Nearly all human conflict can be resolved through sharing a meal, I’ve long proposed. So it was quite redeeming for CNN, which has a long and troubling history of glorifying US foreign adventurism and often embeds its staff with members of the US military, to distribute a documentary series overtly aimed at breaking down cultural barriers through food, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (2013 to present).
Anthony Bourdain has become more than a mere CNN star.
To many, CNN is a purveyor of US government propaganda, far too eager and willing to accept Pentagon story lines. Yet CNN is the American face, for lack of a better metaphor, for the world. CNN is where the rest of the globe tunes in to discover the American id.
And, with his new show, Anthony Bourdain has become more than a mere CNN television star. He is slayer to the well-earned tag “Ugly American” with which most US travelers must grapple.
More Than a Food Show
Mr. Bourdain is a celebrity chef, paraded all about American media. He is a frequent talk show guest. His cameos are legendary – everything from The Simpsons to playing himself in The Big Short – and always a gas.
He’s a thoroughly American boy – college dropout, “drug loser”, tattooed punk rocker, Jiu Jitsu bro – who can sling prose just as well as he can goulash. He is the very definition of a gutter bon vivant and raconteur.
Americans have been scared off other cultures since the beginning of the century.
The series is produced by husband and wife team Zero-Point-Zero Productions, Inc. It was they, Chris Collins and Lydia Tenaglia, who first noticed Mr. Bourdain’s camera-ready charisma. This partnership has lasted nearly two decades.
The fact that CNN’s President Jeff Zucker has allowed Parts Unknown to shine a positive light on official enemies, often in sharp contrast with that night’s news coverage, is testimony to the collaboration’s artistic power.
Part travel jaunt, part peek into another world, Anthony Bourdain’s show is, of course, all about cuisine – haute and otherwise.
Americans are all about food. However, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that Americans have been scared off other cultures since the beginning of the current century. For many Americans, their first encounter with the Middle East was the attack on 9/11, for example.
Mr. Bourdain overcomes this with his knack for belonging in any room. He can fling back Sake in Tokyo, be humbled by a multi-course experience at L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges with Paul Bocuse, walk a grey sky beach with Iggy Pop.
Bourdain implores viewers to put aside politics and focus on food.
Anthony Bourdain dares shake hands, smile, dine with Axis of Evil inhabitants. Take Tehran, Iran. Season four, episode six to be exact, 2014, is a travel documentary for the ages. Parts Unknown delves into Persian vagaries, both ancient and current.
Mr. Bourdain implores viewers to put aside politics, which he does acknowledge, and focus on food. The camera pans over street food, over dishes delicately prepared, and I swear I can hear Americans back home humming at the visual goodness.
That’s an in.
Learning researchers have discussed emotional barriers to mastery (especially language acquisition), referring to them as affective filters. I think it can also apply to our understanding of, and empathy toward, foreign peoples and lifestyles. Nationalist rhetoric and war propaganda can create powerful affective filters that prevent cross-cultural understanding and engender antagonism.
Mr. Bourdain lessens that affective filter by being our proxy. He is our stand-in around the world. He carries our assumptions. He strolls agape through grand mosques. He asks the questions that are in the back of our minds, “Why is it we’re so close to Saudi Arabia, anyway?” His cameras show us inviting and warm faces, faces that might be a tad harder to want to see bombed in the future.
His reception doesn’t jibe with our expectations. People stop. They wave. They smile widely.
Tehran’s streets are flurries of activity. They’re much like American hubs. Everywhere Mr. Bourdain goes, he finds genuine signs of public affection toward him and his crew. They’re obviously Westerners, and the reception we might expect him to receive doesn’t quite jibe with what happens. People stop. They wave. They smile widely.
For at least an episode, Iranians were not mustache-twisting lunatics, and were instead humanized into families, aspirants, those looking to a great big beautiful tomorrow … sanctions and war notwithstanding.
It’s quite conceivable that Mr. Bourdain’s humanizing treatment staved off more harsh US intervention regarding Iran, for a while.
Parts Unknown is in its ninth season and will finish its 80th episode in early July. Each season devotes two episodes to US cities or regions, and this time around Los Angeles was chosen.
Mr. Bourdain delves directly into present immigration controversies, dining in barrios with Latino chefs who are making great strides in the present culinary scene – as a percentage of the restaurant industry workforce, he estimates 60 percent of all kitchens have Latino immigrant staff.
That’s Mr. Bourdain’s brilliance. He can slip in understanding under the cover of food.
He reveals that those preparing your Indian fusion dishes are probably from Mexico and Central America. As the show explores, rounding up and shipping off undocumented immigrants would cause a drastic change in how a great number of Americans eat.
And that’s Mr. Bourdain’s brilliance. He can slip better understanding of a sensitive topic into our minds, under the cover of our fascination with food.
Food trucks in Los Angeles are a liberty lover’s dream, lowering economic barriers to entry and setting the local gastronomy world on fire, and Parts Unknown explores them in detail. Suddenly there isn’t a need for zillion dollar grease traps, environmental impact studies, or gaggles of labor codes. Get a truck. Be sanitary. Distinguish yourself. Change the menu every day, or don’t. Explore farm-to-table recipes. A thousand flowers, blooming.
The rest of the season takes viewers to locales both exotic and banal, all the while perfecting the show’s magnificent formula. Each episode is packed with vignettes off the beaten path and sprinkled with enough real village flavor that we walk away more than hungry. We begin a path to cultural literacy.
As of this writing, there are no plans to sell the series in a physical format. Other than watching on CNN, viewers can stream the first eight seasons on Netflix. That’s seventy one episodes of an enjoyable and free cultural anthropology course, wiping away entire layers of governmentally-imposed affective filters.