When Anthony Bourdain died, I was devastated. He was someone who really had a huge influence on me. I loved traveling and food before I discovered Bourdain in the early 00s, but he put both in a context for me, showed me a way of being in the world, that influences me to this day. Among the many things I loved about him was that mix of cynicism and black humor alongside a genuine openheartedness–let’s fact it, the only way something “life affirming” is ever going to be palatable to me is when it’s wrapped in a layer of darkness and delivered with a sardonic wink, but the work he did was life-affirming, genuinely so, not in a fake or sentimental way.
Pre-Bourdain, I already had very strong feelings about food and hospitality (in a nutshell: you accept what your hosts serve you and eat it with eagerness, whatever the hell it is); he had a worldview that aligned with mine in so many ways, so I was bound to connect with his work. I still hope I never find myself in a situation where I have to eat uncleaned warthog anus to be polite, but you know, I guess if the day ever comes I’ll just grit my teeth and summon the shade of Tony and do my best to get through it while according it, and my hosts, the dignity and respect they deserve. (You know, as I write that, it occurs to me that if you haven’t seen the episode where that happens, it probably sounds terribly exploitative, some kind of awful modern-day mondo, but it really isn’t. He does approach the entire thing with dignity and respect, understanding the honor he’s been accorded even if he did end up on antibiotics a week later.)
But I’ve done a lot of things because of what I learned from him, not least of which is embracing a much wider palate. I learned to love sea urchin! I have, on more than one occasion, asked myself WWBD? He always made the world seem bigger and brighter to me.
I missed his last show, Parts Unknown, in its entirety, having moved out of the U.S. by the time it was airing. Now I’ve just started watching it, and while the first episode, “Sri Lanka,” was a bit underwhelming (he was ill throughout much of it), the second one, set in Los Angeles’s Koreatown, has so much that I love about Bourdain in it.
One of the biggest things that struck me is that it’s funny–funny strange, not funny haha–to think that it was just two years ago that he died, because it feels like he comes from an entirely different era. (And of course, he does. I feel we have crossed some sort of virtual Rubicon at some point in the two years since, although I am not quite sure what it is or when it happened.) His genuineness, his openness, his fullhearted embrace of every experience, his absolute conviction that we are not that different from one another as we imagine and that we can learn about each other best by sitting down and sharing meals together–it all seems like the opposite of the shouting, polarized, vicious world we all seem to inhabit 24/7 now whether we like it or not. How we relate to one another these days feels a lot more like a WWF cage match than an episode of A Cook’s Tour or No Reservations.
This morning I looked at videos of riots from Portland, my former home, now in their second month. And I thought about writing this piece, a piece that seems very far removed from all of that (but it really isn’t; the framing and the underpinning of the Koreatown episode, though it was filmed in 2013, is the LA riots of 1992), a piece the people who like to do that sort of thing might call tone-deaf, and it occurred to me that as I get older, I recognize in myself a willingness to stop and contemplate in a way that I not only was I was less able to do when I was younger, but that infuriated me when I saw it in others. How dare you. Urgency seemed like the only legitimate response. If you didn’t feel urgency, it meant you didn’t care.
I am being a little bit unfair on my younger self, who was still thoughtful and capable of taking a step back–we are never really all one thing, are we?
The style of discourse which largely involves people shouting past one another and which says if you aren’t shouting you must be indifferent isn’t a new one. The aggressive talk radio style of the 1980s–how many people today who think the world is falling to bits in some unique way have forgotten or never knew that in America in 1984, prominent Jewish liberal radio host Alan Berg was assassinated by neo-Nazis–gave way to the rise of warring talking heads on TV, the louder and more outrageous the better, while the Reagan administration eliminated the Fairness Doctrine–easily, I think, one of the most disastrous decisions of the latter half of the 20th century in terms of leading to the increasing and current political polarization in the US, right up there with the Southern Strategy and the Republican embrace of fundamental evangelical Christianity in the early 1980s.
But that’s neither here nor there. My point is that there is power in pauses, in silence, in thinking, in not rising to respond to every little thing, in sitting back and letting the words of others settle on you, really settle, in genuinely good faith, not like some kind of game in which you pluck a contextless handful of the words for the purpose of gleeful evisceration.
There is value, sometimes, in being quiet. In not forming an opinion right away and insisting that everyone needs to hear it. In stepping away and doing the practical work that still needs to be done, whatever else is happening: washing the dishes, preparing food, and continuing to make the little connections with people that remind us that we’re all human and mostly just doing our best to get by.
Bourdain, snarky and critical as he was of his fellow celebrity chefs and anything else that he saw as a sacred cow, was remarkably non-judgmental when it came to his travels, not just when encountering unfamiliar or alarming attitudes or customs but about food. He was game for anything. When his host, artist David Choe, takes him to a Sizzler in the heart of Koreatown–Anthony Bourdain in a Sizzler–he isn’t ironic or knowing; he embraces it as Choe explains, when we were growing up we didn’t go to restaurants, but if there was a really special occasions, this is where we went. Koreans love Sizzler, says Choe. He then goes on to instruct Bourdain on the specifics of making an Italian-Mexican taco from the salad bar: hard taco shell, three meatballs, guacamole, nacho cheese, etc. Bourdain digs it. He’s there, so very present in the moment. It’s the gusto with which he went after life that made his death seem so inexplicable.
Not really inexplicable, though, of course, and this is the other thing we learn, or we should learn, the longer we live: we are all the same and yet we are infinitely unknowable, even to those who know us best. Unspeakable reservoirs of pain run through all of us, along with an astonishing capacity for humanity. When I say we are all human–yes, of course it sounds like a self-evident and simplistic platitude but part of what I mean is that we are all a great mystery even to ourselves, wrapped in a bag of frail human-shaped meat that still needs to eat and drink and cry and craves the love or at least the attention of others. Even sociopaths need these things! What odd big-brained primates we are, simultaneously not as smart as and much smarter than we think we are. I often think we understand all the wrong things about ourselves in all the wrong ways.
I hope you weren’t reading this in search of conclusions. This is not a polemic or even an organized essay. I am not going to circle back round to Bourdain at the end and wrap this up tidily. I want, I need to be messy here. There are jagged edges. These are just my thoughts, on this day. I might change my mind tomorrow.
Maybe I shouldn’t even blog. Maybe writers should eschew public life entirely, living in those ivory towers or remote castles or whatever we once imagined them inhabiting when we were children or even later, before they all got Twitter accounts and sent us photos of their cats and their breakfasts and got into weird and embarrassing spats with other writers. (NB: Two of my favorite things to look at on social media are photos of your cats and your food.) Maybe they–we–should be less profligate with our words.
I don’t know that I trust anyone any longer who claims with certainty to have the right or moral answer. The novelist Zadie Smith has spoken and written about the need to be able to be wrong, often or even nearly always, and about writing books from a position of fundamental uncertainty. This, I think, is very human as well, being wrong and uncertain–and not wanting to show it. Being wrong is showing our soft underbelly. But if we swathe ourselves in armor before we launch ourselves into the world, well, then, we’re not worth much as writers, aren’t we?