There are some weeks that don’t fit. Times when it seems like bad is definitely winning… it’s the end of The Empire Strikes back… Han is frozen in carbonite, Luke is having an existential crisis, and Leia is left to pick up the pieces.
This week is a little like that. Our country is slowly devolving into a xenophobic, misogynistic miasma; rage feels like it is the normative state of existence for a vast majority of people; and suicide inducing depression has taken one of the culinary world’s greatest thinkers and champions for right in the world.
There’s a heavy sadness that weighs like an August New Orleans evening… it’s fetid and sweaty, but somewhere there is the sweet smell of magnolia. Even that is cloying though, as if the sweetness might choke you in your sleep. And you can’t move very fast or the humidity will smother you, and you’ll drop dead. The only option is to wait it out.
Perhaps that is the hardest part of witnessing history, there is no control over the choices of others. Individually we can’t change the decisions of an orange madman given inordinate power. And we can’t stop people we love from removing themselves from our lives, sometimes in the most permanent way possible. It’s hard not to give into the anger, or just turn away from it all. Both options aren’t options though.
I’m angry at Anthony Bourdain. I’m pissed to the point of tears. How dare he take himself away from us like that? He had so much more to interpret for us, so many more battles to help us win. He was one of the good guys… we needed him. I want to know why. I want to understand the pain in those final moments when that seemed like the only logical choice. I want to have been there to stop it. I want him to understand how much he meant to me and everyone else. I want him to not have hurt so much.
But that’s impossible, because it was the pain that made him so good. He could touch that raw part of himself, so he could see it in other people. That’s the paradox of the truly talented… they feel so much that it hurts – emotionally, physically. The reason they are so good is in part because they hurt so bad.
When I was in New Orleans I remember thinking this same thing about the art of that city (culinary, musical, whatever form it took). So much of that came from a place of violence, inequity, struggle, pain. You want to eliminate those things, but when you do you remove the impetus of that unique space of creation. The suffering is a key ingredient to the creative process. Without the depth of knowledge pain brings you cannot access some forms of beauty and truth.
I have also learned that witnessing the pain and suffering is a duty that we cannot deny ourselves or our communities. When I started my PhD work I remember having lots of conversations with my mentors about the food industry. Most of them had a bucolic image of kitchens and food production, professional and private. I spent more time than I needed to trying to explain that food production is not particularly glorious, and in many cases it’s downright immoral and violent. Food workers at all levels of the food cycle, from agricultural production through restaurants, and on to disposal of waste are often the worst treated and least respected members of society. It is only within the last 15 years that we in the United States have elevated (most white male) chefs into positions of stature. If you stop and look, really look at the little nooks and crannies of how we produce food you will find many ugly things. There is great glory in sharing meals. Many battles can be won at the dinner table, with nothing more than a dull butter knife, but there is infinitely more to it than what ends up on your plate – and that is often founded in pain and suffering.
It is a duty to witness those inequities and call them out into the world. Bourdain did that. I have no idea if any of what he saw drove him to his final act, but I know he understood it for what it was. That is another thing he has taken from us, his ability to see and expose some of the ugliness of the food system… the very things that support those gorgeous photos we all love on Instagram.
And so, we are left to witness now… we cannot turn away. We can’t turn away from the horrors our government is inflicting on the world – the mothers torn from their children for aspiring to a better life… the disruption and destruction of our cherished and hard-won relationships with our allies, none of it. We cannot stop looking at things that hurt because they are part of what makes the beauty of the world… suffering is an ingredient in the recipe of art and of life really. But so is hope. Hope that tomorrow will be better, or at least different. Hope that pain will go away, or at least be managed.
I cannot forgive you Anthony Bourdain for removing yourself from us, but I will always love you, and I take solace in knowing you no longer must carry that pain around. And we will not stop the fight… we will witness, we will report, we will pick up where you left off. Peace brother.