Speak Me Fair in Death: Farewell to the Bard

Yesterday, we lost Anthony Bourdain. I won't be the first to declare him the bard of the food world, nor the last to contemplate the indelible impact the man made on the culinary landscape.

I grew up loving Jeff Smith's Frugal Gourmet, the Galloping Gourmet, and Martha Stewart on PBS, long before the Food Network hit the air waves and became something beloved and yet perverse - the era of food porn and lurid cooking competitions that tug at our latent warrior lizard brains while appealing to our base nutrient-hoarding instincts.

Anthony Bourdain had a front row seat to the entire, grandiose spectacle, and he translated it all - from the fetid walk-ins of New York City's toiling brunch commandos to the hallowed labs of El Bulli, to a sunny afternoon repast in Sardinia surrounded by loved ones, grating lofty piles of dried roe sacks onto al dente pasta.

That such a vibrant and omniscient soul should be snuffed out before its time is gutting, and I am not a person who can speak to the depression and mental health issues entangled with such a tragedy. I'm not equipped to opine on what took Tony from us - but I feel compelled to pay tribute to this man whose words were perhaps sharper than his knives - who savored consonants even more so than a wickedly hot bowl of laksa and deployed both derisive and beautiful adjectives like napalm across a rice paddy.

He was more prolific than he probably gave himself credit for, and many of us would consume his products any way we could: Kitchen Confidential, Top Chef judging, No Reservations, the Les Halles cookbook, My Last Supper, Parts Unknown, Medium Raw, The Mind of a Chef, his novels, and the Appetites cookbook. They turned us on to exotic lands and new restaurants, made stars out of chefs we never would have heard of otherwise, and made exotic flavors seem accessible. He passed around trays of disdain equally with adoration of artisanal food ways in evolutionary decline, and taught us how to experience the world without being mere tourists. He was a citizen of any corner of it where food was consumed, and he invited us along for his journey.

There are items in my pantry today that would never be part of my gastronomic lexicon if it weren't for Tony. Fregula, the toasted Sardinian pasta pearls; pho, the Vietnamese beef noodle soup; sambal, a fiery chile garlic paste; and the seemingly scary fish sauce, which elevates southeast Asian cuisine to complex heights our American palates were never meant to crave. While it was certainly his aim to open our apertures, there are legions of disciples for whom Tony's shows and books literally formed their appetites, and I'm not positive he appreciated that. Even for those who never read one of his books, the trickle-down effect of chefs and bloggers and food personalities influenced by his wisdom surely has changed what the masses eat every day in this country. His reach was pervasive though unfailingly, he remained true and real, honest about the awkwardness of his own fame and earnest about his ongoing efforts to bring world flavors and issues to the American consciousness. To make the foreign more familiar. To break down the walls between us and elevate the fellowship of the dinner table to a uniting force for good.

Today, I will eat the rest of the Bourdain-crafted chocolate bar I've been savoring for months; this week, I shall cook his recipes in homage to the legacy of flavor he leaves behind him. I don't have much wisdom to pass along in these days when we will question why he left us, but I will revel in what he leaves in his wake: almost two decades as a harsh father-figure to those of us for whom food is religion, a teacher, a guru, a prophet, an instructor. He wasn't warm or fuzzy, but he was certainly the kind of friend you want in your corner when the chips are down and you need to be whisked away to an exotic locale. He was our bard. Tony, I hope you're barefoot right now, on the deck of a tiny hut in Heaven's version of Southeast Asia, waiting for a pancake boat to stop, with a steaming bowl of something good in front on you, chasing away a slight hangover with a chile punch and your daughter by your side. I hope your are in your version of peace.

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