Sunday, June 10, 2018
Not All Americans are Assholes: Anthony Bourdain, 1956 - 2018.
Back in the early days of blogging, before twitter and instagram and snapchat I wrote a post "Anthony Bourdain does Romania: National Scandal Ensues" which remains the single most visited page on this blog. Last Friday afternoon Fumie looked up from her tablet and quietly announced "Anthony Bourdain has died." The news that the host of CNN Parts Unknown had taken his own life in an Alsatian hotel was, perhaps, the only time a celebrity obit ever shocked me. I don't put much emotional value in celebrity passings, but Bourdain was in a different category. He may have had the most popular show on CNN, but he was no celebrity. He may have been the most recognized kitchen worker on TV, but he would be the first to reject the label celebrity chef. Bourdain was a normal guy... maybe hyper-normal. He was... a mensch. It is a type we know well in New Jersey... raised in the 1970s within walking distance of the George Washington Bridge, close enough to New York to catch the late shows at CBGB's but far enough to lack any street cred. It is a kind of massive chip to carry on your shoulder, and Bourdain carried it with a vengeance. In the suburbs either you got a Phd or you became a line cook. All my friends got Phds. I got a job as a garbage man for the Hackensack Sanitation Department. (My brother became a line cook. My sister, however, is a doctor.) So when I watched or read Anthony Bourdain's stuff, it felt awfully close to home. You could almost smell the Meadowlands stench on it, just aching to get to the toll booth at the GW Bridge and cross those rusting steel beams to the city of dreams.
Bourdain was raised in Leonia, NJ, about three miles from where I lived in Teaneck when I went to High School. We were both born in the same year. His local new Jersey hot dog stand was Hiram's in Fort Lee - ours was Callahan's, across the street. We both hung out at the Culinary Institute of America in Poughkeepsie NY at the same time in the 1970s with about the same amount of commitment. At least I was not enrolled - I played blues fiddle with the near legendary Chops McCoy's band in the CIA pub on weekends. I can't claim to have ever really met Bourdain, but I remember Chops once taking me off campus to buy a baggie of pot from a dodgy off campus guy who may well have been Bourdain - all I remember is that the guy was an asshole and the pot was... as Chops McCoy put it "You don't smoke it, you season lamb with it." Bourdain also partook of one major dirty, delicious secret that I am also guilty of: Popeye's fried chicken.
Bourdain was a competent chef - his specialty at Les Halles in New York was the bog standard French steak frites - but his real talent was storytelling. Bourdain loved food, but his real skill was describing the people who made it, from producers to dishwashers to chefs. Bourdain had no fear of words, no writer's block, and a knack for that wry twist that only comes from somebody who has puked tequila and beer at a Ramones gig. (As such he was a story editor's dream.) He read widely and idolized William S. Boroughs, Hunter Thompson, George Orwell, and Joan Didion among others. He read with an editor's eye, but he wrote as if he were talking to a table full of close friends at an after hours bar. At the age of 44, an article he had written "Don't Eat before Reading This" made it to The New Yorker, and from there to a publisher who reworked it as Kitchen Confidential. My brother - who has never held any job in his life that did not require holding an onion in one hand and a knife in the other - posted this on Facebook: "Before that book I could tell people what I did for a living and it was as if I was speaking in tongues. After "Confidential" people knew what we did and they respected it. I always wanted to thank Anthony for that. He made being what I was when I woke up, and what I was when passed out and absolutely everything between acceptable, even desirable."
Kitchen Confidential led to a successful career on television. Bourdain's style was unique - he didn't conform to the stereotypes expected by the Food Network or the Travel Channel, he smoked, he drank, he had opinions, he told stories of his drug days, and occasionally rolled one up and inhaled on camera. Some shows worked, some did not (Romania stands out in this regard.) but the viewer always knew that Bourdain was trying to show something honest and real: Truth in television rarely intrudes on travel or food shows. He eventually came to roost at staid CNN with Parts Unknown at a time when, in hindsight, we needed him the most. Anthony Bourdain taught Americans that they did not have to be afraid of the world. Sitting with iranian families sharing a meal, talking to regular folk in Gaza, knocking back a beer with Obama at a bun cha stand in Hanoi, or chowing down on greasy megashnitzels at Budapest's obscure and beautifully grungy Pleh Csarda, Anthony Bourdain showed the world that there actually were Americans who were not assholes. He used his airtime to describe the lives of normal people in places like Gaza, Laos, Armenia, and Beirut to Americans and others who, like him, did not want to be assholes. At a time when the United States of America is identified with one of the most repulsive assholes to ever hold public office, Anthony Bourdain presented an hour each week of tolerance, decency, and a willingness to listen to and learn from people not like himself. Anthony Bourdain touched a lot of people, and will be sorely missed. We needed that hour each week of learning to not fear people. Now more than ever. Now more than ever.
In Memoriam: Anthony Bourdain visits my home town, the Bronx: