Anthony Bourdain and the Dangerous Empathy of Food
I can’t stand most travel shows. You know what I’m talking about; the Travel Channel/Food Network/Discovery Channel shows where white Americans patronize recently politically stabilized South Asian countries to eat bugs and cow genitals like they’re on Fear Factor. I used to not like these shows because I would imagine myself in rural Vietnam getting eaten by squirrel-size cockroaches or being kidnapped by bandits and sold into ivory trade. Now I just think they’re condescending.
But there is one exception: Anthony Bourdain. His current CNN show Parts Unknown and particularly his old Travel Channel show No Reservations both stand out as something altogether different.
Chef, author, and TV personality Anthony Bourdain is kind of “edgy,” as I once overheard two middle-aged women in a coffee shop describing his first book. Basically, they meant that he cusses, is kind of snarky, likes to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes, and has a past (which famously includes doing a lot of hard drugs in SoHo in the 80s and 90s). But beyond the parts of Bourdain’s personality that might lead some good folk to consider him “edgy” is a really, really attractive disdain for pretense. This lack of pretension, coupled with keen self awareness, is what makes Bourdain’s shows so different from most travel shows.
No Reservations and Parts Unknown pretty much function like your average travel show: They focus on a single geographic location for the duration of the show and Bourdain hangs out with locals, eating their food and traveling around. But instead of only showing the odd and strange cuisine (which Bourdain definitely does), he spends most of his time trying to cut through stereotypes by getting to know the people.
Unlike most travel shows, Bourdain doesn’t use food to show how exotic people are, but rather how human people are.
Instead of highlighting how different and foreign the places may be, Bourdain shows how relatable and similar people are. From the kids trying to start a punk rock band in Burma, to the iconoclastic pizzeria owners in Chicago, Bourdain has a knack of bringing out the humanness in humans.
I don’t know if a lot of people could do what Bourdain does. It isn’t easy to go into a culture that is foreign, even hostile, to western/white/whatever sensibilities and make friends by having a few drinks, eating some good food, and listening. We want to judge what’s different. That’s not Bourdain. He has a seemingly effortless combination of likability, brashness, and nonjudgmental curiosity.
It’s in our nature to see the world as “us vs. them,” where we are the natural good guys and “they” are the bad guys. Protestants vs. Catholics. Young Earth vs. Old Earth. Calvinist vs. Arminian. Hutu vs. Tutsi. We use labels to, well, label people, which can be helpful at times as shorthand for ideas and ideologies but can also be toxic to empathy. Tribalism naturally puts “out-group” members in a place of inferiority or “wrongness” which makes it difficult (if not impossible) to learn from out-group members.
We love to debate, critique, and criticize. But Bourdain puts away criticism and instead opts for a few beers and a meal.
There’s something to just sharing some food with people. Something inherently humanizing. A meal is a communal, intimate experience that holds relation weight in just about every culture, ever. In the book A Meal with Jesus, Tim Chester comments,
“Meals slow things down. Some of us don’t like that. We like to get things done. But meals force you to be people oriented instead of task oriented. Sharing a meal is not the only way to build relationships, but it is number one on the list.
“It’s possible to remain at a distance from someone in public gatherings—even in a Bible study. Meals bring you close. You see people in situations, in life, as they are. You connect and communicate….Generous hospitality leads to reconciliation. It expresses forgiveness. Unresolved conflict can’t be ignored when we gather round the meal table; you can’t eat in silence without realizing there’s an issue to address. Paul uses hospitality as a metaphor for reconciliation when he says to the Corinthians: ‘Make room in your hearts for us. We have wronged no one . . .’ (2 Cor. 7:2). Hospitality can be a kind of sacrament of forgiveness.”
Meals are vessels for empathy. That’s what Bourdain gets at. He doesn’t avoid cultural differences or geopolitical sore spots, but he engages with real people over meals. The result is always, consistently, community and friendship.
Maybe, if we are willing to share a table with somebody, we will understand them. We’ll love them. “They,” who ever they are, won’t be other after a meal—they’ll be “us.”
Food is a great equalizer. Rich, poor, Marxist, Christian—we all have to eat. Bourdain eats with peasants, punk rockers, transvestites, orthodox Jews, world-renowned chefs, and diner owners. The diversity in ideology, lifestyle, morality, and social status of the people he hangs out with is pronounced and almost hyperbolic.
Bourdain is onto something. We might as well eat together.
Jesus ate with sinners, demonstrating their worth and His love for them. He also ate with Pharisees, and he empathized with them too. Jesus was paradoxically loving and nothing demonstrates this more than how liberal He was with the people He ate with. Jesus relaxed with people from all over the spectrum. Very Anthony Bourdian-ian.
A Bourdainian Outlook to the Christian life
A life transformed by grace doesn’t need to be afraid of the “other.” If our worth comes from being created and loved by God, not by our race, our political affiliation, our appearance, our theology, or our performance then love no longer is for the “in-group.” With our judgment removed by Grace, we don’t need to judge others. We can invite anybody over for dinner.
Bourdain isn’t a particularly religious guy. He definitely isn’t an “evangelical” (whatever that is…he isn’t one), but what he can teach us about the Christian life is how to love those who aren’t like us.
Instead of living in an echo chamber of other theologically/culturally/socially similar people (or wherever we find ourselves in the throes of groupthink), we can listen to and love people who the world would expect us to just bicker with. We can venture over into the other camp and realize, “Wow, these people are just like me.”
And how do you safely get over to the other camp? Grab a bite to eat. Or a beer.
Eating together—actually or metaphorically, by sharing, listening, and finding common ground—is a more powerful apologetic to the Christian message than a televised debate or a conference. But it’s definitely riskier.
Jesus was called an alcoholic, a glutton, and probably a Pharisee for who He ate with. And maybe we should be too. In an episode of Parts Unknown set in Jerusalem, Anthony Bourdian prefaced the episode with a caveat that sounds more like the life of Christ than anything I’ve ever been called,
“By the end of this hour I’ll be seen by many as a terrorist sympathizer, Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American Imperialism, an orientalist, socialist, fascist, CIA agent, and worse. So here goes nothing.”
And that’s the risk of grace. The risk of listening to the “other.” We run the risk of pissing off a lot of people by loving people without qualification or agreement. When we listen, learn, and engage the “other” we run the risk of being identified with them. We run the risk of people calling us progressives, fundamentalists, homophobes, gay rights activists, Calvinists, Arminians, democrats, antinomians, libertines, and more. But without being called these things, how can we hear from these peoples?
And maybe it’s just a dumb food show, and I just like watching Anthony Bourdain eat weird stuff and party with Icelandic twentysomethings. But maybe it’s more than that—maybe Bourdain gets something that so often eludes me and the majority of Christianity. That having a meal with somebody can replace all of our natural judgment with grace and empathy.
So here goes nothing.
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LOVE this…how very challenging…in the best way.
This is very true, and very well-written.
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