For years, Parts Unknown served as a helping hand taking me across the raging waters of my embattled soul, Anthony Bourdain kidnapping to places beyond my world, where passion reigned over action, where compassion was the currency of exchange, where the commoner was equal to the leader, where there was no line between politics, food, history, culture, song, and dance.
Although a self-declared foodie, known as a great cook to my friends and neighbors, I did not know Bourdain until I accidentally landed in the middle of his episode on Burma. With his usual outside-in-the-street approach, he sat under an umbrella interviewing a rock band, whose lyrics had to be reviewed by the government. As he continued in his off-hand way, his questions elicited their greatest dream: to perform in America. Someday, when the winds changed. I vaguely remember the ingredients of the Burmese salad he ate, but other than that, the episode focused on Bourdain’s interest in the country, the people, their history, their dreams — and always showing a sincere and lively interest in whatever mattered to them.
As he did in all the episodes I watched afterward — in the Congo, Marrakesh (Morocco) South African, Palestine, Libya, Lebanon, Detroit, Antarctica — his unique style of humble, assumedly in-the-moment questions focused on the people’s greatest desire for their country, their city, their region, and how to realize their dreams against the global storms of our time. How to overcome this post-colonial dilemma in a world of hyper-domination was the unstated “thesis” often missed by those who wanted to focus on food and travel as separate categories from the yearnings of the people who eat the food and live on the land.
Bourdain’s highest values resonated throughout the shows: the people matter, their hearts, their lives, their suffering. Food was the palliative, the raw material of culture, culture the raw material of human meaning, human meaning the raw material of the desire to persist against the global storms. Whatever political cleavages we as Americans are oblivious to, Bourdain could find them in an instant.
Bourdain’s irreverent choice of subjects satisfied my longings to connect with global cultural warriors in their efforts to fry, barbeque, stew, and chop their way back to their ancestors, forward to their progeny. Magic was his medium, not really a traveling show, not a word about where to stay or what to do, the show was a brew of culture, politics, literary criticism, history, food aestheticism, and of course sociology. He focused on global struggles for self-determination through food, spirits, dance, and song — supporting cooks in South Africa who originally came from Nigeria, bread makers in Marrakesh struggling to preserve the character of their town against development, boat cooks and elderly train mechanics in Conrad’s Congo (Bourdain loved Joseph Conrad) working for free to reactivate an antiquated train system left by the Belgians, teenage cooks in the Bronx, fireman cooks in Detroit working long past their hours to save a dying city, cooks in Antarctica waiting for shipments to come in a long way from their icy world, and so much more.
When he did a show on Los Angeles, he did not go to Beverly Hills or Santa Monica; he went to Koreatown and spent the whole episode with two “deviant” Koreans who had made it in the food and art world, against their parents’ desires for them to become accountants. The other show featuring Los Angeles focused on East L.A., honoring those food activists resisting gentrification, although he never used the word. His website did something no chef did before — he paid homage to Latino and Mexican kitchen workers, whose labor lies behind most restaurants today. He loved street food; like me, he ate fast food with joy and delight — Bourdain existed without boundaries, a soul on fire.
When he went to Israel, he began the show by expressing concern for generating criticism by all sides, with something like, “By the time this show is over, everyone will hate me, for being a self-hating Jew, a Jew, a lover of Palestinians, and more.” A moment later an orthodox Jew at the wailing wall, told him he was Jewish because his mother was, and gave him a 10-minute Bar Mitzvah, with Bourdain smirking the whole time. “I have never entered a synagogue, but for those who want to kill me, I am a Jew.” Nothing got past him, nothing.
Intentionally or not, his work revealed a globally fractured world of communities struggling against all odds to resist homogenization, to preserve their cultures through food, or create new cultures through food (as he showed about the African immigrants who arrived in South Africa when Mandela was elected). In Bourdain, I found an activism I had not thought possible, an activism made of mystery, magic, food, and hard-core social change. Emma Goldman’s famous quip which adorned posters in the ’70s: “I don’t want to be part of any revolution I can’t dance in,” echoes Bourdain’s insistence to find joy amidst sorrow.
To quiet the shouting of my aching heart, I tell myself this: He was too alive, too clear about the looming darkness, his strength was his weakness. “Sensitivity goes in all directions,” my friend Genevieve reminded me after the suicide of Native American novelist Michael Dorris. I will not condemn his choice. That would miss the point of this great life — within all of us lie parts unknown.