacles) and Sicily to which he was attracted because of his fascination with the Mafia.
Parker Bowles is an engaging fellow and it is fun to follow him on his travels. This book is about more than just food. It is also a travel book and Parker Bowles makes some perceptive comments about what he sees and eats and about the interesting people whom he meets. We who live in an affluent society can eat what we want but, as he correctly points out, people who eat lizards or locusts do so are poor ; they eat what they eat out of necessity. We should not look down upon them. For Parker Bowles eating these oddities doesn’t come easy but he does so manfully and his struggles make for interesting reading. I must admit though that I skipped most of the chapter on Korea so I don’t know his views on eating dog ; that was more than I could stomach. The rest of the chapters I devoured with relish.
The most fascinating chapter , in my opinion, is the first one when he goes to Gloucestershire in search of elvers. Elvers are baby eels, 2 inches long or less, and their heroic journey from the Sargasso Sea to English rivers puts the salmon to shame. Eels can’t be bred in captivity so the world’s appetite for eels can only be satisfied by catching elvers and allowing them to grow in controlled conditions. As a result, elvers fetch upwards of $ 800 /lb. This chapter which describes how they are caught and transported and the strange characters who infest the trade is absolutely engrossing.
The chapter on China was particularly interesting to me since I’ve been there. I didn’t eat any of the oddities that he sampled but I did eat Peking Duck in an establishment similar to the one that he went to. While in China I was taken aback by the popularity of McDonalds and other fast food joints and wondered how it could be so. John, one of Parker Bowles’ guides provides an answer “.. ( children) love McDonalds and KFC but only when they are young . My daughter no longer likes fast food but she adored it when she was ten…. at a certain age, these imports are attractive but then you realize you won’t get true enjoyment at McDonalds.”
One of the reasons I empathise with Parker Bowles is that he proves all too human. He is not some patrician, coolly detached from what he experiences. When he sees something he likes he is unable to stop himself from reaching for more. At the Barbeque competition , for instance, he gorges on the ribs even though he knows that the Boston Butt and brisket categories are yet to be judged. In China he can’t resist another bowl of noodle soup even though he knows there is a dinner feast awaiting him. And he frequently imbibes too much.
Parker Bowles has a good sense of self deprecating humor and a knack for the happy turn of phrase. For instance, succulent ribs are described thusly “.. the meat slips of the bone as effortlessly as an unzipped silk dress.” When he tries a very hot sauce with disastrous result he tries to douse the heat by swigging a bottle of beer but “… it made about as much difference as pissing on the Great Fire of London.” Good stuff !
The one weak chapter in the book is the last one , the one on Sicily. Apparently, Parker Bowles went there because of his romanticized ideas of the Mafia. He finds out however that the Mafia are more sordid than chivalrous and the Sicilian food he describes is not only not dangerous, it is unexciting.
On the whole, the book is engrossing reading and will be savored not only by foodies but by those who would love to travel to these exotic parts but don’t have the stomach to do so.
The Year of Living Dangerously. Tom Parker Bowles. St, Martin’s Press, New York ( 2007). $ 24.95
Did the author’s name sound familiar ? It should have. He’s the son of Camilla Parker Bowles , now the consort of Prince Charles.