The Final ‘Parts Unknown’
“But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.” – Joseph Conrad, “Heart of Darkness”
It hit me like a ton of bricks. As it did you. I had just arrived in Barcelona and was on my way from the airport when I heard the news. Anthony Bourdain was gone. The next few days were a combination of confusion, grief, and celebration. After all, we were in the great culinary capital of Catalan – land of epic squid, octopus, cuttlefish, sardines, anchovies, and myriad shellfish I have no names for. Of tapas, bread, olives, aioli, and cured ham. And a culture of proud people, many of whom want to succeed from the Castilian state they see as backwards and corrupt. What would Tony do? Deconstruct and devour it all.
He was the most interesting man on the planet, our bad-boy avatar of world cultures, the bridge, conduit, and illuminator of and to people from diverse backgrounds with shared goals; basic freedoms, roofs over their heads, and a good bowl of pho with friends.
The outpouring of grief has been overwhelming but not surprising. He touched so many and it was rare to hear a disparaging word about him. He was bristling with brio, wit, curiosity, and a biting irreverence for political correctness. He was the champion of diversity, a needed balm in today’s age of intolerance. Plus he had that subversive punk rock outrage for authority and injustice, which may have been our only hint at his internal suffering.
Mostly it was his compassion and words that moved us. Like an old sweater or late night bowl of pasta, he was our comfort TV. Turn on the tube anywhere in the world, there was Tony on CNN. Looking for something to watch at home amid 500 channels of nothing? Tony was the sure bet, an exotic excursion to a distant land that he richly colored with that charismatic voice-over, like Marlow in “Heart of Darkness,” one of Bourdain’s favorite books.
He was such a rock star I once took my daughter and girlfriend to see him live in San Diego. He regaled us with behind-the-scenes tales from the show. He showed us hilarious clips that could never be aired, like the time he ate a pizza laced with magic mushrooms, or smoked a giant spliff in Jamaica. He admonished us to be respectful when traveling, not to ask for our food to be prepared a special way, as it insults the hosts. But what I remember most was when an audience member asked what he thought of other cable food shows. He spoke kindly of his fellow hosts, but not necessarily the portent of their shows, as he felt they had a special responsibility.
He cited “Man v. Food,” a show where the host tries to eat as much of the “big food” offerings at a restaurant as possible. This particular kind of gluttony is purely American, and it rankled Bourdain. “The Travel Channel is broadcast in some 220 countries,” he said. “Now just imagine a poor Afghani farmer watching Adam Richman consume 10 pounds of meat at a single sitting, more than he will eat in a year. Just imagine what that says to him about America.”
Empathy was his defining essence. I’m guessing it came early in his career, when he worked as a dishwasher and line cook with Mexicans and Salvadorans, who he praised endlessly as the culinary backbone of New York’s best kitchens. Having learned much of what I know in life in restaurants myself, it is a meritocracy dependent on every person to roll smoothly. It’s also the entry point for hard working immigrants to make it in America. Tony got that, and spent much of his career championing the foods and lives of the underdogs, the misunderstood and the persecuted. Just witness the outpouring of grief from Muslims, Latin Americans and Asians, who took such pride in how Tony portrayed them.
Tony brought a message of tolerance to the world through the most pervasive media of all time, television. He was truly the best of what America stands for. Under the guise of food, he brought us together with stories of our sameness, and made the world a little smaller. With big ideas on how to live a meaningful life, I can only hope Anthony Bourdain will be canonized and taught in schools as a philosopher of our times. You will see a cascade of Tony quotes in the weeks to come, but I’ll leave you with this one. When extolling the virtues of that oft maligned and misunderstood condiment known as butter, he once said, “You know that stuff ‘I Can’t Believe Its Not Butter’? Yes, I can.” Farewell sweet prince. You showed us all how to live a little “butter.”
Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. on KX 93.5, and can be reached at [email protected]