On Bourdain

and the faulty construction of a life story.

Content warning: Suicide and addiction are mentioned a lot, because they’re used in very paternalistic ways in the film, which ends up maybe less about Bourdain and more about how people perceive these two things.

If I had been writing about Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain for this newsletter and not as an opinion piece for NBC News, I would have started off by saying that less than one week after publishing a piece about kitchen wounds, I ended up in the emergency room having stitches for a cut to my left index finger made by an immersion blender.

At the time of the injury, I was supposed to be seeing Roadrunner, but a protest in favor of U.S. intervention in Cuba at the Capitol building was delaying Ubers to Old San Juan to such an extent that we would never make our showing. We’d spent over an hour at the dog park listening to a woman evangelical preach through a big speaker, nonstop, her voice never letting up once to damn everyone while telling them to turn to Jesus before it was too late. My head was hot with rage.

To boot, or to explain, it was my late brother’s birthday. He turned 31—his existence turned 31. He died almost five years ago; we’ll never be in our thirties together, where I imagine that our five-year age difference would have melted into something that felt nonexistent. Seeing the documentary about Bourdain on his birthday (both Cancer men, both with addiction problems, both gone with intention but not information) would have been difficult at best, but I did think those were the right conditions for it, especially because when I’m mentally distracted and emotionally funky, I shouldn’t cook. I know this. I should go do anything else. But instead of seeing the movie, I was in the emergency room, bleeding.

An editor then emailed me early in the week to ask if I wanted to write an opinion piece about the movie, and even though I assumed I’d write about it for the newsletter, I accepted the assignment because I might as well get the guaranteed money and strange emails that come with writing for a big outlet.

I went on Wednesday night, alone, my first time back to a movie theater in over a year, and I was a couple of minutes late. I took out my notebook and pen and left my mask on the whole time, without even realizing. There were maybe four other people in the theater. I watched and I immediately saw in the footage of young Bourdain the swagger and posturing of my brother, of other boys gone too soon, too; boys we couldn’t figure out, even though we loved them and we tried. All very different people, but the overarching signs tend to be the same—a distance, a sadness, an assumed posture, a ceaseless interest in danger and heightened states.

Most of my notes were shock at how they characterized all that throughout, when what is most clear to me is that he was extraordinary to have created what he did with these monkeys on his back. It’s not a revelation to me that someone with eyes on him for years could be an asshole, that anyone could be. Are you never an asshole? It seems a very new concern, this obsession with secular sainthood.

But making personal perception and experience of a person a significant part of their own life is the main problem with the documentary. (I think about how he called himself a writer but the media insists he’s a chef—in the film, he’s “a storyteller” and called a journalist, a title he rebuffed in life. I think of his rejection of these titles as a writerly impulse, a desire to simply chronicle without constraints.)

It was made too soon after his passing, without enough hindsight to keep from making his death the defining moment of his life. Like Maria Bustillos wrote for Eater, it makes a product out of a man whose mental health was clearly ravaged by being consumed so readily, by the blurring of persona and person.

What Neville has attempted to do with Roadrunner is to close that gap. But he fails because the film, its subject, those who appear in it, and everyone involved — including all of us watching — are all drawn by it into the same superficial, risk-averse obscurantist commercial machinery. The film about the dangers of the fishbowl cannot be made from inside the fishbowl.

Ottavia Bourdain, his widow, Christopher, his brother, Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age, chef Eric Ripert—these are the really touching tributes in the film. (That Ripert does not speak of Bourdain’s death, that Ottavia said she would likely never speak again about it publicly—these were gut-wrenching. The other men crying were not.) These are where we see real pain, and thus real understanding of the complexity of the person and the passing, what was really lost—who was lost and the toll it’s taken. That’s where the truth is. Christopher said, “My brother committed suicide,” and I started bawling. I cry now typing words I only accept from someone else’s mouth. 

The thing about grief, especially when it’s fresh, is that all anyone wants to do is talk about their pain, figure out what happened. All I could see throughout was that desire manifested. Director Morgan Neville told Vulture that he took on the role of grief counselor in the interviews: was he qualified?

I hated how the documentary regarded addiction (though frankly most people regard addiction with a ten-foot pole, with signifiers and flippancy and a sheen of distaste; I have to tell people repeatedly that I don’t like the word “junkie,” that I don’t like their heroin jokes). It was too easy, way too easy.

Chef David Chang, Bourdain’s friend, telling the interviewer that he always lied about his favorite song, that it was really “Anemone” by Brian Jonestown Massacre—“heroin music.” What the fuck is heroin music, I ask, as a fan of this song and this band and lots of music like it? What is this tawdry conjecture? Why do we want it to be that easy? The Asia Argento stuff, too, is disgusting, indefensible. Fully implying someone is responsible for a death without allowing her to speak—anyone who has lost someone in this way knows there is no blame to go around, just pain. Endless pain. People blame women, too, as though we need to or possibly can sublimate ourselves into the life of troubled men we love and fix all their problems.

Obviously, see the movie if you want to and make your own opinions of it. I found it a simplification of the person, even if it complicated the persona. The movie makes me never want to bring him up in my own work again, out of respect; it’s too easy to grab for the easy parts of what he did, and that misses so much. There were also lessons there for me, for anyone who’s become public by virtue of doing their work, about how much of myself to give away. The answer seems to be as little as possible. Not even emails to friends or the comments made at your lowest point are sacred in death. There’s also a lesson in how I speak of my own dead in public, and the answer seems to be the same: give little, because that’s all you can expect in return.

This Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature Roxana Jullapat, author of Mother Grains: Recipes for the Grain Revolution and the head baker and owner of Friends & Family bakery in Los Angeles. We talked about making the grain renaissance accessible and much more.

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That op-Ed!

Research, baby, and still living for Hanna Garth’s Food in Cuba.

Not much without full use of my left hand, which suuuuucks because I have so many plantains in the house that went yellow. I’m looking forward to stuffing and frying the flores de calabaza that I’ve been taking from the overhang of my neighbor’s pumpkin plant into our patio. I pluck the flowers and say to myself, “I love gardening.”