Movies, Pop Culture

Anthony Bourdain may be gone, but he taught me how to live

"Uncle Tony" knew that to love food was the love the people who made it and the places it came from

“You are lonely in the world.”

“I am–I am lonely in the world.”

It had been about a month since Anthony Bourdain died, and I was watching an episode of his show Parts Unknown on Netflix. Since Anthony died by suicide, I’ve been spending a lot of time curled up in front of my computer, watching him and reflecting on how his passage has made me feel. In the particular episode I just quoted, Anthony had gone to Paraguay not only to explore the local cuisine but also to try and trace the history of one of his ancestors who had gone to the country and essentially become lost to the family, with no clear record of how he lived or died.

At the time of filming, Anthony was about to turn 58. His own father had died at the age of 57, and his grandfather even younger. As far as he knew, he might be about to become the oldest male Bourdain ever, a milestone that had sent him in search of the history of the elusive Jean Bourdain. When he explained this to the private investigator he was working within Paraguay, the other man nodded knowingly and said the words that, in a post-Anthony world, seemed almost specifically calculated to break my heart. You are lonely in the world. Less than four years later, Anthony would join the list of Bourdain men gone too soon.

I’ve always loved to travel. My first trip abroad was a family vacation to London, but more trips with family and eventually alone followed quickly. And for me, as for many people, food is an essential part of the travel experience. Food, after all, is a language of love. Gathering for a meal is an act of community and connection, a prime time to talk about anything and everything.

And Anthony was not afraid to talk about anything. He was endlessly curious about every dish, every person, every place he encountered. He proved the old adage that interesting people are people who are interested, who always want to know more. He was unafraid to ask the people he met hard questions. In his own writing, he made his convictions clear. He could brash and crass. But he was also quick to laugh and slow to judge, traits that made him infinitely likable.

In the past, watching his shows was a way for me to simultaneously inspire and soothe my own wanderlust: I learned more about new places to dream of visiting and escaped into another part of the world when my own felt boring, depressing, or stressful. Now, it feels like a balm on my soul in another way: it’s a chance to remind myself of how I want to move in the world, regardless of where I am. With humor, and kindness, and incisive wit.

After he died, people around the world took to their keyboards to write about how Anthony had changed their lives. Some had personally met him, and their stories proved that he was as charismatic in real life as he appeared on camera. Others had only known him as I did, through his work, but wrote about how he inspired them to travel, or how his visit to their hometowns made them feel as though the place they came from mattered when most of the world overlooked it. In other words, the longest-lived male Bourdain made countless people feel less lonely in the world. At a time when that world often feels chaotic, overwhelming, arbitrary, and cruel, that is no small feat.

In another episode, Anthony visited Spain with one of his cameramen who was about to marry into an Andalusian family. He joked that the family was about to gain not only a son but “a very drunk, very hungry Uncle Tony.” When we talk about him now, that’s what my partner and I sometimes call him. Uncle Tony, the man who knew that to love food was to love the people who made it and the places it came from.

Recently I went to an Ethiopian restaurant with some friends. It’s a cuisine that I like, but don’t eat very often. As we scooped up spicy stewed lentils with spongy injera, my partner remarked that we should get a big world map, and on the weekends blindfold someone and send them to stick a pin in it. Wherever the pin landed, we should try to make or find food from that place, to get a little taste of the world while we save money to truly travel it.

It sounds like a perfect night: kicking back with a glass of wine and maybe turning on an episode of Parts Unknown, full of a new and delicious food, dreaming of adventure. I like to think that somewhere, Uncle Tony would be proud.