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Bob Wakeham: Bourdain’s take on Newfoundland was moreish

Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain posted this photo on his Twitter account recently.
Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain posted this photo, taken in Newfoundland, on his Twitter account in the months before his show’s Newfoundland segment aired. — Twitter photo

Now that Anthony Bourdain, the reigning rock star of the culinary cosmos, has had his take aired internationally on the culture and eating habits of Newfoundland — a show that generated the anticipatory energy for which most local politicos would have sold their souls (although the Ches Crosbie/Tony Wakeham contest was undoubtedly a profound example of earth-shattering dynamism) — I can’t resist the urge to pen a critique.

Bob Wakeham
Bob Wakeham

Granted, I’m not Karl Wells, my former CBC colleague who recently concluded a successful career as a restaurant reviewer, but I’m sure he’ll forgive me for confiscating, for one day, his rating system — fair, good, excellent, exceptional —and deliver on my own amateur report card a “good” for Bourdain’s televised adventure here, a solid B.

Like many Newfoundlanders, I was a bit leery of the type of treatment Newfoundland would receive on this worldwide stage, having heard that the promotional material made use of that vile term “Newfie,” but my faith in the producers was engaged when they eliminated the word from the promos, and issued a classy and unqualified apology to anyone who had been offended.

Of course, there was the predictable and embarrassing feedback to the apology from the scattered Newfoundlander living away, those who embrace the Newfie caricature, love the term, and seem to conveniently forget about its derisiveness, its origins of ridicule and scorn, in order to re-enforce the patronizing reputation they have with their mainland neighbours as cute and entertaining Newfies to be taken home like an adorable puppy to pet and to roll over on cue. (We’re often our own worst enemies, as Ray Guy said more than once).

But the word was never uttered during the Bourdain show. And its non-appearance speaks volumes about the derogatory perception it has in the view of thousands of us.

Ironically, the only thinly veiled bigotry I heard in connection with the show was in reaction from several Newfoundland viewers who complained that the two “French Canadian snots” — the chefs who accompanied Bourdain — had “hijacked” the show.

Bourdain, to his credit, explained via Twitter that it was the two chefs from Quebec who had encouraged him to come to Newfoundland in the first place, and he made no apologies for having them along to enjoy Newfoundland cuisine and culture.

Sure, it might have been nice to have other local personalities in the travelling entourage (which did include two Newfoundland chefs), but I’ve been led to believe that Bourdain’s format often includes the company of friends or associates on his trips around the world.

And besides, the two Québécois could not have been more effusive in their praise for Newfoundland during the show.

There was, in fact, minimal stereotyping throughout, although I thought the “shed” sequence left the impression that every single Newfoundlander has a man cave in which to drink beer and swap yarns.

I did find it mildly annoying, though, that there was not one woman from this province of a half million people to be heard from in the Newfoundland segment; there were two female chefs who catered Bourdain and company during a brief side trip to St-Pierre-Miquelon, but as for Newfoundland, you’d get the impression this was a bastion of male living, huntin’, fishin’, eatin’, bonding macho types. The b’ys. Period.

It would have been obviously more reflective to have a woman in the show, a Mary Walsh, a Lisa Moore, a Donna Butt — the list is endless — women who could not have just guided Bourdain through the varied channels of Newfoundland cultural and historical uniqueness, but would have done so in captivating ways that would have made the show even more enticing and viewable.

Believe me, I’m anything but a disciple of political correctness; it just seemed the piece would have been more journalistically sound, reflective and credible if the occasional Newfoundland woman had been given a chance to have a say.

And onto what some would consider an issue of over-sensitivity: it drives me around the bend when Canadian broadcasters and personalities, butcher the pronouncement of Newfoundland; they should know better. But I thought Bourdain, an American, handled the matter with sincerity and humour, and seemed determined to say it correctly. He never did get it quite right. But, in the final analysis, so what?

There was, in fact, minimal stereotyping throughout, although I thought the “shed” sequence left the impression that every single Newfoundlander has a man cave in which to drink beer and swap yarns. I’d suggest the bulk of sheds in Newfoundland are used to store the lawn mower, the snowblower, the fishing poles, etc.

I did dread the Screech-in that the promos indicated would be part of the show. But it turned out to be the least offensive routine of that sort I’ve seen.

The first time I was exposed to a Screech-in occurred on a tour boat, and I wanted to leap overboard in mortification as this clown-like character rattled off a script of Newfie this and Newfie that, and used a fake Newfoundland accent that made a mockery of the multitude of wonderful dialects that can be heard throughout the province.

But the Screech-in at the end of Sunday’s show was handled with a palatable combination of humour and sensitivity, even provoking a genuine belly laugh from Bourdain when a participant was told while kissing the cod to keep his tongue inside his cheek.

Overall, the unpretentious Bourdain, a colourful if not irreverent television star, has given the world a four-star appraisal of Newfoundland, its food, its landscape, and its people.

His fondness for the place was palpable.

And good on him.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com

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