I Would Have Very Much Liked to Eat Borscht with Anthony
The best parts of Anthony Bourdain's series of TV shows were the silences.
There are few things in this life that make me more joyful than watching old Anthony Bourdain episodes. Bourdain, who died two years ago this week from suicide at 61 years old, was a chef and a writer who might be best remembered by the series of TV shows he made starting in the 2000s. On these shows, Bourdain is your number one confidant, the cool older guy from high school that got you into your favorite bands and showed you the best places to get a hot dog at 3 a.m., and a father figure who won't let you leave the table unless you eat everything on your plate.
I first got into Anthony Bourdain’s oeuvre shortly after his death. Bourdain was a punk and a fuck-up at heart, and I felt magnetized to his work as soon as I came into contact with it. His methodology is simple: he goes to a locale slightly off the beaten path and then he eats there. Over the course of an hour you watch him walk around with no explicit direction, talking to people about their lives and eating really good-looking food. Since quarantine started, I’ve watched mostly episodes from No Reservations. I’ve spent evenings watching Bourdain in Ukraine, somehow or another polishing off half a bottle of vodka per meal, eating green borscht, and traveling to Crimea with Russian TV producer Zamir Gotta. I watched him go to the Dominican Republic and eat sancocho out of a Styrofoam bowl, and I watched him go to an amusement park in Kurdistan (all of this eating feels especially aspirational; if I were to do a Grub Street Diet every day it would say "Ate roast beef on white bread 12:30 p.m.").
The best parts of this show, I’m learning, are the silences. The moments where there is no dialogue; just vistas paired with the sound of chewing and swallowing. There is nothing I love more right now than just watching this man walk around and do nothing. I love watching the refilling of wine glasses. I love watching things get placed into pots of hot water. I love watching someone chop up vegetables. Nothing and everything happens in the universe of Anthony Bourdain, that’s what makes the show so good.
It’s tempting to call these shows escapist, but that wouldn’t really be accurate. Watching Bourdain is soothing, but it’s not mindless. So much of Bourdain’s M.O. is engaging directly with whatever culture he’s spending time in, and eating whatever is put directly in front of him. The show takes on new resonance right now: there is something uncanny about watching Bourdain walk through crowds and hang out with strangers. It feels pretty easy to be desperate for human contact, and watching old episodes of Bourdain’s show easily fills this void. Especially because Anthony Bourdain can take on the archetype of your most adventurous friend: he says yes to everything and has these deliciously mephistophelian tendencies. He wants you to feel like you’re there with him. His persona on this show is that of a kid egging you on to jump off a cliff and into a quarry or telling you it's fine to sneak out of your parents' house. If you are (rightfully) finding it easier than normal to lapse into cynicism, the show will test that urge. It’s really hard to not be full of mirth while watching this show. Bourdain just wants the best for you; he really means it.