The Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens is typically my thoroughfare, a point “B” between my home and LaGuardia Airport. It’s where I’ve stood with my luggage dozens of times while waiting for the shuttle at the stop sandwiched between a Korean bakery and a Colombian one. My interest in the area was never particularly piqued until I remembered that this time last year, I was mourning the death of Anthony Bourdain.
Food played a critical role in my family’s life; my mother’s meals have conciliatory effects similar to the 1914 Christmas truce. I found kinship with Bourdain in the idea that life ought to surround the stomach’s yearning, watching every episode of Parts Unknown and reading his book Kitchen Confidential. On June 8, 2018, there was one fewer irreverent gourmand who narrated the primitive act of eating in a way that made it transcend the utility of survival. Food was communication, experience, and experiment for all who dared. And Bourdain did plenty of daring, which I loved him for, although I’m aware that our politics, lifestyles, and demeanors are generally asymmetric.
He was radiant in his faults, all of his error and delinquency written on his sleeve, and he wanted everyone to know how human he was. And we loved him because it was never contrived or plastic, and because it only amplified his undeniable sense of justice and humility. Despite his ability to spew off terms such as monter au beurre and mise en place, he cushioned his learned side with toilet humor and a sailor’s mouth. Crisp white chefs’ uniforms are unnecessary when you’re sitting on a floor eating momo in Bhutan, the last place he visited for Parts Unknown, and the reason I would deliberately return to Jackson Heights last week, this time without the burden of my luggage and with no plans of catching a shuttle to the airport.
In the last installment of the eleventh season of Parts Unknown, Bourdain goes to Bhutan. Bhutan is nestled in South Asia, in the Eastern Himalayas, right by China, Tibet, India, and Nepal. If you had asked me to point to Bhutan on a map before last week, I think even my best guess would reflect my ignorance of anything in that part of the world, which was unknown to me. I watched the last episode, originally aired at the end of June 2018, and figured I owed it to Bourdain, someone I’d never met and never will, to try something new. Luckily for me, a former National Review fellow was in town, and he is the least picky eater I’ve ever met, which is especially remarkable for someone who abstains from alcohol owing to kidney issues and who was preparing for a surgery at the end of the month with a special dietary supplement he had to take before our meal. We took the train to Jackson Heights, where we discovered a large population of New Yorkers from countries such as India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet — I learned that Nepali-Americans are the fastest growing Asian population in New York City. And I learned that Bhutanese cuisine is the one spicy enough to bring me to my knees.
One year since his death, I’ve ruminated about the crushing reality of suicide and have prayed often for those affected by it (family members of the deceased and those with the ideation). In his departure, Bourdain left a world full of mourning people. There’s a dilemma in this matter: Bourdain has significantly influenced my life, and I’ve spent the last year eating my way around the world, sharing meals with people I don’t know from Adam as well as people I deeply care for. I’m sure he’s inspired countless others to do the same, or at least has changed outlooks of the world from one of mysticism and apprehension to one of humane familiarity. I am also less afraid of making an idiot of myself.
The quandary is in being careful not to romanticize his absence: The U.S. suicide rate has increased, and men have higher rates of suicide than women. It is preventable. Suicide contagion is also a real phenomenon:
“The outpouring of collective grief, the tendency to present or discuss the person in almost beatific ways and physical memorials or ceremonies celebrating their lives are common practice,” says psychologist Paul Surgenor, suicide prevention expert. “And unfortunately, for someone who can only see pain, isolation and rejection, this level of adoration may seem preferable to their current state.”
Seeing sensationalized headlines and reporting about a celebrity who ended their life can make a person who’s already struggling believe that they can do it, too. That “it’s okay.” That “it’s easy.” And not only that, but learning the method of how a person died by suicide shows how to do it — what “works.”
When Robin Williams died by suicide in 2014, suicides using the same method increased by 32% in the months following his death. That’s not a coincidence. It’s also not a coincidence that suicide contagion is also known as “copycat suicide.”
I’ve grappled with how to mourn a celebrity suicide, the death of someone who affected me and my worldview, without engaging in this pernicious “beatific” behavior. But it’s difficult. After a year, I realized there is a fine line to walk, and that how we report on suicide is of critical importance. I want to reflect and celebrate his years on Earth while acknowledging that we are, as a species, robbed of life when someone takes their own. There will never be another Anthony Bourdain, or another Kate Spade, or another you, ever again.
I’m grateful for the time he spent with us, from the objective distance of his books or television shows or transcontinental jet-setting that he managed to curate to seem within our presence, like he’s the rugged bartender at your local dive bar with a questionable past who will indulge you, unsanitized by decorum and with a mouth your mother would scrub down to the muscle with soap. The world seems more congenial and accessible. One need not know French, or even be able to afford a meal at a Michelin restaurant, to experience a piece of the parts unknown. A short subway ride to Queens, $7, and a willingness to eat traditional dishes from a landlocked country in Southern Asia that you can now spot on a map will suffice.
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