Anthony Bourdain Helped Inspire Us to Eat ‘Vividly’

Like so many others, I was stunned by the abrupt suicide of Anthony Bourdain, who was one of my heroes, first and foremost as a writer with a wicked and incisive prose style. He likely would never have become famous had he not written “Kitchen Confidential,” the bestseller that launched his public career. He parlayed that book’s success into his two great television series, “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown.”

Bourdain raised his weekly episodes into the realm of art with his inquisitive adventurousness and snarky intelligence. He paid homage to artists, writers, filmmakers, rock and rollers, chefs. He definitely got off the beaten path, here and abroad, even filming a recent episode in the southwestern corner of my home state, West By God Virginia. There he respectfully broke bread with coal miners and various yahoos, bringing attention of those marginalized Americans for whom making ends meet is a struggle.

Bourdain was a key figure in a laudable food revolution that has swept through America in recent decades. Along with giants like Julia Child and Alice Waters and a roster of Food Network chefs, Bourdain broadened our palates and made us more accepting of odd and exotic foods — and people. We have gone far beyond the dull, meat-and-potatoes repetition and corporate swill of my youth.

Having been born at the tail end of the Baby Boom (1959), I would guess my food experiences as a kid were shared by most of my contemporaries. Basically, my stay-at-home Mom did what she could, dependably producing a decent dinner for my Dad and three sisters, every day at 5 p.m. sharp.

Usually we ate chicken, beef or pork, with potatoes, with a side of canned vegetables, such as green beans swimming alongside onions and bacon. The only ethnic cuisine we ever had was Italian: spaghetti and pizza, which we regarded as exotic. Basically, it was meat and potatoes cooked in lard. Did your mother keep a coffee cup filled with congealed bacon grease in the fridge?

I never remember a bottle of olive oil in the house, though a tub of Crisco shortening always haunted the cupboard. We ate plenty of onions, but never any garlic, leeks, or shallots. Parmesan lurked in those lizard green canisters. Mom’s spice selection could have been held in two hands. We never heard of fresh herbs. We never cooked with wine.

Somehow my generation survived on boxed macaroni and cheese which turned into a viscous salty paste as it cooled. Just what was Velveeta? What pork parts were pressed into a tin of Spam? I relished those awful toaster pastries, the horrors of canned pasta (uh oh, SpaghettiOs!), the sinister TV dinner, the putrid frozen pot pie. As a kid, breakfast and lunch were frequently the sugar bomb of a commercial cereal, marketed through a cartoon character.

Though I tout the food revolution, I realize many Americans still eat dismally, depending on fast food from the King, the Clown, and the Colonel, as Bourdain memorably referred to them. The TV dinner has been replaced with the microwave entree — a chemist’s concoction. Too many Americans are in too big of a hurry to prepare and savor a decent home-cooked meal.

But those celebrity chefs have made a difference, even the annoying ones, from Emeril’s “Bam! Kick it up a notch!” to Sandra Lee’s gloppy semi-homemade. The Barefoot Contessa so fawned over her wimpy husband that I started calling her the Shoeless Swine (forgive me, Ina Garten, I still love your Outrageous Brownies!).

But the main point is: a boring, corporate American cuisine has evolved into a dynamic food scene, as international influences have merged with regional glories. Never has there been so much good food to eat. Never have we had so much variety.

Tony Bourdain celebrated both the world’s and America’s unique food cultures. I dismiss the hand-wringing over his taking of his own life, with do-gooders using it as a suicide-prevention awareness moment. Focus instead on what he did with the life he lived.

He ate the best food, drank the best wine, explored the most beautiful, exotic corners of the globe, partied his butt off, and ended it all on his own terms. Isn’t this preferable to an Alzheimer’s twilight, in diapers, rotting in a hospital bed?

On his TV shows Bourdain paid homage to another recently deceased writer and gourmand, Jim Harrison, whose culinary motto was “Eat vividly.” By extension, Harrison and Bourdain lived vividly and large, and the examples and testaments they left behind should inspire us all to live and eat vividly and passionately pursue adventures in food, art, and love.

Rogerson, of Wheeling, is a professor of English at West Virginia Northern Community College.

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