I knew of Anthony Bourdain but hadn’t watched any of his shows until I learned of his passing. In viewing parts of several episodes, I discovered that we had been kindred spirits: lovers of food, travel, exploring the unknown and, also, appreciators of simple pleasures. In one tribute to his life, there is a video clip of him sitting at a sidewalk eatery in Vietnam where he says: “All of the things I need for happiness. Little plastic stool, check. Tiny little plastic table, check. Something delicious in a bowl, check.”
I could relate. I have traveled a lot by myself. Even if by choice, it can be lonely, exhausting and emotionally difficult, especially if one is surrounded by couples and families. In those moments, a simple, unpretentious and delicious meal can erase the hardships of the day, restore wellbeing and provide a sense of belonging to the larger human family. Yet, even when I have not been alone, or I have traveled to be with others, the humble eatery has often exerted an inexplicable pull.
One of the best meals I ever had came from a shack on the coast of Ecuador. An older woman grilled shrimp and plantains on the beach. My traveling companion, a Brit around my age, wasn’t interested. I couldn’t resist ordering a portion even though it meant eating by myself. Savoring simple yet succulent food with the sea breeze on my skin had felt sublime, as if heaven and earth had temporarily merged.
When I lived in Mexico City many years ago, long before the smartphone era, I briefly dated a man from India. One day we rented a car for the two hour drive to Puebla. On the way we passed a roadside restaurant where it looked as if they were cooking rabbits or chickens over a spit. I made a mental note. On the return trip, I insisted on pulling over. What I recall now is not the food but rather the sense of urgency I felt around stopping, seeing, smelling and tasting. It’s as if a huge part of my identity had been staked on culinary curiosity, and to miss that opportunity would have felt like a kind of death.
Sometime after that, while driving from the Oakland airport to visit my older brother and his family, who keep kosher, I pulled over to get some tacos from a truck parked next to the freeway. I remember feeling like an interloper as the only non-Hispanic, non blue-collar person in line, as if the food had not been intended for the likes of me. I wasn’t trying to make a statement or be cool. I just wanted some mouthwatering and satisfying nourishment to fortify me because kosher food, which I associated with rules and restrictions, rarely hit the sweet spot.
On a trip to Thailand with the outfit “Intrepid Travel”, I discovered that several others in my group were not at all intrepid when it came to food. They preferred to find British-style eats, especially for breakfast, an attitude I found baffling. That made me and my more adventurous palate the outlier. I relished buying pad Thai and other wok-tossed delights from street vendors, who cooked to order as I and other customers watched. Had I stayed an extra few weeks, I doubt I would have run out of things to try or gotten bored in the process. The freshness invigorated, the flavors intoxicated. At the time, I thought I could easily and happily eat Thai food for the rest of my life.
During an exploratory trip to Denver many years ago, I didn’t check out the trendy restaurants but sought out several hole in the wall Mexican joints, one of which served tacos de barbacoa, slow cooked meat (lamb, in this case), which I had come to love and rely on during my Mexico sojourn. It’s the kind of meal that not only fills the belly but also acts as spiritual glue to keep a fragile soul together.
Anthony Bourdain had a job and a life that made many salivate: he could go anywhere, eat anything and do what he wanted. He was living his version of the dream, what we in the West are taught to pursue. In light of his suicide, his comment from that sidewalk in Vietnam seems more sobering than salutary. I wonder if the low plastic stool, the table and the bowl had, in their simplicity, helped his soul coalesce long enough to live another day, another week, another year. Perhaps the prospect of the next delicious or unusual food propelled him forward at times and kept him in the game long enough to leave an important legacy. He taught people not to underestimate the power of sharing a meal, any meal, with others. Yet, we shouldn’t overestimate that power, either. His death is a painful reminder that there are some unrelenting hungers of the soul and the psyche that no food (or fame) can satisfy.
May his memory be a blessing.