Anthony Bourdain, America’s gastrodiplomat

Two years ago today, we lost more than a chef, writer, and TV travel companion. At his best, Bourdain was one of America’s most important global citizens.

Editor’s note: This piece originally ran on June 12, 2018.

As someone who teaches, writes, and thinks about food, specifically food’s ability to offer a window into the daily lives and circumstances of people around the globe, Anthony Bourdain’s suicide hit me particularly hard. Yes, he authored more than 15 books including the New York Times bestseller Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, which put him on the map. But last week we lost more than just a major literary voice. At his best, Bourdain was one of America’s most important global citizens.

The photograph above was taken at the Peabody Awards, one of which Bourdain accepted for his CNN show Parts Unknown in 2013.
In 2018, most people know Bourdain not through the page, but from his work on the screen. As host of CNN’s Parts Unknown, or the Travel Channel’s No Reservations and The Layover—or going further back, on Food Network’s A Cook’s Tour—he helped to pioneer the personal-narrative-meets-travelogue-meets-food-TV genre that spawned countless imitators. But while much of food TV celebrates high-end cuisine, Bourdain’s art was to show the craftsmanship behind the everyday foods of a place. The shows trailed the chef as he immersed himself in the culture of a place, sometimes one heavily touristed, sometimes more removed from the lives of most food media consumers, and showed us what people ate, at home, in the streets, and in local restaurants. He lovingly described the food’s preparation, the labor involved, and the joy people felt in coming together to consume it in a way that was palpable, even (or especially) when the foods themselves were unusual.

Bourdain’s art was to show the craftsmanship behind the everyday foods of a place.
Bourdain’s television work was what academics sometimes call gastrodiplomacy, a form of cultural diplomacy that uses food’s potential to bring people together, helping us to understand and sympathize with one another’s circumstances. As a theory, it embodies the old saying that “the best way to our hearts is through our stomachs.” This theory has been embraced by nations like Thailand, which has an official policy promoting the creation of Thai restaurants in order to drive tourism and boost the country’s prestige. And the foods of Mexico have been declared World Heritage Cuisines by UNESCO, the same arm of the United Nations that marks world heritage sites. Less officially, we’ve seen a wave of efforts to promote the cuisines of refugees and migrants through restaurants, supper clubs, and incubators like San Francisco’s La Cocina, which helps immigrant chefs launch food businesses. While we know that food is often symbolic of violence—from the social and ecological perils of the industrial food system to the ways that low-income communities and communities of color are mocked and targeted for their food practices—gastrodiplomacy argues that this is not necessarily, and not always, the case.

“There is a real danger of taking food too seriously. Food needs to be part of a bigger picture.”
Bourdain once said, “There is a real danger of taking food too seriously. Food needs to be part of a bigger picture.” And he played the role of our wry, empathic, and slightly better traveled companion as we journeyed together into that big picture—even if it was just once a week for 42 minutes. At their best, these shows taught us about the history and culture of particular places, and of the ways they have suffered through the ills of global capitalism and imperialism. His visit to the Congo was particularly memorable. While eating tiger fish wrapped in banana leaves, spear-caught and prepared by local fishermen, he delved into the colonial history and present-day violence that continue to devastate the natural-resource rich country. After visiting Cambodia, he railed against former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the American bombing campaign that killed over 250,000 people and gave rise, in part, to the murderous regime of the Khmer Rouge. In Jerusalem, he showed his lighter side, exploring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through debates over who invented falafel. But in the same episode, he shared maqluba, “upside-down” chicken and rice, with a family of Palestinian farmers in Gaza, and showed the basic humanity and dignity of a people living under occupation.

More than any other celebrity chef, Bourdain understood that food is political, and used his platform to address current social issues. His outspoken support for immigrant workers throughout the food system, and for immigrants more generally, colored many of his recent essays and interviews. When he died, he was partner to Italian actress Asia Argento, one of the first women to publicly accuse film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, and Bourdain used his celebrity status to amplify the voice of the #MeToo movement. It was a form of support that was beautifully incongruous with his hyper-masculine, back-of-house, front-of-camera image. Here Bourdain embodied another of the fundamental ideas of the sociology of food, that understanding the food system is intricately interwoven with efforts to improve it.

Understanding the food system is intricately interwoven with efforts to improve it.
Bourdain’s shows explored food in its social and political contexts, offering viewers a window into worlds that often seemed far removed from their realities. He encouraged us to eat one another’s cultural foods, and to understand the lives of those who prepared them. Through food, he urged us to develop a broader perspective on social issues, and the political and economic forces that shape and constrain our lived experiences. And while he was never preachy, his legacy urges us to get involved in the confluence of food movements, ensuring that those who feed us are treated with dignity and fairness, and are protected from racism, sexism, and hunger.

The black feminist poet Audre Lorde once wrote that “it is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” Bourdain showed us that by learning the stories of one another’s foods, we can come to understand the histories and develop the empathy necessary to work for a better world.

Watch Alison Hope Alkon’s TEDx Talk on Food as Radical Empathy.

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Alison Alkon is associate professor of sociology and food studies at University of the Pacific. Check out her Ted talk, Food as Radical Empathy.