Whenever we watched No Reservations or Parts Unknown, whether Anthony Bourdain was sampling some twee post-modern dish in Spain or eating bugs in Namibia, Mitch said, “I want his job.”
“No, you don’t,” I’d say, killjoy. “You would never eat the pig rectum.”
Year after year, meal after meal, destination after destination, Greece, Pittsburgh, Sri Lanka, Beirut, Senegal, Italy, New Jersey, Argentina and on and on and on. His passport must have looked like a phone book, extra pages to accommodate all the passages he made in and out and back to countries and restaurants and people’s homes to drink, to try grandma’s best showing the respect of an alter boy, her beaming at his compliments, his laughter, real and hearty, having sampled the local fermented beverage maybe one or several too many until this lanky, white, middle-aged American became not just an honored guest but a member of the tribe, a cousin, a landsman, someone they would be happy to welcome back like a long, lost friend.
He was a sensory ambassador, someone who knew deep in his jangling, attenuated bones, that sharing food and the ritual of a meal, however it happens where it happens, could bring people together in profound, heart-felt ways, connections that far surpass diplomatic protocol or the ham-fisted posturing of so many world leaders.
As a writer, Bourdain won the lottery. In the late 1990s, an unsolicited essay he wrote, which pulled back the curtain on restaurant dining, was accepted by The New Yorker. This doesn’t happen. It’s the prince or princess with the glass slipper, a Super Bowl ring, three Michelin stars, The Booker Prize—handed to him and deservedly because what editor could resist: “Good food, good eating is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay. It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals. It’s about danger—risking the dark, bacterial forces of beef, chicken, cheese, and shellfish.”
Then Kitchen Confidential, the book deal launched by The New Yorker miracle. Then more books. Then television shows and fame and money beyond anything this writer, who’s labored in obscurity for 30 years, could possibly imagine. The food! The 600 thread-count sheets! The fatted calves! Yes, all of that, plus war-torn locales, the witnessing of dire poverty, dislocation from friends and loved ones, a biological clock so fucked up no amount of melatonin could probably touch it.
Bourdain’s death has dealt a body blow to his fans, who loved his cocky bon homie, his zeal for food high and low, his willingness to call bullshit—justified or no—on everything from dietary trends to culinary pretentiousness, his ability to shamble through the world like the class clown who turns out to have pretty good manners and a great mind.
If you’ve fallen down a dark hole or two—Bourdain’s death feels like a shot across the bow, a chilling reminder to take good care. That great mind of his? None of us know the strange and terrible places it took this very special man, who so clearly possessed a tender heart despite the offal he ingested. So many social media posts have talked about getting help as if Bourdain wasn’t getting help. Help, unfortunately, can be a journey, too—a long one--and those dark shadows can loom wide with the specter of permanence.
But states of mind—dark or light—are not destinations, they are the weather, blowing hard and fierce one hour, calm the next, dropping meat-ball size chunks of hail or pitching the sun in a long arc of 72-degree bliss. What causes the weather? Psyche, biochemistry, the stories we tell ourselves, the food we put on our plates? Getting help can help us learn from the storms and see the lashing of the wind for what it is.
“I don’t think it’s the material things that make us happy,” Mitch said, when I compared my own lack of professional success. “I think it’s the little ones.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “I keep thinking, if he could have just made it to the next pizza.” And then the next.