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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.

 


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Mike Dwyer is a writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture and the outdoors for Ordinary Times. He is also one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky. Mike is active on Facebook and Instagram. He lives with his wife and daughters in the distant suburbs, at the place where neighborhoods give way to farms and forest.

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11 thoughts on “Remembering Anthony Bourdain

  1. This was a beautiful tribute, Mike. You caught so many important aspects of a man that I too was surprised to realize I would miss so much.

    The thing that got me to start reading and watching him, relatively far into his career in the late 2000s, was hearing about what a great collaborator he was from the artist who worked on his comic, Get Jiro! That mentorship aspect that you discuss was definitely present in their collaboration as well. Still haven’t read the comic (it’s in my house! i know i will dig it!) but that started me down a path of reading his books, watching his show, etc. One thing I really loved about the show is that when he went to places I loved already and knew well (eg Montreal), he treated the people there with such respect – not just individuals, but also their collective strengths and tensions – and his understanding of the place as a whole was relatively rich and informed. That gave me such confidence in his take on other places as well.

    World-weary progressivism is a great label for his social efforts, too.

    Again, excellent post, thank you for writing it.

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  2. A couple of days ago we were talking about the risk of glorifying suicides. This article doesn’t do that directly, and I’m sure it didn’t intend to, but it seems wrong to glorify the man so respectfully. Did a sometimes-missing father cause you trouble? Do you respect the value of family meals? Think about what he just stole from his children. He knew the value of it.

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    • Bipolar disease runs in my family. My first cousin jumped off a balcony. An aunt (not her mother) tried to kill herself, Silvia Plaith style, twice. I have had (fortunately, only) glimpses of the terror of depression.

      Let me tell you what lithium deficiency can do to you: the terror of opening the door and walk outside. The inability to pick up a ringing phone, open a letter, face someone, even a loved one. You-no-longer-can+face-being-alive.

      Your loved ones, regretfully, disappear. There’s only you and despair. And you need all your willpower just to open the fridge and push food into your mouth. Food is bad. Extends your life. Extends your pain.

      And then one day is over. You wake up hungry, open the mail, kiss your loved ones, and happily go to work. Lithium is back where it should be.

      From outside, it’s difficult to describe because it makes no sense. Even from the inside, there’s an inner voice screaming “Lithium, it’s all about lithium”. But imagined dread is no less real because it’s imagined.

      I understand the pain and hurt those left behind feel. My cousin left a husband and two children.

      And I understand those that jump, because they finally feel safe.

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    • The same sometimes-absent father that I wrote about above, killed himself 22 years ago. My stepmother had died a month previously, from cancer, and his grief simply overwhelmed him. What I also know though is that this was compounded by alcohol, which we know he drank a lot of that day, and being alone in his house with no one to talk to. Myself and my siblings didn’t have the insight to know we should have been there with him. While he bears ultimate responsibility for what he did, I will always feel some amount of guilt for not doing a son’s duty and being there for my dad when he was hurting.

      I’m not telling you this to make myself sound sympathetic. I absolutely understand your discomfort with celebrating someone who killed themselves, leaving behind children, loved ones, etc. It’s easy to characterize their final act as doing harm to the people they left behind and I also understand the temptation to blame them or to add caveats to an otherwise laudable life. Having processed my father’s death for over two decades now, I don’t blame him. He had a moment of weakness and made a terrible decision, but that doesn’t negate a life of many great moments.

      Even though it wasn’t enough, and I suffered for his absence, I still saw my dad nearly ever weekend for 21 years, and we had many good memories together. He had, like my grandfather, a teacher’s heart. I could make a long list of things he taught me, experiences he shared with me, interests that I still have that came from his influence, etc. For me though, it’s just further proof that relationships and the human condition is so complicated and I’m a much happier person by focusing on the good, not the occasional bad. That’s why I also chose to celebrate the 18 years of Anthony Bourdain’s public career, not the very sad action he took on a summer day in France.

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    • Back of the envelope calculations, I’ve eaten about 900,000 mg of anti-depressants over the past 12 years. I’m no stranger to the overall subject. It breaks my heart that someone murdered these kids’ dad, and that someone murdered Mike’s. There are some people who can’t help but do it, who lack the ability to get to a hospital. I understand that. There are also some people who commit rape compulsively, but when I heard about Harvey Weinstein, I didn’t think to write an article praising his amazing filmography. And I’m not writing this to dump all over your memories; I just feel like it has to be said. We seem to have slipped into a default position where suicide is not assumed to be selfish.

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      • Suicide is only selfish in the sense that we feel entitled to someone’s continued life when they believe they have no other option but to end it. To them, in that moment, they believe they are doing the one thing that can take their pain away, and while we know it’s their brain messing with them, I don’t know that it’s fair to call it selfish. I would guess that for most people, at the moment they make the decision they would liken it to euthanasia.

        And regardless of how anyone feels about suicide, what does that mean for future discussions about anyone that you admire but who took their own life? Should I end every happy story about my dad with, “…but he killed himself”…? It seems like choosing to keep the focus on the bad has the intent of punishing the person who is gone, but really only hurts the living who want to remember the good stuff. If society requires us to focus on the bad ending, not all of the good that came before, whether it’s suicide, a divorce, or the ending of a friendship…that really makes the case for not forming intimate connections of any kind.

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        • I disagree with your first paragraph. I’m right with you on your second paragraph. I don’t know what the balance is, and I can’t imagine trying to find it in dealing the loss you’ve dealt with as a person. As a society, I think our balance is off.

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      • I have never attempted suicide but it’s very much a “There but by the grace of God” (and medical help, and Jaybird – the latter very much literal on one occasion) thing for me.

        I was raised Catholic, raised to believe it was the most selfish thing you could do, raised to understand the suicides in my family as selfish and heart-breaking.

        But when I was most suicidal, none of those things mattered to me except that they constrained my method. I wanted to come up with a plan that would allow my mom to believe it was an accidental death, and I came up with such a plan. After that, I was 99 percent convinced that everyone would be so much better off without me once they grieved, that it was selfish NOT to kill myself. (I’m so grateful that one percent confessed to Jaybird, and that he kept me from doing what I was sure would be better for everyone.) If that meant I’d burn in hell forever, well, F* any God who would do that to me anyway.

        In the intervening couple of decades, I’ve come to know a lot of suicide survivors and suicide mourners and seen a very few (less than a dozen) suicide deaths of people I knew intimately. I’ve also talked to all of my siblings about suicide and about being plagued by suicidal thoughts, a problem that we share, and which all of us relate to our experiences of trauma in childhood.

        I’m not sure but I think there may be different roots for the suicidal impulse, and while some of those roots are helped by suicide being anathemized, others are harmed by it. Likewise, while some mourners are helped by suicide being anathemized, others are harmed by it.

        I don’t want anyone to kill themselves, self very much included. I occasionally fantasize about my abuser doing so, thinking of how much harm he could have prevented by giving in to that impulse sooner in life … but I don’t actually *want* him to. Not even him. Life is a precious gift, and should be ameliorated, not thrown away. I say that, though, as a statement of valuing life, not shaming those who discard theirs in error.

        I also think that if I hadn’t overcome the shame of how selfish I believed suicide to be, and allowed myself to talk about it and seek help, I *would* have killed myself by now. And I don’t think I would have done so from selfish motives. I would have been wrong / occluded in my perspective. Completely so. The harm done by suicide is enormous and no one should do that to their loved ones. But in the moment of action, I think it is far more rare for it to be selfish than for people to be confused. And having experienced that confusion, I think that comparing it to Weinstein is deeply unfair to people who are battling the urge to suicide (perhaps yourself included? self-abuse being a thing… perhaps not, I’m not trying to judge you, just thinking out loud)… and that shaming those people might work on some but for many others will just drive them further into the emotional isolation that fosters the suicidal mindset.

        There do exist “I’ll show them all!!’ suicides, but I’ve been personally more familiar with the “they’ll be better off” and “i’m just too exhausted to keep going” suicides. And none of those are helped by shaming. I seem to have freed myself from my suicidal impulse in the last few years – she says warily, not wanting to summon it back- but in doing so I gained more, rather than less, compassion for those who lose the fight.

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  3. I can’t write it as well as Mike did, but I fully subscribe to all he said.

    I loved Anthony Bourdain. And through him, I learned so much about the world, that he ended becoming one of my most important teachers.

    Thanks, Anthony.

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  4. Celebrity deaths rarely affect me, even if it’s somebody I’ve admired. I still mourn Leonard Cohen because his music was so much a part of my life and his last three original albums have become the soundtrack that has best helped me deal with the Trumpocalypse.

    Bourdain is another I’ll mourn. I’ve watched his shows over more than a decade and they’ve opened my eyes to places I’ve lived, places I’ve been, places I hope to go, and places I know I’ll never come near. While I enjoyed his shows about other countries and cultures, it was his exploration of this country that most impressed me. One of his most recent shows focused on West Virginia and most of the folks he spoke to were enthusiastic Trump supporters. He never condescended to them, never mocked them for their politics. Instead he tried to understand what drove them. And what gave them joy.

    This weekend, I watched a number of reruns of his CNN show, including one where he shared dinner and a beer with President Obama at a Hanoi noodle shop. Both were relaxed and gracious, completely comfortable in this little hole-in-the-wall space among the local residents. We’ve lost that kind of grace these days.

    While I agree that we shouldn’t glorify suicide or forget those left behind, suicide doesn’t negate the good someone has done in their lives or the memories we have of the ways in which that person touched our lives. Like all things human, it’s complex.

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  5. I am not a food person, but my wife is*. Before we cut the cable, she would watch many food shows all of which I found tedious. With the exception of Bourdain. Not because I liked his food, no, it was I found his takes on everyday life in the places he traveled too much more honest than most travel programs.

    On one of the shows, I can’t remember which, he was upriver, far upriver, in the Amazon I believe. And the food sucked, the drink sucked, the peoples lives sucked. And he was honest about it. He said something to the effect of ” these people want a cell phone, a scooter and a beer. What they don’t want is eco-tourists.” It was perhaps the most honest sentence uttered on TV that decade.

    Great piece Mike.

    *Seriously, she has taken classes from such as Hank Shaw, reads cookbooks for fun, started gardening so that she has the freshest vegetables and drags me along. I bear it for her.

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