BiteClub, Restaurants

The Pirate Lord of the Hot Line (Book Review)

...A compelling argument for reading material but, naturally enough, I make it through security at SFO without so much as a day-old copy of the Times, and why I purchase - at prices inflated by profit margins that only airport monopolies and cable companies can dream of - two books, one of which is Jason Sheehan's Dirty Cooking, and which turns out to be an excellent little book about one man's particularly hot, dangerous, sweaty and chemically-enhanced life on the hot line.

(Prologue: Two cross-country flights with three young children and unavoidable transfers in both directions, separated by less than 72 hours in-country, on my non-native Right Coast, for a theocratic church wedding packed with in-laws and people I don’t know well enough to drink with (or, at least to drink enough)… A compelling argument for reading material but, naturally enough, I make it through security at SFO without so much as a day-old copy of the Times, and why I purchase – at prices inflated by profit margins that only airport monopolies and cable companies can dream of – two books, one of which is Jason Sheehan’s Dirty Cooking, and which turns out to be an excellent little book about one man’s particularly hot, dangerous, sweaty and chemically-enhanced life on the hot line. )
I exaggerate, slightly: Not with the horrors of the 15 or so hours my family would spend in the care and company of commercial air carriers, not with the other factual particulars, but with the implication that I forgot to pack something to read. I spent many years traveling for work in a previous life, mostly long-haul, and, while I have forgotten virtually every essential item that one can forget at one point or another (to wit: a passport in London, socks in Moscow, and foreign currency everywhere from Cape Town to Mumbai), I have learned – the hard way – never, not ever, to travel without a book. No, in fact I left our house without a book on Thursday morning precisely because I knew we’d be at the airport with loads of time and access to a passable bookstore, and I really, really like picking out new stuff to read with my hands: The tactile sensation of the pages, their weight in one’s hand, even the font chosen for printing – all these things matter. While I, like most of you, buy most of my books online for convenience and price, I will mourn the inevitable death of the physical bookstore, and I regret that my children will, in all likelihood, never even know what I’m talking about.
In the event, I took my seat in the company of a copy of All The Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy (arguably America’s greatest writer of fiction and whose work I carefully ration in order to extend for as long as possible the literary cherry-popping that only a McCarthy first page can deliver), and the subject of this missive (Sheehan, who writes for the Seattle Weekly and contributes to NPR amongst others, is a food writer I had not previously heard of – I bought the book largely on a whim). Sheehan’s book is a revelation if only because, like food itself, so much of what is produced is irredeemable swill, the literary equivalent of an Applebee’s salad bar, that one often forgets how much fun the real thing, done properly, can be.
Sheehan writes well. Not just “well-enough”, mind you, but rather the sort of writing that makes you wonder how he ever got that good, that seems somehow unfair. He also happens to have a vast wealth of personal stories about working in kitchens that, for the most part, strike just the right balance between making the reader cringe and laugh out loud. And, he knows an awful lot about professional cookery at all levels, in and of itself a worthy diversion, because it’s not every day that you get to hear a cook talk intelligently about the short-order counter at Waffle House and Escoffier’s preparation for oxtail consomme with equal measures of respect, enthusiasm, and first-hand knowledge of both. And the book is dirty: Filthy, in-the-gutter, foul-mouthed, grossly-inappropriate, richly-laden-with-highly-questionable-lifestyle-choices dirty. And still you can’t help but like him, in spite of all his Himalayan faults. Did I mention that he’s funny? I’ll say it again: You’ll cringe, but you’ll be laughing. Out loud. He’s the perfect antidote to a foodie culture that considers the candy-ass veneer and slapstick cookery of Guy Fieri or Rachel Ray in any way relevant to the actual preparation of real food.
The other thing, maybe the thing, that makes the book so successful is that, despite taking place almost entirely in kitchens, it is really about everything but cooking. It is kitchen-as-parable: His career in the kitchen, while fundamental to the story line, includes a descent toward near-dearth and and eventual righting of his life, and serves as a means of explaining what I took to be much larger truths about the choices we all make in our lives, loves, and work. The point is made most succinctly and directly when, near the very end, he tells us that the most important thing for any would-be restaurant critic to understand is that the food is always the least interesting part of the review. The only downside is that it gets a bit tired toward the end, amidst a few too many pages, too heavily laden with personal-growth moments, but that section is mercifully short, and even then, the happy ending is largely worth the price of admission.
Highly recommended.
(Postscript: For the record, any insinuation that either my in-laws, or the family they’re marrying into, were anything other than lovely would be grossly unfair: They turned out to be, to a name, lovely people who had the foresight to cater cute little mac-n-cheese ramekins and fried chicken in zinc buckets for the kids, alongside plenty of booze for the grownups. I can’t speak to the wedding cake, except to say that it looked very classy, without so much as a single square meter of overworked fondant in sight, and it got raves from the munchkins. Even the church service was manageable, and I say that as a non-practicing and Jew: I don’t think we had to spend more than a few hours on our knees or otherwise flagellating ourselves. I’m kidding.)

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