Anthony Bourdain: At the Nexus of Food and Culture

I saw Anthony Bourdain in Sacramento in September 2010 when he rolled through town as part of his No Reservations tour. I never thought of him as one to actually do shows like this. Nonetheless, I ordered the tickets for myself and two others, and went to the show. He was rude, he was crude, he poked fun at obnoxious tourists, he mocked food snobs and vegans, and expressed his hate for Paula Deen. It was glorious. He also preached traveling and eating–to experience different cultures as authentically as possible.

Bourdain stood at the nexus of food and culture. And though the emphases of his different shows changed as he moved from one network to the other, this remained the common thread through all of them. Food is an extension of culture, culture is expressed through food, and through this dynamic, human connections are made–with old friends, with new friends, with a family he and his crew were connected with. He had a way of humanizing people and places that seemed so far away and so foreign, and distilled the scene to its very essence–people sitting around a table, eating. Something that everyone does because, after all, are we not all human?

Yeah, he went to Europe. Yeah, he went to Canada and Mexico. To California and other parts of the US. Asia. South America. Different parts of Africa. But he made it a point to go to countries that are so often portrayed as “anti-US” or have gone through devastating wars that the media glances over. Post-Gaddafi Libya. Iran. Lebanon. The Democratic Republic of Congo. Afghanistan. Palestine. He wanted to lift the veil to show the real people and the real challenges facing these countries–that they are more than their governments, or that their plight deserves real attention. That despite the rhetoric that gets tossed around, sharing a meal is “a gesture of peace, and a reminder of simple, everyday rituals that unite people at a common table of fellowship,” as my friend Marcos Breton beautifully wrote in his tribute to Bourdain.

Andrew Zimmern says this at the beginning and at the end of each of his Bizarre Foods show: Though another culture’s food might seem strange to you, it’s normal for them. Bourdain preached this and lived this–respect for other cultures. At the same time that he opened our minds and palettes and imagination to different foods and cultures, he normalized–humanized–them. He would ask people about their hopes and dreams, their fears and despair. And you know what? They’re all pretty similar to ours, despite the miles and languages that separate us.

The first show of his that I remember seeing was his first series, in 2002–a Vietnam episode. He ate a beating snake heart and chased it with a shot of some moonshine that came out of a bottle with a snake floating inside. In his earlier shows, before Parts Unknown, Bourdain seemed more unrestrained–he didn’t have CNN overlords hovering on him. He was intensely raw and genuine. And that’s how he traveled and how he encouraged people to travel.

Bourdain’s first show was a siren’s call for me to see the world, an inspiration to break out of California. But not to be a tourist, of course–that was the ultimate shame, besides not traveling at all. A tourist stays sheltered in hotels and eats hotel breakfasts. They go on group tours. They hide from the locals or, when confronted, speak loudly and gesture wildly. They order off tourist menus.

None of that for me. Bourdain showed me to immerse myself in a culture. To be as much of a cultural chameleon as possible. To be flexible and adaptable. To not be afraid of the unknown and to actually seek it out. His voice was in the back of my mind as I wandered by myself through the dusty streets of town in rural China. I heard him as I somehow made my way from Barcelona to Andorra, and then to Toulouse and ultimately Bordeaux–me barely able to speak Spanish and no Catalan or French. Again, as I sat in a boat that sped across the South China Sea to my birthplace at the now abandoned refugee camp on Bidong Island, off the coast of Malaysia. And hopefully more adventures to come.

I don’t remember in which show or episode he said this, nor whether he adapted it from another source, but this quote from Bourdain will always stick with me: “The more you travel, the more you realize that you know less than before.” I think this country would be in a very different place right now if more people traveled abroad and opened their minds and hearts and appetite to new experiences, cultures, and foods.

President Obama–oh, how I miss him–tweeted this about Bourdain. “He taught us about food–but more importantly, about its ability to bring people together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him.”

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