The Year of Eating Dangerously by Tom Parker Bowles is a belly-rising, conventional mindset challenging and palate-opening inspiration for adventurous travellers. The honest penmanship of the avowed British food writer provokes stereotypical tastes in this culinary extremes searching book. To me, a great book democratises in order to prevent robotic homogeneity. The boredom rising from prepackaged, uniform and highly processed food infecting our food cultures has lead the author to a yearlong global journey in the search of authentic local food.
The Year of Eating Dangerously for the adventurous foodies
Tom Parker Bowles seduced me right from the cover. Not by the image of his pale English self with a giant butchers’ axe fencing off his face, but in general book titles play with our minds. The initial spark of attraction lures you into a binding relationship with the stories inside.While his cold blue eye pierces sharply through a tiny hole on the spine of the knife’s blade, the content is not as ridiculous as it is initially portrayed. It is far better than a boisterous macho account of eating zebras and antelopes hunted down in the wild prairie of Africa.
The drama is there, no zebras though. The book’s cover hints at the characteristic British humour peppering the personal narratives sourced from one year turned into a global spin of culinary adventures. The Year of Eating Dangerously takes you from his native Britain – where the big talker reports on the mysterious and ultra rare influx of elvers (baby eels) from the seas to the muddy river benches, through New Mexico and eating competitions in the voracious America (Nashville), the exoticism of Asia (China, Japan, Korea, Laos) and back to Europe (Sicily and Spain).
The book essentially recaptures the centuries old tale of the Westerners’ quest for the exotic, but with integrity returns to the basics in the adventurer’s experience. Laos “calmed me down“, a sandwich in Sicily if “made with second-rate ingredients, it would be near inedible. Here though you couldn’t consider eating anything else”, on the elvers in Gloucestershire “in a generation’s time, their taste will be as alien as that of Dodo meat. What I have found is a whole lot more frightening – the rapidly dwindling stocks of the wild eel.”
The danger shifts from the volatile nature of obtaining the food (elvers, percebes), the legality of some of the edible trophies (whales in Japan, tiger in Laos, traditional but rather niche dog eating in Korea) to actually eating it (XXXXhot peppers in New Mexico). Yet, next to the food poisoning hazards, it is the cultural stereotyping and the familiar-seeking bias that turn out to be our biggest adversaries when eating. Our minds judge based on our experiential, manmade standards that change with the miles and time travelled. Nose to tail eating was common during most of our history, and its comeback receives an applause by some while is being shrug off disgruntedly by others. In Beijing, Parker Bowles experiences a true “beak-to-butt eating” as he hesitantly savours “the duck feet in mustard sauce served cold, wide and rubbery, like flip-flop sashimi“. I had plenty of opportunities to devour this Chinese delicacy while living in the country over a decade ago, but I never dared to. Sucking on the sharp nailed bird’s feet is beyond my comfort zone.
Travel via tastes and words
Yet, I was more lucky than the author of The Year of Eating Dangerously since I tried the sinfully expensive baby eels in Spain. At a birthday lunch one can afford certain luxuries, so for €70 per 50grammes serving [pictured above], I savoured the delicate sea spaghetti of white eels at the Michelin stared Etxebarri in the Basque region. At least I was sure I was eating the real stuff, but after reading the book my ignorance of their existential threat hunted me for weeks. The author warns that shredded squids, their eyes hand-painted with their ink noir to look like the eels are sold cheaply since they are so popular across Spain. The real poor men’s food though turned into a luxury thanks to the rising Eastern appetites. The Japanese and now the Chinese flood into Europe to pursue the eel infants to grow them large back at home, where eels are sold by buckets on the markets.
The Year of Eating Dangerously takes you to some photogenic landscapes in your imagination. The charm of the book is the power of description by Parker Bowles, not his travel photography skills. There are no images throughout the book, which some readers may crave in a book dedicated to uncommon foods, exotic destinations and grotesque situations, yet the only visual sneak in is on the back cover, where snaps of some of his edible trophies pierce the eyes seeking thrill from food. I did not miss the visual servings of immediate rewards though. The writing flows smoothly, and the stories tease your curiosity enough to immerse yourself in the The Year of Eating Dangerously for the entire snowy, stormy day by the fireplace. In winter ‘bookworming’ feels cosy.
Being myself an authenticity seeking traveller, when my first journeys to Asia were as much about scouting the local food markets as temple visits, I was travelling back in time with the author. Still, The Year of Eating Dangerously was not as dangerous as the title dramatises. If I were as skilled writer as himself, I could have authored a travelogue like this. I would suggest trips to Peru and India to witness the real food danger, the diseases that can be spread through low hygienic standards in these poor countries. I witnessed some stomach turning food markets in Cuzco, Peru, in Mumbai and in Bangkok. Anything from horse mouths, tripe, bug or reptile repulsed me, only the flies seemed to be tantalised by the puking smell of rotting flesh.
The author’s personal reservations towards certain foods (eating anything from a dog, tripe), his discovery of cultural barriers creating dislikes (insects, silk worm pupae), and disappointments from devouring some hyped-up, but potentially deadly foods like the fugu in Japan create humoresque moments. Yet, “bunny huggers” beware, like in Peru, in Laos “people cannot afford to start to get emotionally attached; another beast, another way to to make some money and survive another day“. The quest for survival is real in most of the world, so vegans should take their weapons down; not all world can survive on plants alone.
What turns out, rather surprisingly as the highlight of the global quest, the I must go back desire of the author, you must find yourself inside. Overblown, but not in the British sense, wit, plenty of eating and drinking and some quite painful hangovers enter authenticity of Tom Parker Bowles into the book. If you enjoy traveling and food, read The Year of Eating Dangerously. The book introduced some question marks into my inquisitive mind – if he signed himself up for loading on sugary, heavily processed snacks, wouldn’t he had eaten dangerously without the necessity to travel anywhere? Certainly, this supersize me diet would be dangerous for his health. The wordsmith can mould the word dangerous into what it personally signifies to him/her.