I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Anthony Bourdain.
Maybe because his landmark book, “Kitchen Confidential,” is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month. Maybe because it’s now been two years since he tragically took his own life.
Maybe because, whenever I look at the global landscape and our current political nightmare, I try to imagine what he might say about it.
Ah, America, he would begin some cosmic episode of “Parts Unknown.”
From European immigrants seeking a better life at the turn of the 20th century, to those fleeing persecution and genocide in hopes of asylum, America has often been seen as a nation of hope, the land of opportunity. From the Rockefellers to the Schwarzeneggers, the desperate belief in the promise of the American Dream willed itself into a reality.
What was once a belief in a way of life and work ethic, slowly became something different in the run up to the Millennium and the early part of the 21st century. A country that once believed in ideals, values, and the Bill of Rights, found itself invested in a dissolution of those rights alongside sophomoric chants of “U-S-A.”
What so many viewed as hope in the election of Barack Obama, served only to reignite a centuries-old flame within the ugly underbelly of the real America, the one that made heroes out of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy as they were slaughtered.
This is our American Paradox. You gotta live it everyday.
It is disturbingly clear that we are a nation of opposites and contradictions perhaps now more than ever. Like a lost time traveler in an unfamiliar land, it makes you wonder how we got here.
How did the country that produced the late John Lewis also give us Donald Trump? That protected the rights of the people who marched on Washington in 1963, suspend those same rights last weekend in Portland? How does the same country that rightfully hails our heroic first responders also view the lives of teachers as negligible? That gave us “Like a Rolling Stone” also make a hit song out of “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer?”
We are the “greatest country in the world,” or we are a fledgling democracy. If you’re from Boston, then New York sucks. If you’re from New York, everywhere sucks. If you don’t like it, then leave! And if I don’t like it, you leave!
We live far too often, and with far too much weight, in this literal and figurative black and white. You need only look at poll numbers or what passes for discourse on Twitter to know this much is true. “You’re a socialist!” “She’s a racist!” “The President is an actual white supremacist who proudly puts dollar figures and his own gain ahead of American lives!” Well, some things are black and white.
But America, despite much evidence to the contrary, is not a black and white country. Like the rest of the world, it is a country that exists in the seldom-talked-about grey. Ask any politician not named Mitch McConnell and they’ll tell you: the real bipartisan work gets done by having real conversations in the middle, rather than gladiator battles out on the edges.
It’s what you’re hearing during the Black Lives Matter movement, or what you’ve seen throughout the fight for LGBTQ rights: “We can’t do this alone. We need you. Listen. Learn. Let’s work together.”
We need to talk. We need to have conversations. Only when we drop our knee jerk, emotional guards and actually converse, can we find middle ground, compromise, and humanity.
It is in this spirit of humanity, civility, and life in the grey, that I think of Anthony Bourdain. I think of the lessons I’ve learned from this fellow imperfect, thoughtful yet sometimes arrogant, New Jersey-born liberal who lived the latter part of his life in an unyielding quest for knowledge, fulfillment, and connection.
While this may have begun, for Bourdain, as a selfish pursuit, by the end it was for the masses, shining a light on our own shortcomings by presenting his own amidst the backdrop of so many different cultures.
So, what can the work of Anthony Bourdain, flawed, troubled, and mysterious as he was, lend to our own dark and troubled times?
Bourdain is often described as an unaffected, East Village street punk, when in reality he was a well-to-do kid from North Jersey. He learned to exist somewhere in between, a member of the bourgeois masquerading as Lou Reed. Despite his inherited status, he quickly became someone who railed against it, more comfortable laughing with the sinners than crying with the saints.
It is within his own paradox, his own existence in the grey, where the lessons of Anthony Bourdain reveal themselves. The Bourdain that still resonates with so many is the one who, throughout the course of his incredible “Parts Unknown” series, eschewed ego and artifice in the name of, as Elizabeth Nelson wrote for The Ringer, “full blown celebrations of cultural exchange.”
Elitism had no place at his table. He preferred artists, thinkers, and those of us on the margins. Just people of disparate backgrounds enjoying good food and even better conversation. The kind of thing that has become so lacking in our ever-devolving national discourse.
Bourdain himself was far from immune to the same sort of reductionist thought that currently plagues the American landscape; however, he was always aware of it, and worked to break through it to get to the real heart of the people and places he explored.
“Close minded, prejudicial, quick to make assumptions about places different than where we grew up,” is how Bourdain begins his episode in Houston, traits many of us associate with the Lone Star state. But, Bourdain isn’t describing Texas; he’s describing us.
“I’m talking about me and people like me who are way too comfortable thinking of Texas as a big space filled with intolerant and variably right-wing white people waddling between the fast-food outlet and the gun store.”
The Texas that Bourdain explores for the next hour is less a cartoon landscape of Yosemite Sams than a diverse terrain he is pleased to learn, despite the economic downturn and the crash of the oil industry, is the kind of place in America that is surprisingly welcoming to people who are struggling. “Welcome stranger,” he says. “This land is your land.”
Bourdain once proclaimed that “no one understands that American Dream of hard work leading to material rewards more than a non-American.” He best explores this idea during a visit to Los Angeles, his first episode after the 2016 election.
He took special care to highlight the contributions of immigrants that make the city, like so many in America, special. During his time there, the lessons he learned in the kitchen again revealed themselves, as he wrestled once more with being a member of the upper class while feeling like the outcast. He is friends with, and has worked with, people he knows are Donald Trump donors and supporters, he tells us; if only they looked a little deeper at the fabric of the country they claim to love.
“I worked in French and Italian restaurants my whole career,” he says. “But really, if I think about it, they were Mexican restaurants and Ecuadorian restaurants, because the majority of the cooks and the people working with me were from those countries. That’s who picked me up when I fell down; who showed me what to do when I walked in and didn’t know anything.”
Los Angeles, he says, “used to be part of Mexico. And now Mexico, and a whole lot of Mexicans, are vital to us.”
Bourdain was smart enough to reflect upon, and verbalize, his own flaws, telling us “the more I travel, the less I know,” which may as well have been the slogan of his most famous and important contribution. The show was called “Parts Unknown,” after all.
And he was comfortable with that unknown; in fact, it drove him to continue exploring. The goal was always to have conversations with everyone. To learn, not just about food, but about other individuals, cultures, and ways of life. He visited such seemingly different places as Koreatown, Columbia, Libya, Jerusalem, Sicily, and Detroit. And that was just in the show’s first year!
While he may have gone into each new city and country with his own biases, he kept an open mind and left with something a little closer to understanding, camaraderie, and community. The people he met over the course of the show’s twelve seasons, and throughout his life, were just that: people. People with struggles, successes, families, passions, and jobs. People with stories.
And when Bourdain visited West Virginia in April 2018, he did so with the simple understanding that preconceived notions would have to be left at the door. This was a state that had fallen on some of the hardest times in the country, made up of fading coal mining towns in a country that had long left coal behind.
In the episode, Bourdain takes special care to meet with several of these coal miners, proud people doing the only work they’d ever known. It was their father’s work, and their grandfather’s before that. “It ain’t pretty,” one miner says, but it’s all they knew how, and wanted, to do.
And this is where the lessons of Anthony Bourdain hit deepest. Those of us on the outside, we pity these poor people and talk about reeducating them so that they can do something else. We blindly attack their beliefs and the work that defines them. And while there is certainly a debate to be had, it’s a debate being done without the people involved.
It isn’t a conversation. The people most affected aren’t being brought to the table.
Bourdain gives them that seat, letting them vent out their frustrations, tell their stories, and in doing so finds a conversation in the grey. They may not agree on much, but they’re talking. There’s a mutual respect in the air, if only for a little while, that allows for the refreshing warmth of the marketplace of ideas.
“It’s so easy from afar to say that coal’s time here has come and gone, that the miners should find other work,” he says at the segment’s close. “What other work? Whatever your views, respect these people – what they do, and what they’ve paid.”
In an ever-fracturing country, we may never fully agree with each other on environmental policy, immigration, or healthcare. But, if we don’t start respecting each other, listening to each other, and making room for real conversation, then we may lose our idealized version of America forever.
As Bourdain said in his Emmy-winning, thought-provoking episode from Madagascar, sometimes the world “reveals only what we want. Often, what we see is seen only from a window, moving past and then gone. One window. My window.”
It is time to open up other windows. To start listening to each other. To move away from our caricatures of each other and really try to see one another as people.
Pull up a chair.
Share a meal.
This land is our land.