Quite simply, Anthony Bourdain lived my American Dream. I woke up this morning to messages from friends and family sending their regards accompanied with the link to Tony’s passing, as if the icon and I had been lifelong friends. I chose that word — icon — deliberately, as anything else (chef? traveler? author? TV personality?) does not do the man justice. In sick irony, Tony’s influence on American culture will likely only be fully appreciated after his death. But that’s just speculation. I can only attest to the impact he’s had on my own life.
Last week, I caught myself bringing up his often-quoted line about the amount of butter that goes into our food and the “Hezbollah-like splinter faction” description I have adopted into my own lexicon when discussing vegans, both appearing in the New Yorker piece that put the man on the map. My father, a man who only left the country for the first time in his mid-sixties, had saved the April edition of “Money” magazine with Tony on the cover and dropped it in front of me while I was eating breakfast. He had dog-eared and circled tips from the icon, and said “he agrees with you about Spain, Ben,” as if we were equal authorities on the matter. Later in that same conversation, I used his episodes to argue in favor of my theoretical trips to Oman, Sri Lanka, Mozambique, Cuba, Iran, and Provincetown, MA, et al. — arguments not well received from my parents. That’s what Tony did — he was not shy about his affection for places like Paris, Rome, San Francisco, and Tokyo, but gave just as much respect for the less established corners of the world, like when he and Barack Obama shared a $10 meal in Vietnam.
A Jersey boy himself, I must have watched his NJ episode 3–5 times when homesickness would sink in while I was living in Louisiana. I had my 27th birthday dinner at Dock’s Oyster House and a casual meal with my family at the Baltimore Grill (where the loveliest and sassiest waitresses on the East Coast work), had a NJ style cheesesteak (yes, it’s a thing) at Donkey’s Place with my father (where they proudly play the segment of his episode on repeat on a little TV above the bar), and spent a nostalgic afternoon with my girlfriend at the Silverball Museum in Asbury Park, all within the last year because of one episode of his show.
Even in his early sixties, Tony was a youth ambassador for our nation, bolstering the American brand that had been (more) tarnished in the last couple of years. Among my friends, he was a unanimous choice for dinner guest at the hypothetical dinner-party and I would self-indulgently imagine being in some accident or acquiring some affliction that would render me confined to a hospital bed that would warrant, in a Make-a-Wish-like deal, the opportunity for me to meet anyone I wanted — it was usually between Tony and the Pope. An equally frequent day-dream was merely becoming a patron of some small city or town that in season 20 of his show — I fully expected the man to be jet-setting well into his seventies — we would cross-paths and his voice-over would say: “Writer, Lawyer, Activist, Patron of (insert city name here), I’m meeting up with Ben D’Alessio for what he claims to be the best alcohol-infused sloppy joe in the country.”
That, to me, was Tony’s magic — he made you want to get to know him. He was “Tony” to street-vendors and grandmothers and was just as comfortable eating at Michelin-starred restaurants as he was at a Cajun cook-out or underground pupusa joint.
I’ve already seen many of his quotes on my numerous social media feeds, so I’d like to share a quote not by him, but one that I believe he embodied.
“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion, and avoid the people, you might better stay home.”
- James A. Michener
He had this power to make the foreign and distant and other feel familiar, close, the same.
For that, Tony, I thank you.
Ben D’Alessio is the author of the novels Binge Until Tragedy and Lunchmeat. Both are available on Amazon and the publisher’s page. 25% of royalties are donated to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN).