Anthony Bourdain: The past is a foreign country

When tragedies happen that are not immediately personal to me, I tend to hold my tongue and personally wish more people would follow suit. I did not personally know Anthony Bourdain, so when his shocking and sudden death hit the news I didn’t say much. I find it ethically dodgy to fill the air with noise while someone’s actual family and friends are reeling from the actual, personal, loss of a loved one.

As you might recall, this project began with a mid-sentence epiphany when I read the following paragraph in Anthony Bourdain’s memoir.

“Cooking is a craft, I like to think, and a good cook is a craftsman — not an artist. There’s nothing wrong with that: the great cathedrals of Europe were built by craftsmen — though not designed by them. Practicing your craft in expert fashion is noble, honorable and satisfying.”   – Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

What came after and the manner in which I pursued it was as much informed by his influence as it was by anything else I read. Bourdain was eternally and seriously devoted to closing the gap between the viewer and the time, place, and person on whom he was focusing. He was singularly skilled at this. Whether it was his own history that came under the focus of his lens, a goatherd in the Eritrean highlands, or a hunter in rural Missouri, he was as focused, as open, and as willing to pick up what they were putting down as he would be with any chef at a Michelin-starred bistro.

Bourdain did something no one ever does anymore (at least not on TV): he treated everyone he talked to as though they were as important as anyone else he talked to and what they had to teach him as valid as anything he learned at CIA. Those rural Missourians I mentioned were my fellows, my family, and people who don’t often experience an open and non-judgemental ear from the coastal folk.

He traveled the United States the way he traveled the world, with an indelible respect for the cultures and people he encountered, taking them as they come.

In our divided world, I cannot stress how important that is.

When my wife asked why I wanted to do this project, the reasoning I finally came up with after coming down from “because it would be cool” was heavily influenced by the Bourdain method, only applied to history instead of a country.

“Because I think that the artisans that actually built the renaissance are lost in the shadows cast by the Shakespeares and Davincis. Someone needs to speak for the working stiffs who showed up day in and day out, the real craftsmen who were stuck executing the grandiose dreams of those artists and nobles that get all the press! It is time to show the world just how hard it was to live and thrive and survive; to celebrate the skills and traditions that set the craftsmen apart from the serf and allowed them to build the independence and wealth to educate themselves and their children, giving rise to the middle class that would one day break the backs of the monarchies!”

British novelist L.P. Hartley famously observed that the past was a foreign country, they do things differently there. If I walked in with disdain in my heart for the ignorant savages that I was studying, or even just an ingrained surety that I was their intellectual superior, I could never do them justice. I could never revive their world.

Dan Rosen, a reenactor dedicated to the 17th century tailor’s life at both Plimoth Plantation and through his own group Old England Grown New, and a man I am proud to think of as my friend, puts a heavy emphasis on the decisions of early modern humans being rooted in survival. Something he said recently made me think it was probably time to break my silence on Tony’s death.

When I talk about the past with people, my primary goal is to connect people today to people ‘back then’,” said Dan. “That is to help them understand that some choices made by historical people, while sometimes weird or gross by today’s standards were usually rooted in their best available information, informed by beliefs as strongly held as any in the present, and in response to the threats and experiences they faced.”

Couldn’t have said it better.

At risk of yet another quote in a single blog post, my touchstone is Mark Twain, who reminds us “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

There’s a reason I likened this experiment to time travel right at the very beginning. Travel extensively, travel widely, travel in time as you travel in space, and retain your broad, charitable, and wholesome views of men and things as you do so.

Anthony Bourdain would expect nothing less.

– Scott

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