Remembering Anthony Bourdain
If we are honest with ourselves, we can all point to times in our lives when we have intentionally or unintentionally borrowed intangible things from someone else. We adopted a pattern of speech from a coworker we thought was funny. We took up a political cause because it mattered to a love interest. We quote our favorite podcaster a little too often. We realize our own writing has started to sound similar to one of our favorite authors. This mimicry is part of the way humans form their own personalities, histories and cultural traditions. Truthfully, the entire field of social science is ultimately based on tracing those connections.
My daughter informed me of Anthony Bourdain’s passing on Friday morning and my shock quickly became sadness. I happened to be off work that day, so there was a lot of time to reflect on my memories of Bourdain and his show No Reservations, which I faithfully watched for its entire run. If you had asked me about Anthony Bourdain on Thursday I would have told you that I loved his show and he helped educate me about regional and international food. What became clear to me the next day, after several hours of consideration, is that I owe much of my outlook on the world to Bourdain and his work.
As many people have discussed, he approached his travels with the eyes of an anthropologist, exploring cultures through their food traditions. The usual format of the show was to highlight three meals and then intersperse them with details about the place itself, its architecture, its people, etc. Usually the first meal was some type of street food. Bourdain wanted to know where people ate their lunch during the workday or after a night of drinking in a bar. Whether it was tacos in Mexico City or Waffle House in Nashville, he made no apologies for enjoying simple food. He also helped me realize why I loved eating my way through the state fair every year and why White Castle at 4am is so damn good.
Bourdain would usually then go to a high-end restaurant to see what the top chefs were doing in the place he was visiting. To be honest, I had the least interest in this segment, since I have never gravitated towards this type of food, but it was still interesting to see what the pros were doing. He would usually end the show by having dinner in someone’s home. If he could persuade a mother or grandmother to cook for him, all the better. Bourdain again highlighted how talented home cooks are across the globe and how important food is to bringing families together. From him I developed a strong desire to cook for my family as often as possible. Watching my relatives sitting together, talking and eating the food I have prepared, has become a source of deep satisfaction for me and I can thank Anthony Bourdain for teaching me the importance of those meals.
A common theme in my writing is the influence that male role models have had on the formation of my own personality, both good and bad. I can probably trace my tendency to collect these persons to having a sometimes-absent father and a grandfather with a teacher’s heart. My mentors have been numerous and not all known by me personally. Historical figures, relatives, Scout leaders, professors, coworkers, friends. They have all played a role in my evolution and I feel fortunate enough to be able to see that influence now, because it allows my to both give credit to them and to look back on my own evolution with (hopefully) a critical eye.
In thinking about the influence Bourdain had on my adult life, I considered my own background in the social sciences. I am a historian and anthropologist by training and human culture fascinates me endlessly. No Reservations encouraged us to use food as an entry point and less intrusive way to explore other cultures. Talking about politics or religion is a loaded subject, but asking people about their food gets them to drop their guard. In my experience, that is where real conversations start. At the end of the day, we all have to eat. Being a food lover and cook, it has increasingly become my habit when traveling or meeting people from other places to talk to them about what they like to eat. I would ask my employees from Africa what they brought for lunch that day. A Cuban employee explained to me, in great detail, how to properly fry a plantain. One of my Muslim employees told me about the food his mother would send to work with him during Ramadan so that he could break his fast with a home-cooked meal. My honest interest in this prompted him to bring some extra for me the next night and I could tell he was extremely proud when I complimented his mother’s cooking and thanked him sincerely. That was me, following Bourdain’s example without even realizing it at the time.
I will also say that Bourdain was the first personality I can remember in the food world that celebrated hunting not as a sport, but as a way to connect with our food. In 2018, I am happy to say that the hunting community has traveled a long way from the days when we seemed to just wrap everything in bacon or toss it in the crock pot. It was Bourdain’s influence that steered me towards European peasant dishes because they relied so heavily on wild game. Introducing my blue collar hunting buddies to confit Canada goose was an important milestone in a journey that started with Anthony Bourdain.
I haven’t watched as much of Bourdain’s work since he went to CNN but I have seen enough to know that his recent take on the world wasn’t that far from mine. Even though he was on the tale-end of the Baby Boomers, his self-professed immaturity made him seem younger, and thus an honorary Gen-Xer. The cynicism of Bourdain’s earlier work seemed to have bloomed into what I would call a weary-Progressivism. He seemed to say, “Are you all seriously going to make the former drug-addict save the world?” His public travels began with him wanting to share his adventures with us, but eventually he realized that someone needed to tell the stories of the people he was meeting. He then spent the last decade humanizing the abstract Other than so many people seem to be afraid of today. One of the more popular quotes of Bourdain’s that has been making the rounds in the last few days was this one:
“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody. Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.”
Realizing the impact on my life of this man, whom I never met, makes me wonder if he has anything left to teach me. I’m 43 this year. Bourdain’s first book came out when he was 44. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about what I want my next chapter to look like. Rest In Peace Anthony Bourdain. Thank you for so many great lessons and for the ones I have yet to learn.