“Home is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to.”
-John Ed Pearce
When I heard that Tony Bourdain had been traipsing around my hometown in Missouri, I'll admit I cringed a little. Here was my journalistic hero in the town that had raised me. I wondered where he'd go and what he'd see. And most of all, I wondered if he'd be able to get a true sense of Southwest Missouri in a whirlwind shooting spree (both film shoots and hunting shoots as it were) over the course of a few brief days.
After watching Tony's episode on the Ozarks, which aired on Monday, I can say with some ambivalence, I don't think he truly understood this glorious stretch of America which lies "somewhere between New York and Los Angeles," as he remarked.
In this episode, Tony really seemed to be angling for a Winter's Bone approach--a bleak solemn winter landscape with tales of survival and worn-down people. He spends much of the show chatting with the film's writer, Daniel Woodrell, a native Ozarkie. These conversations with Woodrell inevitably flavor the episode, and the predominant flavor unfortunately was squirrel.
No matter where Tony visited from West Plains to Joplin, the color of food seemed to match the monochromatic winter landscape--brown meats, golden breads and white-washed potatoes. The entire episode lacked the color and vibrancy that I best remember about growing up in Missouri. Had Tony visited in the end of April or the middle of October, no doubt his experience would have been more variegated.
While I don't think Tony condemned the Ozarks nor did he belittle the people who live there, I do think he missed an opportunity. All along the main streets of Southwest Missouri's towns are a dying breed of mom-and-pop restaurants. The only one he featured was Fred & Red's and their heartburn-inducing spaghetti red in Joplin, Mo.
As much as the episode lead viewers to believe, not every inhabitant of the Ozarks hunts 365 days a year for duck, raccoon, or squirrel. There are charming spots along the town squares and desolate stretches of highway where no fowl or rodent is presented on a plate.
One of my favorite places was a dinner spot that my family reserved for only the most special of events. In a little town that was even smaller than the one we lived in, a Frenchman had opened up a tiny brasserie. Even during my extended stays in France, I'm not sure I tasted better boeuf bourguignon, poulet rôti, or dover sôle.
This little gem of a restaurant was unassumingly tucked inside a tiny commercial area. It was the kind of place you had to know existed in order to find it. But, once my parents discovered this culinary treasure, it was our touch-point with the world beyond our little Missouri enclave. It was my first taste of Europe and my first wonderful experience with the transformational qualities of food.
In the end, I'm not sure any words Tony could have uttered in this episode would have satiated my hopes for his representation of my home. The Ozarks I remember don't really match up with Tony's perception. But, isn't that one of the greatest joys of childhood? Sometimes our wide eyes and warm memories don't always correspond to reality. Sometimes the fuzzy haze of nostalgia is better than the crisp accuracy of what-is.
When I returned home a year ago, I recall being stopped at one of the major intersections in town. The four-lane roads met at a stoplight. As a child, that road with the speedily zipping cars intimidated me. Now, as a Californian with ten lane freeways all around me, the threatening intersection of my hometown seemed minute, the cars seemed to move at a snail's pace. Ultimately, maybe it's just as the proverb says, "home is home, be it ever so humble."