As news of Anthony Bourdain’s death by suicide broke around the world, it was met with a wave of profound sadness. Bourdain’s colleagues and fans recalled the enormous impact he had made, not only as a Chef, Writer, and Television Host but also more fundamentally as a person. Anthony Bourdain truly seemed to be the same person regardless of whether the cameras were rolling or not. His words revealed a deep sincerity and compassion, which shone brightly in sharp relief against his “rockstar” persona.
Anthony Bourdain used his voice to address racism in the restaurant industry and to champion immigrant restaurant workers, but he didn’t restrict his commentary to his own industry. I like to call such writing ‘word-broth’ – it’s soothing if you’re heartsick from the world’s injustices but scathing if you’re complicit in said injustices. Some of the best word-broth Bourdain gave us was about Henry Kissinger. Excerpted from his 2001 book A Cook’s Tour, Anthony Bourdain does not mince his words:
Anthony Bourdain, An Inspiration to Women Like Me
Sara is a dear friend from college who let me use this quote. It was only when I saw her post on Facebook that I realized I was joined by a chorus of brown women who were all reflecting on what Anthony Bourdain’s work had meant to them. I reached out to the podcasting extraordinaires at Basic Brown Nerds for their “suburban Latina” perspective on Bourdain and his legacy. (By which I mean I DM’ed them a bunch of questions which Grecia kindly answered via email.)
Over the years, his work was something I wanted to do. For a long time, that was the dream: to travel, to eat, to write. I have read his work, but I think his voice-overs on the shows have impacted my work more because they have his voice. He had a unique voice, and it made me want to find my own.
Grecia’s words are echoed in the Peabody Awards profile for Bourdain’s CNN show Parts Unknown. He didn’t always get everything right, but he openly acknowledged his mistakes and limitations with a self-deprecating sense of humor.
No Tired Old Jokes about Delhi-Belly
A few years ago, I happened to catch a rerun of an episode of No Reservations (his previous show) while at home in India. Coincidentally, this particular episode had Bourdain eating lunch with Mammootty, a famous actor, in Kerala, a state in South India.
So, there I was, in India after having spent years in the US, watching this white guy introduce Kerala and Mammootty with a distinctly American accent. I don’t recall who else was around me but I distinctly remember sucking in my breath and waiting for him to say something awful. And then slowly exhaling as Anthony Bourdain charmed Mammootty and his audience.
Holding my breath for Anthony Bourdain to say something offensive may seem a little over-the-top. But Kerala has been a major hub in international spice trade since 3000 BC, so Bourdain would hardly be the first white man to visit there and be less than diplomatic. Secondly, the culinary customs of South India are somewhat different from all the other states and are often fodder for mean jokes by North Indians.
For instance, I recall multiple instances of people asking me if all our meals were eaten on the floor off of a plantain leaf, if we all ate rice with our hands, and if we all made it a point to lick our hands at the end of every meal. The questions were usually accompanied by gestures imitating exaggerated hand-licking and cruel peals of laughter. (Side note: Padma Lakshmi is South Indian too. I wonder if she’s ever been on the receiving end of this particular “joke.”)
And yet, here’s Anthony Bourdain, sitting on the floor with his legs crossed as if he does it daily, eating with his fingers off of a plantain leaf. At that moment, he didn’t just raise the bar for white dudes backpacking in India. He raised the bar for other Indians.
Talking About Thinking About Suicide
Whenever a celebrity commits suicide, there’s an additional layer of shock. Perhaps we assume there must be at least a weak positive correlation between outward signs of success and inner feelings of contentment. However, although financial success affords us things or activities that make us happy, it does not guarantee happiness or even freedom from despair.
Maybe the best thing to come of the occasional high-profile celebrity death by suicide is the opportunity to more openly discuss the thought patterns that meander towards suicide and self-harm. The social taboo against speaking about suicidal ideation may lead us to feel more alone than we truly are, but it’s difficult to get a conversation started without raising red flags about one’s own intentions. The stigma is stronger in brown and black communities because we all know that our parents and grandparents had it much worse. But war, poverty and oppression foster social norms that are explicitly focused on survival. It’s no coincidence that these traditions almost always involve sharing a meal.
Nobody understood the power of a shared meal better than Bourdain. On that fateful evening in France, if only he’d gone to dinner with his friend as planned.
If you, or anyone you know, are contemplating hurting yourself, harming others, or having thoughts of suicide, please reach out for professional help.
Here are some resources below:
– Your local emergency line: 119 (Jamaica) | 911 (United States)
– National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
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