Bourdain was, perhaps strangely, an influence on me and my faith. Even though brash, often vulgar, quite secular, and fairly libertine at times, Bourdain—through his shows No Reservations and, most recently, Parts Unknown—showcased the beauty of the human species and what amazing creatures we are, crafting remarkable moments of sublimity and grace in the midst of our struggles.
And he did this through sharing and talking about food*.
Years ago, I read an article from a Jewish man who had converted to Christianity. I think it was in RELEVANT magazine. He spoke of the struggle he had, after his conversion, with non-kosher foods, specifically pork. He mentioned that pigs were spoken, in his Jewish household, in terms similar to that of cockroaches, that they were profoundly disgusting animals. He then went on to make a fascinating observation: it’s no far stretch to then bring a kind of judgment to the sorts of people who eat something like that, to hold to a view that such people are, themselves, disgusting.
In other words, seeing foods as “unclean” easily leads to seeing the people who eat them as “unclean.”
Bourdain, and his friend Andrew Zimmern**, worked to demystify that. To show the connections between people, food, and culture and—in many ways—to drive home the fact that the Risen Jesus was driving home to Saint Peter on that fateful afternoon: that there’s no such thing as “unclean” people.
It was Tony Bourdain’s adventurousness that inspired me to branch out of many of my comfort zones and to seek the exotic in my own backyard. If not for No Reservations, I’d probably never have gone to Thailand—nor had the experience, during our mission team’s preparation, of sitting in a past-closed Thai restaurant in West Palm Beach, singing hymns with the owner and his guitar, surprised to learn that he and his family were Catholic. I’d never have ventured with friends to the taco truck in an empty parking lot in Lantana and attempted some of the less conventional items on the menu. Nor would I have let a friend convince me to drive over an hour to Pahokee to eat some of the best fried catfish and collared greens I’ve ever eaten.
In Thailand I ate dung beetles, as well as a snake soup. I’ve since learned that crickets are quite delicious, stone crabs are absolute Florida perfection, that you can get a great burger if you know where to find a Colombian burger joint. I’ve also learned to talk with the chefs and restaurant patrons. To listen to their stories. In so doing you might, while eating at an out-of-the way Jamaican restaurant, have the opportunity to sample some produce fresh from Ghana and not available to the general public, or laugh with the Indian grocer over a mango lassi after he subjected you to his selection of Thai peppers. You might have a great conversation with the Syrian baker about Biblical produce, or have a meal comped by the Korean Christian after chatting about the Lord.
All of this because I watched Bourdain go and talk to people all over the world, sharing the food and customs that make them who they are.
If not for Tony, I might not also have worked at The Church of the Epiphany in Washington, DC and had the blessed moments over Sunday breakfast in the parish hall, talking with homeless and poor folks and hearing their struggles and day-to-day life.
One of those conversations, which I repeat often, lines up with what I saw Anthony Bourdain do on his shows. I was sitting with a man, long hair and long beard, eating our simple breakfast of grits, scrambled eggs, crisp bacon and overly processed sausage. He told me that “Epiphany has the best breakfast in town.”
“What makes it so great?” I asked.
“Because you all use real plates and real silverware. Everyone else uses plastic and styrofoam. These are little touches of home.” He then went on to say, “On the street, finding a place to sleep, or some money, or food, that’s not hard. But the hardest thing for us to find is someone to treat us like human beings.”
Whether it was the chef of a five-star French restaurant, Masai tribespeople, an Israeli restauranteur, Iggy Pop, an elderly Greek gentleman at a seaside cafe, Jamaicans displaced by ever-growing resorts, whoever, Anthony Bourdain—at least on TV—seemed to treat them equally like human beings. Like they, their food, their culture, their concerns and problems, that all of it actually mattered.
I don’t presume to know what led Tony Bourdain to take his own life. It seems to be so at odds with the kind of message he sent through his show, his understanding of the ways in which humans try to carve out a degree of happiness regardless of their circumstances. You’d think, at least I thought, that he was happy and had a handle on these things. At the risk of speculation, perhaps that is why he spent so much time having these conversations? Perhaps, in his own pursuit of happiness, he sought what he could from others?
Again, I don’t know.
What I do know is that this is tragic news and Anthony Bourdain will be missed. He is loved of God and loved by maybe millions of people who never met him. He made a difference.
He showed us who we are, and that often reflected what Jesus taught us: that we matter.
Tony Bourdain, thank you. Rest in peace and rise in glory.
If you are struggling with depression or contemplating suicide, know that there are people who love you and want you to get help. If you need help, click this link.
*One of my favorite moments from his show is when he ate at The Waffle House. As a lifelong devotee of that restaurant, it brought a sort of validation.
**Andrew Zimmern is the host of Bizarre Foods. He and Bourdain’s shows used to air back to back on the Food Network. He’s responsible for getting me to try prawns for the first time and also to a desperate desire to travel to Taiwan for pan-fried bees.