“The smell of flowers, is that flowers, is it, or the scent of my own imminent death and decay?” Anthony Bourdain asks British writer Geoff Dyer as they sit at the bar of the Cock N’ Bull Pub in Santa Monica. The ubiquitous floral aroma characteristic of the LA Spring leads Bourdain to this existential question. During this episode of the Parts Unknown mini-series “Little Los Angeles” about lesser-known ethnic enclaves in LA, released only last month, Bourdain is enjoying his steak and kidney pie with chips and peas as he asks the Scouse bartender for another pint of “the black stuff” (aka Guinness).
I interrupted my walk on the beach yesterday to celebrate the man and his life with this very same meal.
Bourdain educated us about the world more viscerally, personally, and humorously than any social studies textbook or newscast ever could. He was the talent and the center of attention, yet let neither of these facts get in the way of other peoples’ stories. Bourdain’s accomplishments are vast, his œuvre comprehensive, and better than anyone in my lifetime, he managed to be both a public intellectual with bold ideas AND a likeable, marketable figure in pop culture. In a world of dogma, compartmentalization, and specialization, Bourdain stands out as a shining light of culinary, intellectual, social, and geographic promiscuity, embodying the breadth, possibilities, and unpredictability of what constitutes a good meal, a good idea, a good friend, and a good place.
In the tributes pouring in, much of the focus is on how he changed people as consumers: what kind of food they ate, where and how they took vacations, and what kinds of TV they watched. Conscientious consumption habits are crucial to a healthy society, but so too is our ability to produce these very things we consume. For those of us in creative fields (and I vigorously maintain that academia—and academic geography—is and should be one), Bourdain provides one of the most lucid visions of how to make our craft legible, illuminating, exciting and transformative to the public.
For someone who wants to turn many stones in all corners of the globe and share them with as wide of an audience as possible, Anthony Bourdain is as big of an influence as they come. Yet, I also see the value of his shortcomings. Bourdain’s promiscuity creates a moral and practical foundation. As a scholar, explorer, writer, educator, and humanist, I hope to build on this foundation with more analytical nuance, longer immersion in the place, and deeper historical narrative. In other words, exploring parts unknown, and fitting them into a greater whole.
(By the way, for folks in LA, Cock N’ Bull will be a great spot to watch the World Cup)