Anthony Bourdain took his Emmy Award–winning CNN series "Parts Unknown" to places where most cable programs never go. He was, ostensibly, telling tales about the preparation and eating of food. But Bourdain’s deepest fascination was with diverse cultures and the human experience reflected in them. That involvement was professional, and personal, and political.
He said he was a storyteller, not a journalist. Yet Bourdain was invariably a clearer commentator on geopolitics than the pundits who seem always to be conspiring against that deeper understanding of our shared humanity that might someday yield a safer and saner world.
The chef and author, who has died at age 61, wanted Americans to relish rather than fear the rest of the world. To that end, he traveled to conflict zones and by inviting viewers to go with him to the markets, the kitchens, and the tables of families whose kindness and decency was rarely reflected in media coverage of countries that are at odds with themselves, with their neighbors and with the United States. He did this in Kurdistan, Congo, Libya, Myanmar, and, famously, Iran. But it was his visit to Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem in 2013 that brought his most powerful assessment of the challenges and the possibilities of the work he did.
“There’s no hope, none, of ever talking about it without pissing somebody, if not everybody, off,” he announced, as he introduced that "Parts Unknown" episode. “By the end of this hour I will be seen by many as a terrorist sympathizer, a Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American imperialism, an orientalist, socialist, fascist, CIA agent, and worse.”
The hour of cable television that Bourdain presented was so honest and so respectful in its portrayal of Palestinians that the Muslim Public Affairs Council honored the host with its Voices of Courage and Conscience in Media award in 2014.
Bourdain’s response was a pointed critique of media that fail to reflect the whole story of diverse peoples and their exquisite cultures.
“I was enormously grateful for the response from Palestinians in particular for doing what seemed to me an ordinary thing, something we do all the time: show regular people doing everyday things, cooking and enjoying meals, playing with their children, talking about their lives, their hopes and dreams,” he explained. “It is a measure I guess of how twisted and shallow our depiction of a people is that these images come as a shock to so many. The world has visited many terrible things on the Palestinian people, none more shameful than robbing them of their basic humanity.”
“People are not statistics,” Bourdain concluded. ”That is all we attempted to show. A small, pathetically small step toward understanding.”
It was, perhaps, a small step. But it was certainly not a pathetic one.
It mattered, as did everything that Anthony Bourdain sought to teach us — in his books, in his programs for various cable networks, and in the documentary work that he had begun to embrace with projects such as the remarkable 2017 documentary, "WASTED: The Story of Food Waste," about the politics of preparing and consuming food.
Bourdain leapt boundaries of location and practice. And, of course, this did not always meet with approval.
“I hear it a lot, you know, ‘Stick with food, man. Stop talking about politics,’ ” the chef said in 2017.
His response to every attempt to narrow his focus, and his humanity, forms a vital portion of the legacy that Anthony Bourdain prepared for us.
“There’s nothing more political than food,” he told Food & Wine. “Who eats? Who doesn’t? Why do people cook what they cook? It is always the end or a part of a long story, often a painful one. Look, I travel around the world asking people, ‘What makes you happy, what do you eat and what would you like your kids to eat 10 years from now?’ and I get some really interesting and complicated answers in places like Beirut, Iran, Vietnam, and even Detroit.”
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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