Anthony Bourdain: Gorgeously Teetering in the Unknown

When Anthony Bourdain visits Salvador de Bahia, Brazil in his award-winning television show, Parts Unknown, everything we see of the city is worth admiring: the vibrant buildings and intricate architecture; drums echoing through the streets at night; the sexy women and men who, as Anthony describes, always look like they just got fucked or are on their way to go fuck; the heavy African influence on the culture; and of course, the food.

This is Salvador da Bahia, city of 3 million people, first capital of Brazil. The wellspring for everything African and spicy, where things seem to just sway and move constantly. It’s a place where everybody is sexy, where even the ugly people are hot.

Through Anthony’s lens we felt the heartbeat of this city, and I, for one, certainly wanted to be in those streets at night shaking and gyrating my hips the way higher powers intended. The magic of Salvador felt tangible even through a television screen. But let’s be fair here—it was Brazil’s national cocktail, the caipirinha, that came out the true star of the episode.

The caipirinha, man. This indispensable icon of Brazilian beach culture is known to start with fresh lime, muddle and mash with more lime juice, sugar, ice, the magic ingredient, cachaça—that’s basically the distilled liquor of the sugarcane—shaken, not stirred, and you’ve got yourself one of the world’s truly great cocktails. The utility beverage good for any time of day or any social occasion. Very satisfying.

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It was Anthony’s penchant for this cocktail, against the backdrop of Salvador’s many alluring attributes, that ignited my most magnificently mundane fantasy: sitting at a small plastic table outside for a meal in the heart of Salvador; drums beating in the background; amazing food in front of me; and not just one or two, but three caipirinhas that I’ve ordered all at the same time. It’s often I imagine myself here, in a long flowing skirt good for twirling around the street in once I’m good and tipsy off the pulse of the city (and the caipirinhas). This fantasy is possibly my most sacred. I have never had a caipirinha, but I refuse to taste one until this dream comes to fruition.

Anthony could make the simplest culinary experiences appear tantalizing, like sitting on a low plastic stool slurping spicy noodles in Vietnam to the symphony of scooters passing by, or joining an Iranian family in their home for a home-cooked meal. Even dining on blowfish, which if not prepared correctly has more than enough toxins to poison you to death would be…well, kind of terrifying, but exciting nonetheless. It was about the connections through the commonplace and the seemingly uneventful—to the places and the people—that mattered. It might not have been a spectacle, but Anthony always had us enthralled.

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Anthony taught us that meals hold memories, and that meals bring people together. My most cherished memories were created around meals I’ve had. In the Dominican Republic, my travel companions and I giggled fondly for days remembering our waiter in Santiago who ventured down an endless rant of our breakfast options: We have eggs, we have eggs and cheese, we have eggs and meat, we have eggs, cheese and meat, we have eggs and…. I don’t remember the food itself from that morning, but I remember the care in which that individual took our varying orders and the pride he had in filling our stomachs. Later that morning in Batey Libertad, I watched as three women sat together washing dead chickens in big metal buckets. Within a few hours I was sitting next to friends at tables covered in cheap table cloths, eating the most delectable chicken and rice I’ll probably ever have. But a great part about bonding through food is that you don’t need to be in a different country to experience its influence. At home in Vermont, my friend Meli loves to tell me about the food from his home, Puebla, Mexico and is never more excited than when he’s asking you to try his pico de gallo (which is phenomenal). In London, my friend’s flatmate from China was cooking dinner with her father who insisted on giving us a massive plate of food before they even finished cooking for themselves. Disregarding the language barrier and our insistence that we had actually just eaten, he was adamant that we enjoy the meal he so carefully prepared.

The accumulation of these experiences show us how food is truly a vessel for connection and empathy. Although Anthony urged us to travel far and wide, he also encouraged us to simply just eat other people’s food.

If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food.

We remember Anthony as a celebrity chef and a television host, but he had a plethora of titles. As a writer, he was vivid and eloquent, his descriptions as beautiful as they were honest. As a food lover, he was relatable—whether it was a pastrami sandwich in New York City or a Michelin-star meal in France, he loved what he loved and he didn’t care who agreed or disagreed. From the back of a tuk-tuk in Chiang Mai, he admitted the real reason he fell in love with Asia.

When I first came out to this part of the world, it was the noodles. I mean I knew right then. I’m not joking. It wasn’t the girls, it wasn’t the beaches—the noodles, the greasy bottle of fish sauce, and the smell.

As a journalist, Anthony was simple in his questioning, driving straight to the point. What’s the future? 20 years from now—where will [your country] be? Are you optimistic? Do you have hope? Over grilled fish on a beach in Greece at sunset or a plate of spaghetti pizza in a home in West Virginia, he could earn your trust, pluck out your hopes and fears, and share them, humbly, with the rest of the world.

As a human, Anthony was sincere, dark humored, aggressively cynical, hilariously honest, and the list is ongoing. There were no frills and no facades which made his goodness so transparent.

The news of Anthony’s death was a shock to everyone. He had a life force that was palpable. He was alive in our daily consciousness in a way other public figures are often not—he felt like a close friend to everyone that admired him. The photo reel on my own phone contained numerous photos and screenshots that pertained to him or his restaurant suggestions; I was up to date on his tweets, his photos, his television show. To me, he was enmeshed in my desire to travel, eat, tell stories, and understand the rest of the world.

Even more so than by his death, I’m sad that Anthony lived with such a sadness that would ultimately lead him to end his life. I’m sad that while receiving so much of the world, he was left feeling anything but full.

It’s impossible for me to imagine the exchange of energy Anthony experienced over the course of his travels—a constant give and take, an endless movement, very little stillness. He talked to people for a living, about their pains as well as their joys. Their hopes and fears. Their memories. He listened intently to every word and was always equipped with a meaningful response. Even when imbued with joy and purity, he was collecting the sentiments and experiences of others—internalizing them, digesting them, and then giving a piece of himself in return.* Maybe this was part of Anthony’s sadness, maybe it wasn’t. His reasons for ending his life will, and should, remain very personal to him. Maybe my presumptions are just me projecting my own apprehensions onto him, as I am pursuing a similar path to his. 

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Despite his physical absence from this world, Anthony’s principles and experiences are still here for us to learn from and find inspiration in. When the world feels like it’s closing in on us, Anthony shows us just how vast, yet also how small, it really can be. Whether you’re from Pittsburgh, the Congo, Japan, or Sicily, we have the same basic needs and dreams. We love our friends and family, stories and traditions, and we love to eat good food. Today more than ever we need this appreciation of our similarities, and to keep learning from each other when it comes to our differences. There is no denying this death was a tremendous loss, but what I’m eternally grateful for is the passion and the fantasies I have adopted into my life because of Anthony, and knowing he did the same for so many others. What better way to honor him than by forging ahead with those very dreams that he inspired. Anthony left a gap in our world, and it is up to us now to fill it.

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*Right before finishing this piece I found the following quote, which more beautifully articulates what I was hesitantly attempting to assume about Anthony:

As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.

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