On Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain. He was — is — my idol, my hero, my guiding light in the darkness in which I so often find myself. I first discovered his book “Kitchen Confidential”, back in middle school. Wide-eyed, with my chubby fingers racing through the pages every spare moment I could find, I longed to belong to the world he described. I wanted to be a part of a motley crew of culinary pirates, cursing and sweating over a hot stove, slinging food and fucking waitresses in the dry-goods area. (Sorry, mom).
It sparked a love of cooking. It sparked a love of getting my hands dirty. I had always loved food — my love handles announced that quite loudly to the world. But I never had much of an interest in actually cooking it. That always seemed like a step too far. How could I, plebian as I am, possibly coax a little magic out of raw ingredients. And then, Tony spoke to me through the pages of that “adventure in the culinary underbelly.” If he, a snot-nosed kid from Jersey, could manage it, I sure as shit could.
So I did. I started reading cookbooks, watching documentaries about food and culture, and experimenting in my tiny kitchen. I also starting expanding my palate. Which meant I had to push my culinary horizons and start trying things like shrimp paste, beef tendon, fish cakes, berbere, and all sorts of new things not typically found in your average American kitchen. I was hooked. How had I missed out on this luxurious gallery of colors, smells, and tastes? Well, no more. Gochujang now makes itself at home in my fridge. Vietnamese chili paste is a regular visitor in my pesto sauce. I also recently tried my hand at laksa. It was extremely labor-intensive, but oh-so-worth it.
Laksa was one of Bourdain’s ultimate dishes. He described Asia and its food as a life-changing experience. He was never able to look at food, or life, the same way again. I feel that same way about my life now that I have read his books, watched his shows, and cooked his recipes. I will never be the same.
The more I discovered about this man, the more I saw similarities between his character and mine. I saw a fellow sufferer. In particular I identified with his struggles with depression and addiction. He described it once as a “dark genie.” Which is such a perfect description. Like a genie, addiction tells you that whatever you wish is just one rub of the lamp, on drink, one prick of a needle, away. But its intentions are dark and nefarious. It wants to drag you under and suffocate you under its sucking weight of impossible standards and imaginary worries. Depression, too, is that dark genie because it lies to you. Tells you that you are worthless, that your efforts to live, to thrive, are futile. That you don’t matter. I struggle daily with the dark genie. I see so much of myself in Bourdain.
Like him, I was born into a loving family and given many advantages and opportunities. I also was (and am) a constant reader, ever curious, easily bored when there is no stimulus, no problem to solve. Easily given to despair because I cannot live in blissful ignorance. I see and understand too much and sometimes it is so overwhelming I feel like I may burst out of my skin like an overstuffed sausage. And definitely give to over-romanticizing. I enjoy the feelings of grand eras now past; oriental rugs, mahogany paneling, overly ornate silver. Extravagance. I makes me feel…good. Like somehow all is right with the world when I have hot tea in a bone china cup, a candelabra aflame with slim tapers, and a leatherbound volume in my hands. This picture is complete when I have my velvet throw with a purring cat on my lap while I perch on my leather armchair. Then I am replete. It is a fantasy I have had since I was a little girl — to be mistress of my own estate. When I have those small things, like a china cup and candles, I can pretend for a little bit longer, though I am now 28 years old.
Most of my life now are situations and things borne of necessity. My ‘china’ is either plastic dinnerware or the unbreakable plates one finds in Bed Bath & Beyond. My candles are flameless, as my home is run by two cats and a two-year-old. But I still hold onto those romantic notions because if we don’t, then what will take their place? Surely nothing good.
But I digress. I am sure that I am also guilty of over-romanticizing Bourdain as well. He was, after all, only a man. He certainly had vices — many, in fact, and I’m sure he gave his loved ones many different kinds of hell in the depths of his addiction. And yet he really, by all accounts, changed the world as we know it. He had an influence unlike any other. An uncanny ability to cut right through the bullshit and lay bare the true nature of things. And I think that’s part of what made him so magical. Because even when he exposed the bare bones of some of the deepest issues that plague humanity to this day, he was able to bring a little magic, a little hope. Because he seemed to have an unfailing faith that when humans gathered to break bread, we were able to put aside our differences and raise a glass to toast each other.
I think there is no greater evidence of his abilities to bring some magic into the ordinary and into the various messes that we humans get ourselves into than his interview with President Obama in Hanoi, Vietnam. I mean, here we have a former drug addict, thief, line cook, and general layabout, sitting with the most powerful man in the world and instructing him on the finer points of noodle-slurping. Over steaming bowls of mysterious pork broth and rice noodles, he questioned President Obama about the future of the world, about the future of America. The irony, no doubt, evident given their surroundings. And yet, they talked about hope. They talked about Vietnam veterans returning to where they lay waste to villages, where Americans were tortured in prisoner of war camps, to where so many men, women, and children lost their lives — and yet they returned to the United States filled with hope and forgiveness. Tony and the president were able to distill down a lifetime’s worth of pain and suffering into the simple message that when we come together and forgive each other for our wrongs, and are able to put each other’s talents to their best uses, we can make amazing progress. I think, given these current political climes, this is a message we all can cling to.
That episode still brings me to tears. I had hoped that one day I could meet Tony. Maybe I’d win one of those sweepstakes and end up being able to go with him on one of his many trips. Or maybe I’d get lucky and run into him at a dive bar somewhere in Manhattan. But outside of my own selfish desires, Tony would still be around to make the world a better place. He’d be around to encourage us to eat more mindfully (in every sense of the word), to learn how to feed ourselves, and how to live and move and eat and travel in this crazy world. And how to do things with a little respect. Because ultimately, I think that is why Tony was so beloved all around the world — he always showed respect. Respect to the people who fed him, to the animals who died for his dinner, and to the earth that nourishes us all. I that’s a legacy we can all continue.
So anyway, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I miss him. I feel like even though I never met him, he was an irreplaceable part of my life. And since he’s died, I’ve had the craziest rollercoaster of emotions. I’ve hit my bottom. And I’ve pinged back up again. Attempting suicide is terrifying. But it’s also a wakeup call like none other. It made me realize that life is so very short. It needs to be filled with things that bring me joy. I cannot help that sometimes bad things happen. I can’t control what other people do and I also can’t help it that I’m not perfect. I will make mistakes. So I just need to learn not to absorb the bad.
I miss him. I miss reading about his travels and his snarky commentary that inevitably gave way to immense gratitude. He was always thankful and so incredulous that he had the chance to travel the world and have so many adventures. He had a talent and managed to turn it into a lifestyle. I don’t have any aspirations to appear on television, but I definitely want to write for a living. Besides cooking, it’s what I do best, I think. And I love it. It gives me so much joy. This is how I create.
So I’ve started to do it again.