Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 9, 2018

Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018): an appreciation

Filed under: food,obituary — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

My wife and I had a special affinity with Anthony Bourdain. He lived just 4 blocks from our building on 91st and 3rd and we used to walk past him on the sidewalk on occasion. As all smart Manhattanites are accustomed to, we never would have dreamed of asking for an autograph, nor even telling him as we were passing by how much we loved his show. Too gauche. Too bridge and tunnel. This article is my way of doing that posthumously.

We watched “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel and then kept up with him when he moved to CNN. Two shows resonated with us deeply. The first was his visit to Istanbul, my wife’s birthplace, and the other was to Cleveland, where he hung out with my friend Harvey Pekar. These two shows epitomized his sensibility. Istanbul is a city with both the kinds of street fare he always sought out as well as one of the world’s great but under-appreciated cuisines. He also had a great time hanging out with Harvey even though Harvey put out a comic strip claiming that he never heard of Bourdain beforehand. Cleveland, like a lot of down-and-out places in the USA he visited (West Virginia, Provincetown), had some really offbeat dining spots that he and Harvey revealed to viewers. That was the basic charm of the show. It was like visiting a city that you’d never get to in your life, identifying with Bourdain’s bemused but affectionate reactions to its peculiarities.

Before sitting down to write this article, I was thinking about ways that you could put him into context. Although I never read “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly”, the book that helped him catapult into a TV career, it sounded like it was inspired by George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London”, a book I had read and loved. As I suspected, I found out in the course of doing some research that this was exactly the case. The book grew out of a long essay in the April, 1999 New Yorker titled “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” that made the connection:

A good deal has changed since Orwell’s memoir of the months he spent as a dishwasher in “Down and Out in Paris and London.” Gas ranges and exhaust fans have gone a long way toward increasing the life span of the working culinarian. Nowadays, most aspiring cooks come into the business because they want to: they have chosen this life, studied for it. Today’s top chefs are like star athletes. They bounce from kitchen to kitchen—free agents in search of more money, more acclaim.

In a NY Times “By the Book” interview last year, he was asked what books he was currently reading. One of them was Thomas Ricks’s “Churchill and Orwell.” When asked which three people he would invite to a dinner party, living or dead, he replied William S. Burroughs, Joan Didion and George Orwell. Not that he was someone who was uncritical about a primary influence. When asked “What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?”, he replied (probably referencing Ricks’s book): “Orwell’s fastidiousness about smell is of interest. And to read of his anti-Semitism was dismaying.”

It should be obvious from the above that Bourdain was not the typical chef. I doubt that Mario Batali has read a single book in the last 20 years except something related to his job—or maybe some porn novel that made rape sound worthwile.

His father was part of Columbia Records classical division and his mother was a copy editor at the NY Times. Growing up in such a household would likely expose you to a lot of cultural and intellectual stimuli. He was accepted into Vassar College in 1973 but dropped out after two years. From there he went to the Culinary Institute of America (mischievously referred to as the CIA), where he learned to be a chef.

It occurs to me that a lot of Orwell rubbed off on Bourdain. Yesterday I noticed that Louis Allday, a member of Tim Hayward’s discredited Assadist propaganda machine in England, badmouthed Bourdain for his trip to Libya, where he spent all his time with people who hated and even fought against the dictator. Watch the show and judge for yourself.

This clip will give you an idea of what’s in store:

In fact, in clear contradistinction to Allday, support for Palestinians and for Syrian rebels go hand in hand together. It was likely that, given his admiration for Orwell, Bourdain found occasion to read “Homage to Catalonia”, a book that defended socialism against both Franco and the Stalinists. Essentially, this is the same fight we are involved with today, with people like Allday lying through their teeth to defend Syria’s Franco. At least you could give the CP credit for opposing Franco in 1938. That “the left” can end up supporting people like Assad and Putin today cries out for someone with Orwell’s integrity. Fortunately, there are signs that the Assadist left’s credibility is rapidly sinking today.

Orwell was not the only influence on Bourdain. His love of street food and “local cuisine”, as opposed to fancy French restaurants in places other than France, suggested that he had also read Calvin Trillin. I have no proof of that but would recommend a June 11, 1984 article by Trillin in the New Yorker titled “A Report for Mr. Bryant” (behind a paywall unfortunately) that hails a funky, Black-owned barbecue restaurant in Kansas City as “the best restaurant in the world”. When I was in Kansas City in my final days in the SWP, I was taking lathe and milling machine classes at night in a vocational high school. When we graduated, the teachers took us to Bryant’s and treated us to barbecue. You know something, Trillin was right.

These were just the kinds of places that Bourdain sought out. He was not a snob and even liked to eat at The Shake Shack, a kind of upscale McDonald’s one block from his building that opened in 2011. At the time, he said “I dropped to my knees and wept with gratitude.” His favorite order, according to Eater? “I’m having a double cheeseburger naked, please. No lettuce. No tomato. No nothing. Just cheese and two burgers on a potato bun. I’ll have two of those and I’m happy. I’m singing America, fuck yeah!”

If you wanted to get a vicarious taste of exotic cuisine, you could have watched Bourdain’s TV shows, many of which can be seen on DailyMotion as those above. (Just Google “Anthony Bourdain” and “DailyMotion”). Or, if you are fortunate enough to live in New York, you can enjoy them first-hand since the city, in clear defiance of the sort of nativism that exists elsewhere, is a magnet to immigrants.

Yesterday, I had lunch with an old cyberpal that I met in person for the first time. I told him that we were going to Oda’s, a Georgian restaurant on Avenue B, to honor Anthony Bourdain. I am no food critic but I can tell you that the food is fantastic there. Over lunch, the subject of Bourdain’s show on Cuba came up. I told him that this was the only episode that put me off somewhat since the clear implication was that Cuba should abandon what he called “Communism”.

I doubt that Cuba would fare very well in a system that has worked so poorly in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean Islands but I told my friend that someone so engaged with small businesses like Bourdain probably only meant that he was for privately owned restaurants, B&B’s, farms, and other small-scale enterprises. It would probably reflect current thinking in the Cuban government as well.

I mentioned to him that when I joined the SWP in 1967, I got a defense of the Cuban Revolution that was prevalent in our ranks. The comrade who recruited me said that after Castro took power, they nationalized everything, down to the last nail in the last bodega. At the time, this sounded very radical. Today, I understand that a revolution should only target the “heights of industry” as Lenin actually pointed out in 1917.

This is something I understand a lot better today, especially when it comes to Georgia. In March, I reviewed a film titled “Our Blood is Wine” that documented the revival of kvevri wine in Georgia that we had with our lunch. The film can be rented for $3.99 on Youtube:

The tie-in to Bourdain and the need to preserve local culture against bureaucratic interference should be obvious from my review:

Quinn [the director] functions pretty much the same way that Anthony Bourdain does in his visits to various parts of the world to simultaneously try the local cuisine and give his take on socio-political matters. The film consists of him visiting various vineyards that all employ the same technique that existed 8,000 years ago, namely the use of kvevris (spelled qvevris in the film). A kvevri is a clay vessel usually over six feet tall that is buried in the ground in order to allow fermentation to take place. After Georgia became part of the USSR in 1917, Stalin decided that more revenue could be generated by industrializing the winemaking process using stainless steel vessels even if it turned out an inferior product and undermined Georgia’s national identity. As Quinn visits various practitioners of an ancient art undergoing a renaissance, he often ends up like Bourdain sitting around a dinner table sampling wines and the Georgian cuisine with men and women breaking into the polyphonic style that distinguishes the country’s music. It is an altogether joyous pastime that makes me want to spend time there the next time I am in Turkey, the country immediately to its south.

 

2 Comments »

  1. Ha ha ha! Once I got to the part where you started writing about Syria, I thought to myself: Where is the part where he talks about having been in the SWP? And true to form, there it was!

    Comment by Max Power — June 10, 2018 @ 10:59 am

  2. Max, why would you haunt this blog since you obviously hate me? I wouldn’t obsessively hang out at Stalin’s Mustache to ventilate in the comments section. Have you considered psychotherapy? Contact me privately at lnp3@panix.com for a referral. A good friend of mine has done wonders with those plagued by psycho-neurotic tendencies.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 10, 2018 @ 12:21 pm


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