Celebrity grief often feels like a transgression to me, like an ill-advised prayer to a pantheon of gods you know you should stay away from. And at a time when we have made an eldritch, malicious fame vampire our carnival barker-king, mourning Anthony Bourdain’s death – hitching your emotions to the cult of the moving picture and commodity personalities – feels shallow, and maybe even a little dangerous. But feelings are deceptive and not always true. They can talk you out of what you should know and, as they appear to have done with Bourdain, they can convince you that what you believe you know is true, that some nameless ghost knocking at the inside of your mind is more real than what’s in front of you, and that it’s inescapable.
So I’ve sat with my feelings and have been trying to understand why Bourdain’s death has cast such a deep shadow for me, why it has felt more real than all other other things in front of me, all the deaths and calamities I read about and shrug off. Some of this no doubt has to do with my own smallness, that worn and personal provincialism we all live with but ignore. But it is also true that Bourdain meant something to me, that the work he did, and the messy and stubborn curiosity with which he did it, has been real for me in ways I don’t think I appreciated, not until it was gone.
Bourdain wielded a curiosity married to an unsentimental appraisal of the raging, farting, electric shit show of human existence that, though often couched in acerbic wit and sneering contempt, was ultimately idealistic, and even tender. He didn’t just acknowledge the essential nonsense and wall-eyed absurdity of living; he appreciated it, and accepted and cherished it for what it was. In “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” the New Yorker article that would launch his unlikely literary career, he paints a picture of the professional kitchen as a collection of human offal and social flotsam, a pocket battleship manned by pirates who are fundamentally dysfunctional but unequivocally alive. “I love the sheer weirdness of the kitchen life,” he writes, “the dreamers, the crackpots, the refugees, and the sociopaths with whom I continue to work; the ever-present smells of roasting bones, searing fish, and simmering liquids; the noise and clatter, the hiss and spray, the flames, the smoke, and the steam.” There was something of the German Gossendichter, the “gutter poet,” in how he encountered life, in the perpetual, openminded noir monologue that gravitated to simple, lived experience over gesture or pretense, in the preference for honest, sincere dirt over disingenuous or ironic cleanliness. It’s this, I think, that endeared him to so many, and why his visit to The Waffle House, that midnight sanctuary for scattered and hungry wastrels all across the South, has become something of a cult classic: it’s a love letter to simple enjoyment, to unabashed appreciation and connection.
But he was not a perfect man. He was open about his own flaws, past and present, and he showed an uncommon willingness to publicly interrogate them, to forego the ritualized mea culpa and self-satisfied contrition of political and celebrity apologies in favor of quiet reckonings. Looking back on the romantic kitchens of his early writing in an interview with Slate last year in light of our culture’s own belated reckoning with sexual power politics and abuse, Bourdain wondered to what extent his accounts of kitchen life and its crass sexuality and hierarchies had “provide[d] validation for meatheads” and “[w]hy was [he] not the sort of person, or why was [he] not seen as the sort of person, that these women could feel comfortable confiding in.” He didn’t spare himself in his appraisal. He had become, in his words, “a leading figure in a very old, very oppressive system so,” he continued, “I could hardly blame anyone for looking at me as somebody who’s not going to be particularly sympathetic.” But ultimately, the responsibility to be open, to provide support against oppression, was his, and not doing so was “a personal failing.”
Whatever he was in his private life, publicly Bourdain was a rare figure, a champion of personal responsibility without the usual appeals to the cloistered, anti-human solipsism of Ayn Rand acolytes. The quest for self-improvement, however doomed, is a private enterprise that is very much a public work, born out in how you attempt to make sense of yourself and what that leads you to do. He ate his way around the world, but what he managed to impart through his travels was a relentless drive to throw yourself against the unfamiliar, the unknown, and the unpleasant, and to hammer yourself into something slightly better through the experience. He modeled a way of engagement free of the kind of sentimental colonialism that underpins so much travel literature and entertainment, the drive to infantilize the world around you, to file it down into either a perfect, idealized picture or a profane object of scorn and superiority. Warthog anus seared in coals and served “al dente” remains a conceptual horror at the edge of understanding, and Thai raw blood soup a Levitical nightmare, but each testifies, in their own way, to human ingenuity and survival, to hospitality and fellowship. Bourdain talked a lot about what he called “the wheel,” the merciless, uncaring whims of fate and oppression, and his travels all played out against a bleak view of human history. But the result was not hopelessness or a lessening of human agency. Instead, ordinary men and women are heroes for enduring it all; there is nothing more honorable, he says in an episode in Los Angeles, than suffering the whippings of fate to create lives worth living, worth tasting, in a world that can be hard and uncaring.
It’s this last part that I find myself missing the most. He was a cantankerous voice of empathy and conscience in a world that slowly descended into ugly self-worship and almost gleeful violence over the course of his career. It’s the cruelest stroke of irony that the world he had such a passion for was a place he felt he couldn’t live in any longer, that his tenacious curiosity and militant advocacy for the simple cook, the peasant, and the migrant worker – the very people who have become the demons in a fairytale of victimhood we’ve spun in our mad collective imagination – should end now, at a time when deliberate cruelty is government policy in the service of bare-knuckle xenophobia and institutionalized hatred. There is a part of me that found a deliverance in the work he did, and who secretly looked for enlightenment through him, a conflicted man who was seemingly doing the best he could with the hand of nonsense he had been dealt. Because if he could be better, could do better in spite of himself, so could I. The world may be a roiling mess, but it doesn’t have to be.
But then again, maybe I had it all wrong. As I go over these last lines, I can’t help but wonder if it’s maybe enough to know that you had a thing, to look at the empty plate, to realize that there is no more, to try to find the last tastes of the meal in your mouth, and then to look up at the people around the table and to realize that that’s what brought you here. Food is fellowship, of presence – of being and having – but it is also loss. There is a stillness after a meal where you mourn what you had, but out of this loss comes possibility, memories, sensations, and the desire to have again what is gone. So you go home and cook for yourself, and then for others, again and again, each time different and each time better. And then you eat. And leaning back in my chair now, I realize that I was fuller than I thought I was.
Thanks for the meal, Tony. It was delightful.