You Are What You Eat

A eulogy for Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain in Naxos, Greece toasting “Γεια μας!” which means, “To your health.”

From psychedelic microdosing to turmeric coffees to CBD gumdrops to silent meditation retreats to infrared saunas, it seems as though we are not just enjoying but suffering from a preponderance of “wellness.” “We’re in a ‘wellness epidemic,’” A friend of mine named Kathryn noted, at a book party where guests were expected to sip custom drinks with names like “Intellectual Humility,” a thick liquid containing “long stalk cistance,” described as a “Mongolian extract for libido boost.”

We could use the boost. When GoFundMe links function as our national healthcare system, imbibing the occasional kombucha seems like a viable and reasonable alternative to the ills of consolidated, institutionalized medicine. Despite all of the matcha, the suicide rate is up.

This wellness epidemic probably is a reaction to the uncertainty of our times, a cognitive dissonance cocktail we down every morning just to read the news. The amoral business models of Facebook and Google produce a glut of low-substance and false information, media with no nutritional value. Heartless algorithms worsen the situation, incentivized to give us a diet consisting of, to quote a former Facebook engineer, “endless sugar and fat.”

Contemporary consumers of information are trapped in a funhouse that’s not very fun. Our postmodern equation is looping instead of spiraling, our snake is now eating its excreted tail. Recursion, but dark. You could even call this epoch “trans-modern”; at its best exemplified by the bucolic Yankees embroidery at Gucci, elevated by Alessandro Michele and modeled by Hari Nef, and at its worst an eerily oracular Trump tweet or the steady, terrifying march of Chinese artificial intelligence and surveillance.

Words no longer have to mean things, and this is a perfect recipe for authoritarianism. All over the globe, bad men (and some women) have taken advantage of the blurring of facts and fiction. They’ve got a front row seat to watch the world burn: Real reality TV.

We are not well. Or even “well.” The Internet is breaking humans.

By many metrics, we’re better off than we’ve ever been; we’re wiping out poverty, women are making economic gains, child mortality is low, life expectancy is high, and so are literacy and sanitation. But these improvements do little to shake the feeling that we’ve gone off the rails: Brexit, #metoo, Russian hacks, children separated from their parents at borders, children being shot in schools, and the spectacle of it all on social media. Some people are enjoying more longevity and better quality-of-life, but we can’t shake the feeling that we’re stuck in a collective bad dream, a nightmare where the only bright spot is that we’re in it together.

Waking up to this American president, this toxic news environment and this very strange time is particularly hard on the psyche, particularly for those of us who suffer from anxiety and depression. A cast of volatile caricatures, narcissistic totems who don’t read books, have at their fingertips the power to kill us all instantly. And they are arguing over whose button is bigger. On Twitter.

This is me buying a hotdog at the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hotdog stand in Reykjavik. There’s no picture of me eating it because I was too hungry to take one.

Could being in it together be enough to stave off the desire to quit this life? There are worlds in other people. There are strings that connect us that we can’t fathom or see. “If humanity ever captures the energies of love, it will be the second time in history that it will have discovered fire,” Reverend Michael Curry declared at the Royal Wedding, itself the union of a colonial figurehead to a descendent of slaves. Love did that.

Anthony Bourdain spent much of his life traversing these worlds, more than most of us ever can or will. He bridged the distance between us with the most immediate form of art: food.

I’ve never felt cooler than when I felt like him, an explorer of the great, uncharted landmass of my life and the eater of a humble Icelandic hot dog or a scorpion deep-fried in Chiang Mai, no turmeric lattes in sight.

Bourdain insisted that we get both physical and spiritual sustenance (and substance) from our consumption, whether it was cheap noodles or prose. He implored us to inhabit the moment rather than escape it, to dig into a meal, and the truth, no matter how messy or unfamiliar. Watching his show and reading his writing, I felt like Rainer Maria Rilke observing Rodin. Bourdain’s art said: “You must change your life.” And: “You are what you eat, so eat beyond what you are.”