There is a certain kind of writer that is always in style. It is a cranky voice, angry at the ridiculousness of the world and raging mad at the rich and powerful. There is a hostility in their writing that is a like a vigilante smashing thorough injustices that we just take for granted. They often have a wildman quality in which we think they are crazy but we also wish we could borrow a little of that crazy to be used in controlled doses.
The problem with these kinds of writers is that there is a thin line between being hostile to those who deserve hostility and just being an asshole to everyone. When you poke past their writing and look at the writer, sometimes you find a wretched person with some nasty qualities. The writer is less of a vigilante and more of a psychopath who happened to attack the things you didn’t like.
Anthony Bourdain, by all accounts, had none of those problems. He was the rare angry writer who upon closer examination, was even more admirable. Anthony was an advocate for Latinos and their invisible role in the food industry. He was a champion of the MeToo movement. when other people tear into a North Dakota food critic for her review of an Olive Garden, Anthony gets her a book deal and points out how her earnest column was an honest examination of the food that was available.
I encountered Anthony through his television shows and they were such an education. He taught me that no matter where you go, something is frying some kind of meat. He taught me that real food is made by families and the best meal you can find is made by a grandmother. He taught that food is always about who has access to it and what is the scarcity. he taught me that if you are a tourist, don’t eat where the tourists eat but eat where the locals go. Most of all, he taught that people were much more alike than they were different.
My favorite Anthony memory was when he went to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The people there seemed so exotic and foreign but yet here they are, gathered at a fried chicken restaurant like you would find in any Southern state. I consider myself such a super-liberal guy but watching that moment and seeing how surprised I was, made me understand that I had a lot of unconscious prejudices that I wasn’t even aware of. That was the kind of stuff Anthony tackled everywhere.
And my Goddess, he could write. If you only know Anthony by his wonderful television shows, then you need to check out his books. I have a fondness for “The Nasty Bits”, a collection of articles and essays he wrote for various sites. Each one is a mini-story about life , food, cooking and everything in between. He wrote fiction with the same edge, crafting crime stories like he has been doing it all his life. it is truly unfair that he could write that good.
It is his stories of being a chef that really resonate with me. He wrote about how being a chef where everything goes right is cool, but the best memories are when things go to shit and you still managed to send a meal out. Time and time again, he made cooking out to be a madman’s passion where things are always going wrong but you make it work. Or maybe you don’t make it work and you just suck it up. Either way, you keep cooking and you do it again tomorrow.
As an anxious person, these stories always amazed me. When I first started cooking, the smallest mistake would be so discouraging. I used to break down in tears if a meal came out bad. It has taken a lot of work to get past that and I still have my episodes but man, reading Anthony, a genuine bad-ass in his own right, talking about fucking up cooking and carrying on, is fucking inspiration. Anthony, rightfully so, glamorized the mistakes and troubles of cooking as part of the real work of cooking. Any dumbass can make a steak after a few tries but a real cook fucks up a sauce and does his best to save it. Whether he saved it or not is not as important as the fact that he did his best to make it work.
Anthony Bourdain passed away this Friday and I am still in a state of grief. He committed suicide, which as a lifetime depression sufferer, really hits close to home. It is deeply unfair that such a wonderful man could have perished but that is how depression works. Depression sucks and it is a daily fight. Anthony lost that fight and I hope wherever he is now, he is happier.
As for me, I will try to remember what Anthony tried to teach us. I try to cook with love for whomever I am cooking for. I try to be mindful of the privilege I have to enjoy food most people will never get to have. I try to get out of my routine and try new things. And for Anthony’s sake, never have the fish special on a Monday because it is most likely the fish that turned bad over the weekend.