Anthony Bourdain used food as a way of introducing America to people around the world, their history and culture. He let food speak for itself, and importantly, let people speak for themselves.
Bourdain’s Hawaii episode was the first time many Americans learned about the illegal overthrow, the bombing of Kaho’olawe, the sovereignty movement, the Hōkūleʻa, and that Molokai was the breadbasket of the islands. It was the first time many Americans got a glimpse of Hawaii that wasn’t a racist caricature or cheesy movie.
What set Bourdain apart from others was his honesty. A few years ago he visited my wife’s birthplace, Iran. He spoke of the American backed coup in 1953, which made way for the return of the Shah because, to America, oil companies were more important than democracy. Bourdain gives us a look into a country that’s been demonized for decades. What do we see? Friendly, food-loving people, like my wife’s relatives. The flesh and blood victims of US sanctions.
Bourdain received an award for the show filmed in Gaza and the West Bank, because he had the courage to be truthful. The show humanized Palestinians, but for Bourdain, it was business as usual,
“I was enormously grateful for the response from Palestinians, in particular, for doing what seemed to me an ordinary thing, something we do all the time: show regular people doing everyday things. The world has visited many terrible things on the Palestinian people, none more shameful than robbing them of their basic humanity. People are not statistics. That is all we attempted to show.”
When he visited my hometown in Massachusetts he saw shuttered mills and factories and small, struggling family farms. He saw poverty and, as a recovering heroin addict, he couldn’t miss the widespread addiction. For Bourdain, it was about Small-town, USA, struggling towns that were once vibrant communities. It was about the American Dream’s transition into a nightmare. It was about whats inevitable under capitalism.
He showed America that the people of Hawaii, Iran, Palestine, that they’re no different than anyone else. When people realize and accept the truth Bourdain was speaking, it becomes harder to sit back and accept injustice. As he broke bread and talked story with people, he showed us their humanity.
Anthony Bourdain was a great teacher, teaching something we sadly never learn in school, empathy. It breaks my heart that he took his life.