Friday, June 8, 2018

RIP Tony Bourdain

“He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him.” - President Barack Obama
"Stunned and saddened by the loss of Anthony Bourdain. He brought the world into our homes and inspired so many people to explore cultures and cities through their food. Remember that help is a phone call away US:1-800-273-TALK UK: 116 123" Gordon Ramsay on Twitter
     I don't write about celebrities. I'm a thriller novelist and political blogger. That's not my thing. I refuse to follow them on social media (except for Valerie Perrine and Carl Reiner and a few celebrity authors on Facebook). So when fashion icon Kate Spade hung herself in New York last week, I refrained from writing about it. But when I heard on Twitter this morning that Anthony Bourdain had also committed suicide in France, I felt compelled to write about it and his legacy.
     His sudden and absolutely senseless death hits especially hard in our household. Far from being just a celebrity chef and television personality, Bourdain was also a crime novelist of no mean ability and over the years I'd bought Mrs. JP quite a few of Bourdain's food-based standalone thrillers. In other words, as far as my friendship circle on Facebook goes, he was one of us. I'd watched his shows on the Food and Discovery Channels, although I never got to watch his award-winning show Parts Unknown on CNN.
     Anthony Bourdain was all wrong for literature and television. While telegenic, his attitude, caustic sense of humor and tattoos made him the kind of guy we'd warn our daughters about. Politically incorrect to the bone, he made his literary debut in the pages of the New Yorker with an expose entitled, "Don't Eat Before Reading This." He launched his career in letters with this paragraph:
Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay. It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals. It’s about danger—risking the dark, bacterial forces of beef, chicken, cheese, and shellfish. Your first two hundred and seven Wellfleet oysters may transport you to a state of rapture, but your two hundred and eighth may send you to bed with the sweats, chills, and vomits.
     It was a harbinger of things to come. Bourdain's particular brand of hedonism and Swiftian wit brought 120 nations in our living rooms over the years he was on television and made staring non-interactively at other peoples' meals entertaining. He was the fatalistic sort of person who never seemed interested in longevity. He was a smoker although tobacco has been linked to lung cancer. He couldn't get enough red meat ("When Tony comes to town, animals will die," he once said in the Middle East), even though red meat has been linked to prostate cancer. He imported his typical yet unique New York attitude all over the world and, in the process, through our food, the one constant for human existence, he made it a bit smaller.
     He mercilessly needled his fellow celebrity chefs, especially Emeril and the now-disgraced Mario Batalli with his rapier-like barbs. However, out of all the shows in which Bourdain starred, the one I will remember the most was the one that took place in Lebanon in 2006. Not long after Bourdain and his No Reservations crew had arrived to film another show, Israel had attacked southern Lebanon over the kidnapping of two of its soldiers, effectively killing the episode. Or so they thought. And it's a good thing they did film it- It went on to earn an Emmy nomination.
     Trapped in the hotel, with no safe way out, Bourdain grew restless then, being a chef down to his DNA, walked into the hotel's kitchen and began chopping up vegetables in front of the amazed Lebanese chefs because he didn't know what else to do with himself and his pent-up energies. Now, at this stage in his life, Bourdain didn't wear his politics on his sleeve (although that began changing with Parts Unknown on CNN). But to me, the crux of the episode was when he simply sat before a video camera in his hotel room and ad-libbed some lines about Bush being at a summit and Tony Blair trying to get him to focus on what was happening in Beirut. But Bourdain, now briefly turned into a war correspondent for Salon, used the opportunity to expand a bit on his displeasure at Bush and his embarrassing reaction to the second Lebanon war:
What is clear -- as far as we're concerned -- from all sources is that there is no official, announced plan. No real advice, or information, or public exit strategy or timetable. The news clip of President Bush, chawing open-mouthed on a buttered roll, then grabbing at another while Tony Blair tries to get him to focus on Lebanon -- plays over and over on the TV, crushing our spirits and dampening all hope with every glassy-eyed mouthful. He seems intent on enjoying his food; Lebanon a tiny, annoying blip on an otherwise blank screen. I can't tell you how depressing that innocuous bit of footage is to watch. That one, innocent, momentary preoccupation with a roll has a devastating effect on us that is out of all proportion. We're looking for signs. And this, sadly, is all we have.
     Tony Bourdain apparently learned long before George W. Bush that food doesn't count for a whole helluva lot while people are senselessly and brutally dying while you have the power to stop or at least mitigate it. He would show his emerging liberal sensibilities again in the season 11 premiere of Parts Unknown when he went to the heart of Trump country, West Virginia, and listened to, if not embraced, the political and social positions of the locals. The food was a mere sidelight.
     He dimly sensed there was some common, middle ground between his positions and theirs, although he was damned if he knew where and what that was. But in the process, he responded graciously to their hospitality and generosity (although they probably didn't take him seriously because he was a world-famous celebrity chef). And, if not a common meeting place aside from good Appalachian food, Bourdain found the means to respect them, a talent yours truly and many, many of us have yet to find in our own lives.
     Bourdain's suicide in Paris was senseless and tragic. It brings back the terrible specter of Robin Williams' own suicide and, much more recently, that of handbag designer Kate Spade. And it makes one wonder, if these rich and famous people, with their access to top notch health care, can still succumb to suicidal thoughts, what chance do the rest of us have? Last Sunday, CNN had aired what Bourdain considered to be the cultural highlight of his life. When their director left the show to have emergency surgery, the show was left without a director. After years of reaching out to them, Bourdain had finally obtained the services of director Asia Argento and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, whom Bourdain idolized. He ended his career and life on a cultural high note, making his suicide all the more senseless by conspicuous relief. He also left behind an 11 year-old daughter.
     Yet, while shocking and needless, it's vastly more important to remember what Bourdain did in his 61 years on this planet rather than to dwell on what he did in his final moments. He made the world fit into a TV screen through the food of six score nations while never forgetting those nations were inhabited by real people with real problems. And his greatest contribution to Mankind was in not eating and cooking long-forgotten meals but in finding the courage to walk in the shoes of others, no matter how much they may have pinched.

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