Anthony Bourdain: The Magic


There’s a reason Bourdain’s death will rock many. He was a part of the original group of celebrity chefs and demonstrated why our obsession with food has so much more to do than with just food.
(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

by Jean Foster Akin

I did not know Anthony Bourdain personally, obviously, but, like so many of his fans, his death has struck me hard.

The first time I saw No Reservations, many years ago now, I was hooked. Not only by the fact that I could do some armchair traveling with the man to places I had never seen, but by the fact that I could do some armchair traveling to places I had never seen in the warm, beautiful, frightening, ugly, desperate, welcoming, REAL way that Anthony Bourdain showed them: he showed us a terrifying picture of Iran,  Myanmar, Lybya, Congo, Haiti, Iraqi Kurdistan, Beruit (the latter where the Israel-Lebanon war broke out during the filming of the episode, leaving the No Reservations crew trapped in their hotel with gunshots ringing in their ears and bombs exploding nearby).  Through Bourdain we saw the people of those places, the people who were trapped in war zones and maligned and/or targeted as people groups because of their nationality or religion or gender.  Tony showed us the heartache and the crime, the human rights violations, but he also showed the strength of the human spirit through it all, the simplicity as well as the magnitude in the act of feeding each other. 

He showed us the lights and the glitter of Tokyo and France, the emerald greens of Ireland, the patriotism of the American Southern states, the nightlife of American cities up North, the frozen desert of Antarctica, the sculpted images of gods in Punjab, the hot white sands of the Caribbean. Is there any place Anthony Bourdain didn’t go?

In 2016, NPR correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton shared breakfast with Anthony Bourdain at Marché Kermel in Dakar, Senegal.

Never a travel reporter with that cutesy, folksy, happy-go-lucky American-on-vacation style that is so common with travel show hosts, Bourdain’s straight-faced sarcasm, his quick (often self-deprecating) wit, was entertaining as well as endearing. His honesty was fresh and it was something mostly unseen in this world of political correctness. Yet, just as unfailing as his sharp-witted snark was Bourdain’s genuine gratitude to the people who shared their food with him–whether that food consisted of the finest seafood fished off crystal clear blue-watered islands, or the humblest offerings brought forth from forests surrounding the poorest villages. You could see it all over his face: a sincere thankfulness for the welcome, the hospitality, and the acceptance into their family, that the lowliest of hosts extended him.

Anthony Bourdain in Saudi Arabia. CNN

I remember the episode in which an Inuit family took Tony on a seal hunt in sub-zero temperatures, bundling his thin frame in multiple layers against the cold so that he ended up resembling the Pillsbury Doughboy. He let his viewers know that he didn’t want to receive angry letters excoriating him for going on a pleasure hunt for seals (of course, knowing full well that he would be inundated with such letters), because what he’d actually done was accompany an Inuit family across a frigid waterway to insure the family would eat that night. It was a journey the family made frequently, and so why not film for the audience this dangerous, even life-threatening, hunt for survival? Bourdain wanted to remind inhabitants of the First-World that way up on “top” of the Earth there isn’t a McDonald’s or a Whole Foods on every corner. Or on any corner. We got to see a world that belonged to someone else and appreciate the world that was our own.

Later in that episode, a plastic sheet was laid on the kitchen floor, and the raw seal was cut up and eaten by the family and film crew.  The head of the family offered one of the seal’s treasured eyeballs to Bourdain, who admitted in voice-over that he wasn’t sure he could swallow such a goopy, disgusting organ. But knowing the generosity behind the host’s gesture, knowing every family member present would be delighted to eat the eye in his stead, Bourdain looked at the flesh-cup of gelatinous goo as the gift it was. He looked directly at his host, smiled an almost-shy smile, and suggested that he and his host share it. In that way he figured he might be able to get the thing down and, at the same time, avoid offending his host. It was Bourdain’s smile in that instant, no guile and no pretense behind it, which got me. It was the pure, naked smile of a man who saw the largesse of his host’s gesture and made sure his host knew he understood it, and that he wanted to offer something in return.

Anthony Bourdain was an amazing writer with a deep, dusky voice and an often salty vocabulary who gathered up the textures, scents, and feelings that food could elicit within a culture. He brought those elements to light, painting vibrant pictures with his well-chosen words and images.  He revealed the hands and hearts, the traditions and practices–the humanity–behind the foods in the  cultures he showcased. Bourdain sat down to sup with any number of scary folks (former Viet Cong soldiers come to mind), but he shed illumination on ordinary people living in countries all around us, too, just people trying to make ends meet, trying to live their lives as peacefully as possible, trying to raise their children to be capable and strong in a dangerous world, trying to build a better future for the next generation, and spending quite lot of time working for, paying for (or trading for), and preparing nourishing foods for their families and their friends. Just like the rest of us.  Bourdain showed us people, real people, and told us, “See? We are not that different at all. We have the same fears, the same dreams, the same hopes for our children.”

Bourdain in Hanoi. Photo: William Mebane for The New Yorker.

Bourdain went all over the world to see those places, to speak to those people, to sit at their tables, and to tell their stories in programs which revolved around the magic of food, the magic of community. Magic like our own magic. Magic we often believe has been reserved just for us. But it hasn’t. It’s a magic that envelops the people of the Earth. Anthony Bourdain brought knowledge of that common magic to many, revealing the life-giving, tradition-building, community-forging power of food shared.

For my part, I will miss his relaxed saunter, the eyes that took it all in, the sardonic smirk as well as the genuine empathy and warmth of a man I didn’t know, but who, I believe, opened all our eyes to the amazing possibilities that connectedness to other members of our species can bring. To the amazing possibilities inherent in dropping our defenses with other peoples and other tribes. To not being so sure we know every little thing about each other. And, mostly, to the gift of allowing others to be themselves and to be different from us without our feeling threatened by that knowledge.

Thank you, Anthony Bourdain, for igniting our curiosity. May you rest in peace.

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