His tragic death last week brought forth a host of obituaries and retrospectives. Some cherished his empathy. Others his inspiring nature. Still more appreciated how he used food as a portal into the lives and cultures of other people, particularly through his show Parts Unkown on CNN. The one thing they all seem to mention is that what made him so compelling, loved even, was the sense viewers had that he was real. Not only the sense that what you saw each week on television was an accurate representation of the man, but that the man was genuinely wearing who he was for the world to see. And that in being so authentic he helped inspire us to be more real as well.
For many cultures and sub-cultures in America, but especially masculine culture, authenticity is some sort of mashup of Holden Caulfield’s cynical rejection of “phonies” and their hypocritical world with the pragmatism and self-assurance of Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik. It is both a childish rejection of the world we live in and a hardened replacement of that world’s supposedly emasculating, controlling rules with a more straightforward (and brutal) list of operating procedures. This approach to authenticity is shallow and unconvincing. It is the authenticity of knaves and fools.
It is the authenticity of the misogynist. It is the posturing machismo of the insecure, using the threat of force and the belief that might makes right in place of reason, emotion, or ethics.
It is the authenticity of the troll. Desperate to trigger others for being sensitive to cover their own delicate sensibilities. They won’t let the phony rules of political correctness constrain them– their bigoted speech and immoral conduct will expose all the hypocrisy and control of the liberal elite.
It is the authenticity of the social media mob. No transgression from their personal beliefs is too small for them to show the world their righteous indignation.
It is the authenticity of the cynical pessimist. Nothing is cool. Everything is lame. They sit back in snarky judgment of people out trying, either resting on their laurels or avoiding putting themselves out there lest they too be ridiculed for the worst crime of all: trying.
Anthony Bourdain’s authenticity was the exact opposite of this. His was the authenticity of passion. The authenticity of nuance. The authenticity of being down and out. The authenticity of trying. And we loved him for it.
That is key to Bourdain’s realness to me. He understood our obsession with identity. He played with it throughout his career– from “bad boy chef” to recovering junkie to doting father. Those aspects of his identity, real and imagined, were just window’s into the real show. And that was of a man trying, with success and failure, to live a meaningful, fulfilling life in a world that seems to actively discourage such acts.
This really bled through in Parts Unknown. Bourdain’s fusion of food, travel, and society forced viewers to digest the history that shapes a community and culture– especially conflict– in order to understand the food. He invited you in for the beautiful vistas and “exotic” cuisine. He got you to stay because of the stories and people.
At his best, Anthony Bourdain reminded us of the simple dignity in human life. That places like Detroit and Cleveland or Tehran and Hanoi have as much to teach us as Paris and Los Angeles. That there was something quintessentially American about Skyline Chili and something fundamentally democratic about Waffle House (while telling us that forced fusion, like those in too many trendy spots are to be mocked like this: “I’m pretty sure that every time Guy Fieri puts barbecue pork inside a nori roll, an angel dies.”) He wasn’t afraid to remind you of the terrible consequences of foreign and domestic policy decisions had on real people and places– from American dehumanization of the Vietnamese in the 1960s and 70s to our callous indifference to the opioid epidemic raging across the United States today– while also showing you that people pursist regardless of what we say and do.
Of course, Bourdain ventured into the realm of snark and “phony” mocking frequently. As Dave Chappelle taught us, no one can keep it real 100. But even there he was often restrained by a general ethos that reserved such behavior for tearing down the powerful rather than piling on the weak and vulnerable. For every barb at a Guy Fieri or Paula Deen (“What was Jesus’s position on gout” still kills me), there was something wonderful like his support and patronage of Marilyn Hagerty, the 88-year-old reviewer of the Olive Garden for the Grand Forks Herald. While Bourdain may have helped usher in the era of insufferable foodies and hipster brunch he so despised, he has also been one of the highest-profile supporters of more common food. He understood that the story of what people eat, even at say an Applebees in Marion, Indiana, has a story to tell. And that story, of people trying to survive and find comfort in a dingy, mostly empty mall on the edge of a dying industrial town is almost always more interesting than that of some snooty taco joint in your trendy, gentrified neighboorhood. Even corporate food has a story to tell.
That is the essence of Bourdain’s authenticity. He loved people who tried. He loved Cleveland because her people have not given up on the city, even if the rest of the nation had. He loved Marilyn Hagerty because she tried to see the best in people and provide useful food reviews to people whose dining options and opportunities were limited. He loved local food because the people making it were sharing their gifts, their family recipes, or their cultural traditions. They gave life an honest go of it.
I loved Anthony Bourdain. He was my kind of real. He tried.