RIP Anthony Bourdain
It’s been more than a year since I’ve written anything on this site. But the awful news about Anthony Bourdain seems like as good a time as any to start again.
I hate to think of his ending as sparking my beginning (again). As a friend put it, these countless in memoriam posts are self-serving. Though I think that is a lesson that we learn from his death, that we need to serve ourselves sometimes in order to readjust and make sense of the world and our place in it.
My fondness for Bourdain was as great as anyone else’s. I devoured his books, especially “A Cook’s Tour” which came out at about the same time that I was waiting tables at night and writing about travel during the day. He was remarkable in that he could be irreverent and sincere all in the same sentence. He was unflinchingly honest but kind. He put other people, places, food, and cultures at the center of his work but didn’t hesitate to insert himself into the action so that we could understand his perspective, preferences, biases, and humor. None of his words felt forced. The seemingly effortless way that Bourdain wrote about food and travel and the people he met along the way translated perfectly to the screen, too.
The man was unpretentious. He ate on the street, at holes-in-the-wall, and at McFoxy’s, Ukraine’s answer to McDonald’s. Though he had exacting standards when it came to food, he wasn’t afraid or embarrassed to eat as regular people would eat – not just in Saigon or Penang or Rome but even in the US Midwest. Indeed, he embraced it. While reading all the remembrances to Bourdain, I was moved to learn that he had come to the defense of 80-year old Olive Garden reviewer Marilyn Hagerty when the internet was making fun of her. Likewise, his visit to Xi’an Famous Foods in Flushing, Queens, helped an immigrant family grow their business into the “American Dream.”
It’s hard for many to fathom what must have gone through Anthony Bourdain’s head when he decided to take his own life. Here is a man who was at the pinnacle of his profession, who was loved and admired by people from all walks of life. I have seen tributes to him from Punjabis and Palestinians, from busboys and top chefs. He was living the dream and doing it with curiosity and empathy.
But I get it. Depression is difficult to understand and it comes from out of nowhere. I think it’s particularly difficult to deal with for those who are at the top of their game and see nowhere to go but down.
I’ve been struggling with mild depression – unease? disappointment? – for a while now. And it’s galling because I feel selfish about it. My life is, on the face of it, incredible. Every day that I wake up in Rome, I feel grateful. I am exactly where I want to be, geographically if not professionally. Now that there are some new adventures on the horizon, I’m reluctant to move. There’s the feeling that I am never going to be as happy as I am now. And that further depresses me because I’m not even as happy as I could be or as happy as others think I “should” be.
Anthony Bourdain’s death has been eye-opening not just because I realized how many others, from all over the globe, felt about the man and his work. It has been surprising to see how many others have written that they, too, are afflicted with depression. Sadness seems to be the default mood of everyone, not just something that a few are struggling with. Maybe it’s the world we live in now. Maybe it’s the (middle) age of most everyone around me. But I think Bourdain’s passing has driven home the lesson that he was always trying to teach. We are all more similar than we are different.