Anthony Bourdain knew food was political

June 21, 2018
Chef and author Anthony Bourdain passed away on June 8.

US chef and author Anthony Bourdain, who tragically passed away on June 8, demanded that we consider the humanity of so many who were wrongly portrayed by the rest of the media.

Bourdain took his Emmy Award–winning CNN series Parts Unknown to places where most media do not 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 they reflect. That involvement was professional, personal and political.

He said he was a storyteller, not a journalist. Yet Bourdain was a clearer commentator on geopolitics than the pundits who always seem to be conspiring against that deeper understanding of our shared humanity.

The chef and author, who died at age 61, wanted Americans to relish rather than fear the rest of the world. He travelled to conflict zones and invited viewers to go with him to the markets, kitchens and tables of families whose kindness and decency was rarely reflected in media coverage of their countries.

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  episode. “By the end of this hour I will be seen by many as a terrorist sympathiser, 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 respectful in its portrayal of Palestinians that the Muslim Public Affairs Council honoured 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.

“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 towards understanding.”

It was, perhaps, a small step, but certainly not a pathetic one.

It mattered, as did everything Bourdain sought to teach us — in his books, TV programs, and documentary work, 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. 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 ten years from now?’ and I get some really interesting and complicated answers in places like Beirut, Iran, Vietnam, and even Detroit.”

[Reprinted from The Nation.]

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