Film & TV

Off the Shelf: What Bourdain Leaves

Anthony Bourdain at the 2015 Creative Arts Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, Calif. (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)
He was a better writer and television producer than he ever was a cook.

Editor’s Note: Every week, Michael Brendan Dougherty writes an “Off the Shelf” column sharing casual observations on the books he’s reading and the passing scene.

Last Friday I was in a Dunkin’ Donuts in New Haven, and I almost shouted “F*** you, Tony” to the television. It was a segment on the suicide of Anthony Bourdain. I had a debate on Facebook about whether it was useful to show anger at public suicides. I have no idea. I know that I’m starting to hate the rush to institute new taboos on what one says, and what one believes, and what one thinks about suicide. As if we all need to be extensively informed by the most authoritative longitudinal social studies before we react to it. Is the idea that depression can be described by chemical and hormonal abnormalities supposed to comfort us? I don’t think it does. The rush to cite them feels like a way of shutting people up.

I just know that suicide is a wicked thing. Bourdain seems to have believed this too. He once reflected on it. “There have been times, honestly, in my life that I figured, ‘I’ve had a good run — why not just do this stupid thing, this selfish thing . . . jump off a cliff into water of indeterminate depth,” he once said.

And so he did it. Bourdain arranged things so that in all likelihood a hotel employee or his close friend, Eric Ripert, would find his lifeless body. Whatever the emotional or chemical origins of the suicidal impulse that he indulged, his teenaged daughter, his colleagues, his friends, and other loved ones will ask themselves why they weren’t reason enough to go on living.

In a much much diminished way, his fans feel the same way. A friend reached out to me to ask how I was feeling that day, knowing that I was a fan. I had written a little over a year ago about how Bourdain seemed to have found something like spiritual Enlightenment, given the doting-father tone of his cookbook, Appetites. I’ve been cooking Bourdain recipes for years now. His roasted chicken and coq au vin, in particular. My wife booked my 30th birthday at Les Halles, the Park Avenue French restaurant that he made even more famous. I wasn’t an obsessive, but I really did admire him.

My friend was a fan too. He had watched the latest episode of Bourdain’s show the night before, and he made his girlfriend order Chinese food because of it. Bourdain was a bit of a hero to my friend, a guy who seemed to have risen above a misspent youth, kicked drugs, and learned to push through his cynicism to find real enjoyment in the beauty and abundance of the world as it is. Hundreds of thousands of men could look up to Bourdain for reasons like this.

So I don’t think I can bring myself to watch Bourdain’s shows for a while. It’s too raw, still. But, in a week in which my work and some duties at home impinged on my normal reading, I did look back at his books.

Bourdain had a special talent for writing about what was illicit. Drugs, sex, getting blackout drunk on purpose. And even illicit food. In the chapter in Medium Raw, his second book on being a food celebrity, he describes an event that can only inspire envy. He was gathered with a few handfuls of elite people in the know for an important meal after hours. Why all the secrecy? Because this meal is illegal in Europe and America. It was the French songbird, ortolan. Bourdain writes:

As the story goes, the birds are trapped in nets, then blinded by having their eyes poked out — to manipulate the feeding cycle. I have no doubt that at various times in history this was true. Labor laws being what they are in Europe these days, it is apparently no longer cost-effective to employ an eye-gouger. A simple blanket or a towel draped over the cage has long since replaced this cruel means of tricking the ortolan into continuingly gorging itself on figs, millet, and oats.

When the birds are suitably plumped up — with a desirable layer of thick fat — they are killed, plucked, and roasted. It is claimed that the birds are literally drowned in Armagnac — but this, too, is not the case. A simple whiff of the stuff is enough for the now morbidly obese ortolan to keel over stone-dead.

The flames in the cocottes burn down, and the ortolans are distributed, one to each guest. Everyone at this table knows what to do and how to do it. We wait for the sizzling flesh and fat before us to quiet down a bit. We exchange glances and grins and then, simultaneously, we place our napkins over our heads, hiding our faces from God, and with burning fingertips lift our birds gingerly by their hot skulls, placing them feet-first into our mouths — only their heads and beaks protruding.

In truth, Bourdain was a better writer and television producer than he ever was a cook. It was that his life as a cook gave him a subject that had become the obsession of upwardly mobile literate people. His cookbooks and memoirs are all great fun. Though I’m not sure what to make of the changes in culture that he rode to success.

At some point in my life, every single person in the world started describing himself as a “foodie” or, just as annoyingly, a “food person.” I don’t know where it started. I suspect it has something to do with the usually unmentionable fact that our civilization is rapidly collapsing. In any case, this appellation has no specific meaning. Some food people like to cook. Some like to go to restaurants. Some do both. But aren’t all humans food people? I don’t think enough people have made a diet of Soylent to qualify the Luddite eaters of meat, bread, cheese, and veg as a separate and distinct class.

I suspect that in the end a ‘food person’ is distinguished from the rest of us only by having a bunch of inane opinions to share about food, having ceased to have interesting opinions or hobbies.

Would my father-in-law qualify as a “food person?” His professional life has been spent sweating in a chemical plant. He doesn’t extemporaneously tell monologues about restaurants in the area. He’s not very particular about his beer. But there are a handful of special occasions during the year when he takes over in the kitchen. He is not all that into recipes. For him, a great meal is usually just great ingredients treated to the proper amount of drying out in the fridge, and heat on the grill or stove. He drives out of town to a certain Polish butcher for the proper sausages. He makes chili during football season, a dish that traces itself back to his days as a volunteer firefighter. At other times, it is skirt steak, a cut that he was praising to me when other food people were still just moving off filet mignon for ribeye. In all these matters he is, as a chemical engineer should be, an exacting director. He would never call himself a “food person.” He is just a man. A man who, this weekend, will be inflicting the exact right amount of heat and salt to the surf and turf that has become our annual Father’s Day feast.

I suspect that in the end a “food person” is distinguished from the rest of us only by having a bunch of inane opinions to share about food, having ceased to have interesting opinions or hobbies.

The Father’s Day feast is always a good event. My brothers-in-law bring beers to drink. For some time now I’ve been joining my wife’s family. The day starts with littleneck clams, usually enjoyed on the deck. My wife’s cousins apply their new favorite hot sauces to these. My brother-in-law passes me an IPA called “Sip of Sunshine.” The skirt steaks are then grilled, barely. And a giant pot is prepared for the lobsters, as my relatives gather their various implements for cracking open their shells and pulling out the good stuff from their legs. As various cousins and in-laws go in the house for a break from the sun, and then outside again, they report back on the depredations of that day’s Mets game. By late afternoon, cigars start to come out, and most of the women of the house clear inside. One of my sisters-in-law is pregnant, so we get to induct a new man into the growing group of fathers present. My wife is making a dessert as I type this out.

In the last week, I worked on prepositional phrases in my study of Irish. But just for a mental break I’ve been drifting toward français. Apple Music keeps a few curated lists of French pop music. And I recently rented and watched the two-part film about the notorious bank robber and murderer Jacques Mesrine. This gangster is portrayed magnetically by Vincent Cassel, whom most Americans know as the European foil from Ocean’s 12. Mesrine became infamous for escaping from high-security prisons both in Quebec and in France. He played himself up in the press as a kind of affliction that a perverted judicial and economic system deserved. He was tortured in prison, so he broke out of it. And not only did he break out of it, but he staged an attempt to raid the prison and enable a larger jailbreak later. His bank robberies he excused as one thief stealing from a larger one. The films are uneven, though Cassel shines. And something about them cheered me up. Mesrine was a wicked man. But he was also “great” in his way. A great villain of civic life, and so characteristically French in his villainy. It comforted me to know that postwar France could produce greatness of any kind. There’s hope for all of us, isn’t there?

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