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Why We Should Care About the Passing of Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain in 2015 when he toured to support The Balvenie Rare Craft Collection
Anthony Bourdain in 2015 when he toured to support The Balvenie Rare Craft Collection Photo courtesy of The Balvenie
Back in 2010, I saw Anthony Bourdain speak at Jones Hall. I was already a huge fan, captivated by his eloquent writing, his spirit of adventure and his flair for all things food. I liked that he seemed to see through all the bullshit and especially that he advocated for finding and celebrating our commonalities rather than living across a divide of differences. Plus, he was a fellow drinker. Had he not mentioned rakija on one of his shows, I’d never have known to order one in Zagreb, Croatia one wild night (it got much wilder after the rakija, my friends). I may never have made it to Croatia had he not ignited in me some desire to shelve my fear of flying to explore and better appreciate the world and its people.

This weekend, I’ll make a point to toast Bourdain over a good meal with friends or family somewhere and, judging by the many posts you’re making about him, so will you. We’re sharing some grief over the loss of a favorite TV personality and writer, the news breaking this morning that Bourdain is dead at 61 of an apparent suicide.

However you came to know him – by way of his breakthrough 2000 book Kitchen Confidential, or from one of his numerous food and travel shows, such as No Reservations, The Layover or Parts Unknown – you were intrigued by him. He cut an imposing figure, even from 20 rows away that night at Jones Hall. His candor, snarkiness and lifestyle made him larger than his 6 feet 4 inches. We all want to seem larger than life so we came to admire him from afar. As a friend of mine wrote this morning on her Facebook feed, speaking for many of us, “I of course had a huge crush on him, but I secretly wanted to be him.”

The news that his death came by way of suicide is something many of us are struggling with this morning – but, admittedly, and thankfully, fewer of us are struggling with this notion than in instances past. The old thinking was here’s someone whose travels and experiences were awe-inspiring, a life that stoked envy in many of us. How could someone with fame, fortune and opportunity take his own life, we would wonder? The new thinking, as another friend wrote, is “OK guys. If Anthony Bourdain committed suicide can we now admit that social media has us all fooled? We are not OK.”

She’s alluding to the mental health and depression issues that we are still learning to face openly and honestly. Events like this are unfortunate, but they also remind us that depression can’t be abated by money or fame. More of us see mental health matters more clearly because we continue to have sincere conversations with each other about these issues. We should engage each other even more in light of Bourdain’s death because his life was dedicated to bringing people of all kinds together to share in their humanity, at its best and at its most frail. As many friends suggested, anyone needing help with these matters should speak up or seek assistance through vehicles like 1-800-273-TALK, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

As a music guy, I liked that Bourdain was an old school punk rocker, a devotee of bands like Richard Hell and the Voidoids and Dead Boys. When we saw him speak that night at Jones Hall, my son’s band was really starting to gain some momentum. So, when the Q&A came up, I shot my arm into the air and was picked to ask a single question. I asked Bourdain a question about punk rock instead of food – my only actual engagement with this idol of mine. Then I tried to pass a Days N Daze CD up to him onstage from about 20 rows back, but security wasn’t having it.

Bourdain admitted back then that he’d sort of slept on Houston and its culinary promise, but he seemed to atone for that in years thereafter, making repeat speaking appearances here. Most notably, he brought Parts Unknown to Houston in 2016 to show the world what a beautiful, vibrant, culturally diverse city this is. He took in a cricket match in Richmond, did a Bollywood dance with shoppers at Keemat Grocers, rode slab with Slim Thug. He just understood us.

At a time when the nation’s leadership was denigrating immigrants as rapists, gang members and terrorists, Bourdain went out of his way to show the world’s TV audiences people who have come here from everywhere who contribute to and make Houston an interesting and vital place on the globe.

Why are so many people so distraught about his passing, someone asked? There’s a lot going on in the world that demands our attention, after all. That’s true. But Bourdain seemed like someone who stood for so many good things. He used his platform to remind viewers of the value each person and their culture adds to this experience. He told us in 2010 there are few better ways to connect with others than to offer even the most meager of meals. It was never about food. It was always about finding that way to connect to someone else, even – especially – someone who seems wildly different than you. We can’t afford to lose even one person who is able to express that sentiment on as large a scale as he did.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.