With the death of Anthony Bourdain last month, the world lost a modern troubadour of the human experience — a punk-rock Woody Guthrie, documenting the joyous, tragic, and heartbreakingly truthful. Bourdain did what every writing teacher across America begs of their students: show, don’t tell. His work was a treasure trove of first-hand gonzo journalism that defied conventional ideologies and revealed the human stories behind every dish. Most of all, he insisted we taste it, or else what was the point?
In May, Bourdain was the special guest at the UCSB Arts & Lectures fundraiser held at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum where I happened into a seat. It was a lavish affair — free cocktails, auction cards, and at the center of each table a giant woven basket overflowing with fresh produce and baguettes, which no one touched but me, earning elbows from my wife about how centerpieces aren’t for eating.
After schmoozing hour, where I got to gawk briefly at Christopher Lloyd and remind my wife we have to watch the Back to the Future trilogy (she’s never seen it — honestly, I don’t know how I left that out of my screening process), we were shown to the dining area. I felt a bit out of place even before learning tables started at $10,000, but I was four bourbons in by then (did I mentioned how free the cocktails were?), which served to anesthetize the simmering Marxian tirade bubbling beneath the surface. Sitting next to me was a representative from a major beverage company that has for a few years now been making its way into Myanmar, unencumbered by the violence. He said it was a growing market and invited me to visit.
The main purpose of the evening was to raise money for the Arts & Lectures program, a beloved institution and cornerstone of Santa Barbara’s cultural scene. Several private dinners crafted by chefs of high-end, local restaurants were auctioned off in a lively series of escalating bids, earning between $12,000 and $24,000 each. The event proved quite successful.
Then came the depressing part: The organizers played a video. Set to some Sarah McLachlan-esque music, the somber faces of school-aged children, mostly of color, panned across the screen while a narrator explained that as K-12 funding continues to suffer, the performing arts have been disappearing from public schools (not something these parents have to worry about). It went on to say how important the arts are to childhood development and future success and would they please be willing to fund Arts & Lectures’ outreach program, which provides access to underrepresented students in an effort to offset local inequities. Infinitely more valuable than a dinner, this time the prize would be the knowledge of providing young learners critical access to a good education. Inexplicably, no bidding war ensued. With some effort, the host cajoled several $1,000 and $500 donations.
This happened. It was cruel and generous at the same time. If the alternative was to give no money toward public education, this was undoubtedly preferable, but a collection of pyrrhic victories is no triumph. The collective voices of those present to hobnob with Bourdain could ensure Santa Barbara schools have the best public education of anywhere in the nation, but it won’t happen with a trickle of donations — it happens through policy. Though who could have predicted the sordid outcomes of a system that bases the quality of a child’s education on the market value of their parents’ home?
Just then my copy of Das Capital was surely vibrating on the shelf illuminated by a mysterious light from above, beckoning me to jump on a table, grab all the rolls, and scream, “Bread for the masses! Workers of the world unite!”
Then Bourdain was introduced.
He spoke for what seems now an indistinguishable amount of time about food and travel, of course, but what I remember most was how excited he was about an upcoming episode of Parts Unknown set in Honk Kong, where he’d be working with one of his heroes — cinematographer Christopher Doyle. It turned out to be one of the last episodes he would complete. At the end of the event, I went over and said hello. It was late and he looked exhausted. He signed my book to Hobo Drifter, as I requested. I asked if he would go back to Iran again now that Trump had pulled out of the nuclear deal — he perked up and said he definitely would. We took a picture; I thanked him and left. That was May 9. He died less than a month later.
I can’t shake the feeling that there was something utterly disturbing about that night. Having Bourdain at that event felt oddly out of place, like Joe Strummer singing at Buckingham Palace or Che Guevara shaking hands at Davos — a sort of time paradox. Given Doc Brown’s presence, one can’t rule out a shoddy flux capacitor.
In my Media & Politics class at SBCC, the goal is for students to think critically, to seek out good journalism and scrutinize it for insight into the world. On the last day of class I told my students about the fundraiser and asked them how they would choose to organize a society — whether it makes sense to design a system where the education of underprivileged kids depends on the spontaneous gifts of privileged adults at dinner parties with celebrity guests. Despite my theatrics, the students in the room were not the obstacles to an equitable education but more likely its victims.
What I’ll miss most about Bourdain are sensibilities only the best journalists possess — an unyielding willingness to be outraged at injustice and an ability to observe everywhere the tidal regularity of human life. Tom Waits once described Bob Dylan’s writing, calling each song a universe with its own orbit, with peaks and valleys that would take a lifetime to explore. That, I believe, is the best way to describe Bourdain’s own prolific legacy. He composed, in each of his works, a world to be explored, one that will be mined for gems and rubies, precious and rare glimpses of light, to be unearthed by the handful in cities around the world.
There are gems to be unearthed in our own city. Genuinely equitable education is a great place to start.