The Final Course: Thoughts on Bourdain, Food, and Travel

A void was left by the untimely death of Anthony Bourdain, a giant in seemingly whichever field he chose to work. I felt a connection to this man whom I never met. We shared physical stature, geography (I live not too far from where he got his culinary start in Provincetown, MA), and the love of both cooking and writing. Less superficially, we both became fathers to daughters later in life, fought battles with substance abuse, and as it is now painfully evident, struggled with mental health issues.

The outpouring of grief following his suicide suggested that I underestimated how many people also felt a connection. I shouldn’t have, as he was a supremely gifted raconteur. Bourdain began his professional career in the restaurant industry, one known for attracting outsiders, oddballs. And it was this fresh perspective that made his observations so captivating. Edgy, often sarcastic, always brilliant, he held up his own brand of binoculars to our eyes so that we could better see not just foreign lands, but parts of our own cities we often overlook. As a writer, his voice was strong and consistent throughout whatever he touched. As I read (and re-read) his breakthrough account of a working chef’s life, Kitchen Confidential, many years ago, I couldn’t help but hear his voice in my head as if it was an audio book.

It’s no wonder that food and drink were such potent vehicles for Bourdain’s storytelling. Wine can offer a window into a place – from the soil and geography (or terrior as it is known) to the climate. Food is the history of a region, amalgamations of the cultures who have came and went, served up on a plate. The other pillar of his works was travel, which is a bit of a different animal. Travel is about your story; it’s your experience and it can only be truly appreciated once you stop listening to tales of others and open yourself to the world. I feel that Mr. Bourdain’s legacy is best honored not by “likes” or retweets, but when you put down the phone, get off the couch, and go out there and live your own stories.

Tragedy

Tragedy

Noun  |  trag-e-dy  |  \’ tra-je-dé

 

I’m just a guy with a blog, I don’t go around referring to myself as a Blogger. And usually I’m more concerned with exploring the mechanics of creative writing than political commentary. But I keep coming back to these thoughts, and by the way I’m not claiming this is “news” or even  “fake news,” which I thought was The Onion but maybe I’m wrong. Furthermore, no massacre, real or fictitious, occurred during the writing of this piece. You may carry on if you wish.

In the Trump camp, it seems like there’s this ego-fueled attitude that they can do and say whatever and it won’t matter. Like the “alternative facts” spate, having public beef with a department store (??), Sean Spicer’s ranting to the press about the press, or Kellyanne Conway’s transmissions from another galaxy. Of course, it’s coming down from Trump himself. He has set the tone for the team, as evidenced by, oh, his whole life before deciding to be a politician, and even then, a sizeable portion of his political life as well. He said himself that he could stand in Times Sq. and shoot someone, an act most reasonable people would find objectionable, but his supporters wouldn’t care.

It must be liberating, in a way, for his cabal. I picture a big sign over the doorway out of the oval office, like the famous Notre Dame football team’s “Play like a champion today” sign, except this one says “Just do whatever!” and everyone touches it ritualistically on their way out into the real world. Hey, if their coach got away with mimicking a disabled man, questioned Sen. John McCain’s status as a war hero*, or grabbed them by the – ahem – heartstrings and tugged on them mightily, then they must feel freed up to just be themselves! Yay.

But maybe, just maybe, that same lack of concern for recourse which once served him well in the public sector is now a serious threat to the nature of a democracy. Accountability is needed for a democracy to function. Not to say that the individuals elected to govern will take accountability, or will always comport themselves in a way beholding to their peeps. But on a high level, the structure of a democracy is such that the people choose their representatives, who then have term limits before an open, transparent (hopefully), election. Being able to vote people in and out of office is the recourse of the people, and the reason why accountability is huge. *squints and points with index fingertip and thumb touching* It’s gonna be YOOGE.  When a democracy loses this leg of the table, it’s not far off from collapsing into a regime.

From a marketing point of view, this is all on-message for the Trump brand. Do some word association with “Trump” and you’ll probably get ego alongside wealth and possibly success, as the core brand values. So the display of arrogance throughout the administration is not likely to go away anytime soon. Though, you could argue that there is a fundamental shift in how the Trump brand is perceived. According to Allen Adamson, head of marketing firm Brand Simple, what the surname stands for now includes “outspoken, politically incorrect views that target a rural, white, male, audience.” I quoted Mr. Adamson because I couldn’t have said it better.

One gets the sense that this play is destined to be a tragic one, in the classical sense, not just the colloquial way it’s used to mean “real bad.” But as in the story of a person of prominence who falls to disaster because of the very characteristic which made them successful to begin with. Pride becomes hubris eventually, and it’s just a matter of time before it reaches a critical mass. The only question is how many people will he bring down with him?

 

*To date, the only record of Donald Trump serving was during the Cola Wars.

Stick With It

If it’s something you love, keep it near to your heart. I think that’s what happens as we get older: we let things slip away because it’s easier to do so in the moment, and then make excuses about not having enough time or whatnot. It’s a tough lesson to learn. And sometimes what we’re told to hold onto or what we’re told to get rid of, it might not even be right for you. It might be right for someone else, but I believe that at a certain point we learn what’s best for ourselves. Whether we can block out the noise of others’ opinions is another story though.

Eulogy

I didn’t really know him. I knew things about him…maybe that’s as close as we can get to knowing another soul. We talk of “walking in somebody’s shoes” as if it was a possibility, but we cannot try on the experiences, fears, and dreams of anybody else. We’re barely acquainted with our own, at various points in our lives. The waters of another life must remain distant and impenetrable, much like a painting of a seascape hanging on the wall, and are not something we can ever dive into.

But back to the man: He was with my aunt for many years – as long as I can remember. They never married, she had once before I think but this was something my family never spoke of. He was from Maine. I remember that he was from Maine because he told me a story one Christmas of buying a truckload of Christmas trees and driving them down to sell in western Massachusetts, which is where my aunt was living. He may have told this story a few times, on those awkward holidays when he and my aunt accompanied my grandparents on their annual visit to our home in the eastern part of the state. More than likely, this story was repeated because it was apropos and also because there wasn’t much common ground between him and my brother and I. He was seemingly from rugged, rustic, working class stock and we were adolescents in an upper-middleclass suburb, the sons of writers. He was often dressed in flannel, and always carried a jackknife. I kept mine in a drawer since my lifestyle dictated that I rarely, if ever, needed it.

There are other things I can recall about him. He was an alcoholic, I don’t know how severe or how it impacted his life or those in close proximity to him, claimed to have seen a mountain lion once, hated the lounge singer Robert Goulet. Something about his face reminded me of Johnny Cash. In typical old New England fashion he wasn’t very talkative, but again, maybe he was open around people he felt more comfortable with.

He seemed to have a connection with the natural world, grounded and terrestrial, and not one for flights of imagination. But maybe I’m wrong. After all, I hardly knew ye. You have returned to the earth from which you came. May you rest in peace, Dave.

August 27, 2015