Yesterday started promisingly. I’d called out from work because Sophie was ill and couldn’t go over to mom and dad’s to hang out for the day, given that her and Sean’s school was out. So I stayed behind to keep an eye on her and catch up on some much-needed tv watching.
But then I looked at my phone and saw the update that Anthony Bourdain, renowned food writer, producer and host of some of my all-time favorite television series in No Reservations and Parts Unknown, was found dead in his hotel room by his best friend, Eric Ripert, an apparent suicide. I had to read it twice, I thought surely I was just bleary-eyed. But there it was. Just like that.
If seasons of life have soundtracks, they also have their storytellers. In 2003, Janie and I came to America in search of jobs to make money, ostensibly to save cash and go back to South Africa at some point in the not-too-distant future. As life tends to do, events conspired to keep us from departing these shores as soon as we’d liked. Work never pays what you’d hoped, rent or mortgage or whatever is expensive, and once kids come along, it’s more about setting down roots than shifting back and forth between continents. We were here for the great food writing and food-as-entertainment movement of the mid-oughts, and no one stood out more prominently on that pile than Anthony Bourdain. My brother had a copy of his book Kitchen Confidential on his bookshelf at his house, but it wouldn’t be until 2008 that I read it. By this point I was already a huge fan of his Travel Channel show, No Reservations.
The show had a visual narrative style that was somehow consistently arresting, even when he was clearly dialing it in. At times, it was transcendent. By that I don’t mean to say that his shows brought about spiritual experiences or anything of the like, which I do not believe ever to be his point anyway. Whereas his first stab at television, A Cook’s Tour, was pretty much a by-the-numbers affair, No Reservations moved beyond the mere food travel trope and in to the stories behind the cultures that served up the people who in turn served up the food that his crew at production company Zero Point Zero committed to celluloid (or digital cards) for posterity. He brought foreign cultures and narratives that countered our own American one regularly into our living rooms with grace, empathy and genuine curiosity. At times, with a fair dose of snark. This decreased somewhat over time.
I got from him over the years that he actively moved away from the tired cynicism of his New York home toward a genuine desire to be proven wrong on every presupposition he ever held. The well-known quote he tattooed onto his arm, translated from the Greek, states “I am certain of nothing.” For those of us raised in a ferment of certainty and iron-clad convictions in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, such a posture was as refreshing as it was evident to me in his persona.
Not much can be gleaned from persona, as it is the public front we all employ to serve as our interface with a rapacious world. You have to protect what is precious after all. Nevertheless, the air of prickly indifference and snark of his early days steadily gave way to the growing compassion and empathy that was projected through his leathered, weather-beaten face. His eyes communicated a burgeoning transparency, as though he wanted to be told how very wrong he’d been to assume anything, ever. This became a calling card of sorts, and I think as his previous persona slipped ever-increasingly, he allowed less of himself to be kept away from the prying eyes of the world. He was ever open about his struggles with substance abuse down the years, but these things were almost badges of honor, a sign that he’d danced on the edge of the abyss and somehow lived to tell the tale. His latter years were more about the stories of others, of people we do not understand.
I think this is the mark of maturity. We move away from framing our understanding of the world through our biases and seek out to be set straight. There is no singular, unifaceted approach to what is. There are angles, points-or-view, interpretations. Getting to the bottom of things is seldom linear.
That said, humans share certain characteristics, no matter if they are in Palestine or Pennsylvania. There are tables, and friendships, and conversation. There are recipes and flourishes of improvisation. Many of the latter stem from grand culinary traditions, the steady bedrock from which the chef, mother, auntie or soldier introduces a smattering of his or her own story, located within the grander story of his or her culture, into a given circumstance. Food is nourishment, food is comfort. We all need to be nourished. We all need to be comforted.
Perhaps Tony’s greatest gift was exposing to us how people in Indonesia or São Paulo or Tehran touched on these points. When we are nourished, our minds function clearly. When we are comforted, we open up about our fears. When we are glad, we suspend judgment and listen. Tony knew this and I believe it is was softened a granite-hard former addict such as himself into the man who in latter years sought to be proven wrong on his every supposition of how people tick in some far-flung corner of the world.
The world is the poorer for his voice being silenced. Without espousing great man theories, who will take up his torch? Do we still not need to know what he tried to convey through his writing, through his shows? With reductionist voices crowding the halls of power, the need to listen without prejudice is more needed now than ever.
I pray he is at rest. The struggle is over. I cannot fathom what would drive someone who seemed to have the world at his feet to do such a thing, but from what I gathered from the man’s character down the years, I’m sure that, whatever it was, was very real to him. That should be enough to tamp down any judgment there.
The sun is out today. It will be quite warm later. The world keeps turning. Things start, things end.
Go well, Tony. Thank you for all the stories.