Television icon, best-selling author, and renown chef & food critic Anthony Bourdain died Friday, June 8, at 61 years old in an apparent suicide-by-hanging while on location for his CNN-aired "Parts Unknown" show in Strasbourg, France. A late bloomer to the burgeoning celebrity culture, Bourdain had cultivated an image in the past two decades as a globe-trotting TV host and culinary wizard. In his day, he defied the standard norms of television and book writing. Being one who ventured into topics and realms beyond food, he was almost to the level of a journeyman figure in American life. The episodes of "Parts Unknown" were crafted in such an intricate way as to take the viewer on a journey to a world totally unknown to most people. His loss shakes many people and places to the core, and once again opens up a discussion of the stigmatization of mental health illnesses.
It's a funny thing how something like this works. I remember, shortly after midnight on June 8, seeing this star shoot across the sky towards the general area of a stack of clouds. When the star disappeared, there came several successive flashes of lightning. There has been, in my memory, a decent correlation between major shooting stars and the death of major figures in one realm or another. Several times when a musician of note passes away, I will see one of those distinct light shows brighten the sky. However, as they have been on my mind of late, I was thinking more George H.W. Bush or John McCain. When I woke up later in the morning and heard someone on TV talking about someone being remembered for his "great, adventurous spirit," I automatically assumed McCain had passed. Instead, the headline read "CNN's Anthony Bourdain Dead at 61," which definitely rates right up there with that time I saw the headline "Prince Dead at 57" in terms of shock value. The true significance of his death hits in new ways from time to time, but I doubt the full realization has yet come.
When the 'Parts Unknown' show was first announced as a new part of the CNN lineup in 2013, I was at first very unsure of both how I would like it and the wisdom of airing such a show. The idea of a food and travel show on a 24/7 cable news channel struck me as an odd one. Not even Fox and MSNBC were doing totally non-news programming, though they did and do inject lots of tabloid-worthy coverage into the mainstream. Couple this with the fact that Anthony Bourdain had attained Emeril-level status symbolism as a Food Network personality and beyond, and the choice seemed dubious at best. Perhaps it was a matter of doing anything and everything to right the ratings ship, I don't know. From the outset, it seemed on paper like a Fox News/MSNBC-worthy effort at tackling 'Tabloid TV' for ratings gain. Clearly, though, the top brass at CNN knew something we did not. That said, it can be fairly said that my expectations going in were not high.
Can't remember exactly when it was that I first saw his show. However, whenever it was, I was right off the bat taken away by his unique, often gauche sense of humour. Also cutting against my first blush impression, the show wasn't just about food. The show covered travel, which was something I was then just starting to do with my road trips throughout the state. Cultures were revealed to the average viewer that would have otherwise been obscured indefinitely. He also weaved politics into his shows, which always took me out of my comfort zone in a good way. Even in the morass of my now long gone days as a flame-throwing Trump supporter, I strongly respected his diametric opposite opinion. For one thing, he was tackling the spectre of Trump from a restaurant perspective('The whole industry would collapse if we built a wall and deported them'), and not from a rehearsed partisan view. I wholly resent people who talk as a sheet of paper instead of as themselves! Bourdain was communicating as himself, who he really was, and not as a fiction ideal. Moreover, when you saw him in pictures at a white tie affair, he always looked uncomfortable in a suit. He was definitely more common man than elitist snob, in that and many other ways.
The teaser for his shining moment came in the Fall of 2015, when Bourdain was doing the late-night circuit promoting the new season of "Parts Unknown." During an interview with South Carolina native son Stephen Colbert, our culinary correspondent dropped the ultimate bomb-shell: He had been to, and liked, Waffle House. For those who have followed him for even a little bit, this was a major shocker. The man who panned the vast majority of commercial food depot's was now singing the praises of Waffle House. Intrigued, my mother and I made a note to watch that particular episode of the show. It did not disappoint. One of the marvels of that episode was the writing and communication techniques employed in Bourdain's delivery. You could tell he had an active mind and that he carefully considered every word that would make his points and paint for the audience a verbal portrait. That episode and Bourdain himself somehow took on greater meaning in my life, as the end of 2015 was a period in my life where I was suddenly realizing that I was a rudderless mess, without any sense of where I was going. Guys like him and Don Imus became faces and voices of levity at a time when I nearly drowned in my own depression, and I think both would have gotten a good laugh from that.
The 2016/2017 episodes from New York, New Jersey, & Los Angeles, CA, showed Bourdain taking in aspects of the big city that very few others are inclined to try. Most people want to dine high end on someone else's dime, while Bourdain himself took the viewer to the cafeterias and the diners and spoke to owners, workers, and patrons alike. Looking here at Atlanta, most people would clamour for seats at places like the Sun Dial Restaurant, Universal Joint, and the food revue at Music Midtown, and put on their most garishly oafish public displays, puffing themselves(For the benefit of other people, of course) to astronomical degrees. As to me, I like to check in and see what the cool people are up to over at the likes of Wendy's and Long John Silver's. As you would expect, LA provided a good cultural look at different elements of the American alchemy. While there, just like with the shock of his digging the Waffle House, he also surprised us with his expressed adoration of the In and Out Burger restaurant chain(Post mortem, it also comes to my attention that he also loved Popeye's chicken). New Jersey showed the culinary correspondent reminiscing on lost youth and lamenting how a once-beautiful beach now has the Trump Casino("The enemy of the human spirit.") as part of its view. In New York, over several episodes, he gave viewers the grand tour of the city-scape and gave me ideas of where to go and what to do should I ever find myself up there. How, indeed, should I go about navigating the Bronx and Brooklyn? Those episodes gave me a starting position from which I can take things in the future.
In June, 2017, when a friend of mine didn't show up to help me with Vacation Bible School as he'd done in previous years, I brought in Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential" book as a source of personal amusement and entertainment in his stead. My job at VBS was almost a nothing job, so I had ample time, time made more voluminous by my friend's absence, to read. In that time, I managed to get over 80% of the book finished(Small book), and it was a true delight as well as a wonderful distraction from my now-moribund relationship with that church. He had a highly idiosyncratic way of looking at things, to be sure. The tome recalled his life experiences over the course of his first four decades, regaling with lessons learned and un-learned in that time. From his experiences, I had some things with which to identify, especially as I once did a 'working interview' with a local sit-down restaurant back in 2015. It was an illuminating experience that I hope I never have to repeat, and Bourdain's book confirms the truth of a lot of what I came away with from that experience. He also made it a point to emphasize the importance of character in everything one does, as he says that "Character is not taught. You either are or aren't." Important words to let simmer.
In the last episode I ever watched of "Parts Unknown" before his death, he took the viewer on a trip into West Virginia. Done more in an effort to help one and all understand that the people who are the back-bone of the Trump coalition are real people with real concerns, it also served as an illuminating look into Southern culture that you don't often see on television(Outside of a non-caricature setting). He took us into the coal fields and divulged the history of the area, going to great pains to emphasize the factors that took them out of the big leagues and also the perpetual cheery optimism that one day they will come back from the ruins. The a-religious Bourdain is recorded joining with families in prayer before dinner and having a polite exchange of ideas with the very Conservative people who are hosting him and his crew. In what may have been on of his seminal acts, he tried to show the world that there is a better way to communicate than through the tired tropes of division and resentment, even as he himself would have admitted that he did not always live up to the ideal.
The suicides of both Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade bring back to the fore the touchy topic of mental health illnesses. Mental illness is a crisis as well understood as that of the opioid epidemic, and by that I mean not understood at all. My own personal battles have shown me that this is something that robs people of the ability to think rationally and clearly, leading them to conclusions very far from reality. Led to those conclusions, they take gruesome actions to rectify the imagined problem. Critics will no doubt come out of the wood work, telling us how suicide is selfish and how mental illness is only attention seeking. Clearly, neither of these "ideas" are true. Why would a person seek the attention by acting in a deranged manner? I'd imagine that few would want to embarrass themselves like that. Some classy people even feel the need to venture into the realm of conspiracies, calling Bourdain a secret supporter of thus and such movement, among other equally ridiculous claims. This is not a good thing. Besides, I could think of several more realistic, yet none the less still implausible, scenarios than the ones derived from InfoWars land. So sad that we've come to this point, in all ways.
As to me, I will engage in my own personal tribute to Anthony Bourdain. Not involving video-making(Though there will be one of those coming up) or another write-up, mind you! One day, as I have already done a few times in years past, I will go to Waffle House and order what I call the 'Full Bourdain.' In keeping with the script to the still highly influential Charleston, SC-based episode of "Parts Unknown," I'll order scattered, heaped, and smothered hash browns, a pecan waffle, a patty melt, and a salad with thousand island dressing. Pork chop & T-bone steak optional. It is my hope that I can split this with somebody, as I can ill afford to kill myself with this heaping mess. Hopefully, I can snag proper female companionship between now and then(I'm specifically thinking of a young female former co-worker of mine who I've had eyes for over the past several months), so I can properly split these bad boys down the middle. Perhaps a dream, but it will all turn out some how, some way.
"I feel like I’ve stolen a car, a really nice car, and I keep looking in the rear-view mirror for flashing lights. But there’s been nothing yet."
RIP Anthony Bourdain
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