Empty Seat at the Table

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I never met him, but I started to cry this morning when I got a text telling me that Anthony Bourdain had died. I was no one to him—a nameless, faceless, American woman whose kids turned their noses up at the food I put on the table each day. Every once in a while I could distract the kids and find a spare moment to breathe, and surreptitiously change the channel from Noggin to Travel and see Bourdain living the life I dreamed of.

He meant something to me.

He might not have known who I was, but he paid attention to the women cooking noodles on the street corner in Vietnam. He listened to her story, watched her skilled hands move in the timeless rhythms passed down to her from her mothers. He didn’t romanticize the people he walked among- he was cutting and sardonic, but people were not ironic pawns in his story. He submerged himself in real life, messy life, complicated and beautiful and painful life. He showed reverence for the process, and I drank it down.

So much of my relationship with his travels and love of food was swallowed in stolen bits between the needs of my family. I have impressions burnt into my memory—a rickshaw ride through the swirling night, with lights and green hazy alcohol. A president meeting him at a flimsy plastic table to share a beer. The butchering of a camel and the consumption of the hump, much to my slight revulsion. The slaughter of pigs, and the using of every single valuable part of the animal. The slight terror of being at a shiny white hotel in the middle east, and suddenly being under siege and unsure of what would happen next.

He showed us that people are people everywhere, and they have beautiful stories if you will pause to truly listen. He modeled how to travel, how to be human with other humans, how to connect and really see the flux and flow happening constantly. He showed us—really showed us—that we have nothing to fear from difference, and everything to gain.

Food is personal. Food is fundamentally how we care for each other. It’s labor. It’s life. It’s also ultimately death. Food is love. My friends know that if I love you, I will feed you. And while I was nobody to the lucky bastard who got to travel the world finding the best food, because of the way he looked at, talked with, moved among, and actually saw the people he sought out who were cooks, I feel like he saw me too.

I wish there was a way to wind back the clock a few hours, to invite him to sit in my kitchen while I run my knife over todays garden picking, adding some salt and garlic and a few chilis to some pig. I wish I could pour him a beer in one of my chipped kitchen glasses, and shoo the dog away. I wish I could give him back some of the hopeful sustenance he gave all of us, and help him get through this day.

I’m just so damn sorry.  I hope the pain is gone.

More than seven years ago, I wrote about my secret crushes. Number three on my list was Anthony Bourdain.