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Today, I learned about the passing of Anthony Bourdain. I didn’t know him personally. I’m not going to gush about what a great guy he was and how unbelievably sad his passing is. I knew his TV personality. Undoubtedly, it contained at least some trace of the real man, but I can’t attest to that. And yes, it is unbelievably tragic. The same could be said for any life that is lost, no matter the circumstances. These sentiments aren’t new or unique. I can’t offer a glimpse into the mind or life of a man I’d never met and now, sadly never will. What I can do is explain how his life and what I was exposed to through him has changed me. How his shows changed my entire way of thinking about food and culture, and the way they are intertwined.
I’m not a chef. I’m not a world traveler. I’m not a food critic. I’m a simple man from the Hudson Valley in New York who one day happened to stop channel surfing long enough to watch some tall, graying man on the travel channel tell me all about the culture and people of some far away land. And he did it by telling me all about their food. By sitting down with people—strangers, in their homes—and sharing a meal with them. That single act, sharing a meal with a stranger, seemed to embody the purest form of good will. I’m sure the families were compensated for it, but all the money in the world can’t buy genuine hospitality. But it was there. These people were happy to share a meal with Anthony. A stranger who didn’t even speak their language. There’s a lesson there somewhere, I’m sure.
It wasn’t simply that he was showing me the world through my TV screen and introducing me to foods I’d never even heard of before, much less had an interest in tasting. He was showing me how life was for other people. I credit Anthony Bourdain with ridding me of my “Dumb American” thought process… mostly. (I still have a little of it.) He wasn’t going to the tourist destination and staying in a five-star resort hotel to sample the “native” cuisine prepared by the head chef who had trained at the Culinary Institute of America. He was going to the places that were as far away from the tourists as possible. Little towns and villages that had been marinating in the local culture for hundreds of years. He was showing us the real places that real people lived their real lives. It wasn’t always sunny. It was almost never rich. But there was always tradition. It tends to run thick in places like that.
Watching these people prepare meals in the same way, with the same ingredients and recipes that had been used for generations, did something to me. It changed me. At the time, I was the sort of person who considered eating at T.G.I. Friday’s instead of Applebee’s to be exposing myself to a different culture. The mozzarella sticks were different, and the servers wore red instead of green. Slowly, that all changed. Seeing the way the meals he ate were prepared. Seeing how much joy and effort went into making and eating them. It changed the way I looked at food. Flavor will always be important to me, but eating became about more than. More than simple sustenance. I was starting to understand that the foods different cultures ate were a direct result of where they were from. I know, it sounds obvious, but remember—I was a Dumb American. I became more and more interested in the story of the food. And I started wanting to eat them. I’d go out of my way to find small restaurants, preferably family owned, that served those foods.
Suddenly, I was eating Pakistani food, Indian food, Thai food, Brazilian, Jamaican, Guatemalan, etc., etc. If it existed and was edible, I wanted to try it. Sometimes, I’d even try to make it myself if I couldn’t find somewhere within a reasonable traveling distance that served it. That never seemed to work out though. I’m not a particularly great cook. I mean, I do alright, but putting together a brand-new recipe with ingredients I’d never used before and making it taste right on the first try is not my forte. There was also something else missing from those attempts, though. Granted, I never left the country and I rarely ever even left New York, but people bring their culture with them. All those small, family owned restaurants were like little foreign embassies, set up by the actual people instead of the government. Parents and grandparents ran the business and taught the children and grandchildren how to make the food the way they had been doing since their grandparents had taught them. If I was lucky and it was a slow enough day, sometimes they’d even come out and talk with me. Sometimes it was to tell me that I was eating something wrong and I should do it differently. These conversations were always my favorite because I got to learn. Not just how to not look like a fool who can’t feed himself, but also about the traditions that created that way of eating.
Sadly, these kinds of restaurants are often fleeting. They’re the new novelty place for a while, but eventually the demand for formula food that’s ready in ten minutes or less and tastes the same every time you get it, kills these little gems of foreign culture. Parents and grandparents retire. Children and grandchildren grow up and go to college and prepare for new careers more suited for making a living in the digital age. The culture, in most cases, isn’t lost. The younger generations often carry on the same traditions in their own homes. But it’s no longer available to me or anyone outside of their small group of family and friends.
Many people would say, “Travel to those places and experience the culture first hand.” And I would love to do just that. Unfortunately, with two kids and full-time jobs that require my wife and I to be here, that is not a realistic lifestyle choice for us at this time. And of course, I would have to bring them with me. Much of the joy of these experiences is sharing them with others. That is what Anthony Bourdain did. For people like myself who, for one reason or another, couldn’t get out there and experience it ourselves, he shared his joy of food, travel, culture, and people with us. That is why I will miss a man I’ve never met. Because although he never knew it, he enriched my life.
Thank you, Mr. Bourdain. Rest easy now.