To Filter and Fibre Your Blood
by Eric D. Lehman
The night Anthony Bourdain’s suicide was announced, my wife and I opened a bottle of 2010 Haut-Medoc, grilled some Brussels sprouts and hot dogs, which we ate with homemade pickled onions and relish. I read out loud from Moby Dick.
Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me.
It was an act of defiance, a standard response to the death of someone we didn’t know but had still somehow been important to us.
But this one hit a little harder than most. I had only seen Bourdain in person once, at a local forum for food authors, arguing with Alice Waters on stage while we applauded and laughed. But since Kitchen Confidential had arrived on bookshelves, and his shows had arrived on television, he had been a guide, an inspiration, a companion on the road. He played that part in many lives, I think, which is why the outpouring of grief was so universal and acute.
I was already a traveler when Bourdain’s work began to be popular. I had been to Machu Pichu, to the Acropolis, to the Grand Canyon. But he showed me how to integrate food and culture into travel. Travel was not just seeing a great mountain, or even climbing it. The experience was integrated with conversation, with values, and most of all with food. His deep interest in and respect for each person he met inspired me to be a better traveler, maybe a better man.
As a minor-league travel and food writer, I had a model in Bourdain, and he led me to others. His work on television was arguably even more important; it is difficult to remember the sameness and banality, the polished-floor mediocrity, of television travel shows before Bourdain. Instead, he gave us thoughtful travel-essays that sometimes reached the heights of poetry.
All that came crashing down on June 8th. If this man could give into despair and commit suicide, leave his daughter, let his loyal friend, chef Eric Ripert, find the body, then what hope was there for the rest of us. For me?
Despite my own struggles with chronic anxiety, a few days later I left with my wife Amy for a long-planned and saved-for trip to Holland. I would increase my already frequent insomnia with jetlag, and more, to live out a lifestyle that he seemed to have invented, at least for a generation of Americans. After all, isn’t travel itself a healing activity? Aren’t trying new things a remedy for depression? So, after taking the red-eye we collapsed into a nap in the hotel off the Vondelpark, then stumbled a few blocks to an Indonesian restaurant with a view of the canals for a rijsttafel with 17 dishes stacked on metal warming trays. I took melatonin pills on top of wine and tried to get some sleep.
The next day I woke up at 5:00 am, and after lying in bed listening to headphones for a few hours, dragged myself to the museums before they opened, seeing the iconic “I Amsterdam” sign without tourists climbing on it for the first and last time. For lunch at the Stedeljik Museum café, we ordered a plate of liverwurst, a sort of beef tartare, and bitterballen – fried balls of creamy chicken or other meat. Between museums we lay down on the green grass of the museumplein and soaked in the sun, trying to induce sleep. In the evening at an old tavern with small marble-topped tables and leather-seated benches I tried a Dutch stamppot and Zuidam Rogge Genever, halfway between whisky and gin – creamy and caramelish, but also floral and biting. Then for dessert Amy and I tried another Dutch specialty, poffertjes, small silver-dollar-sized pancakes, chewy and delightful. My heavy heart would lighten, then grow weightier, alternately, swaying back and forth between anxiety and contentment.
On the third morning I felt somewhat better as we cycled in the Vondelpark and the Rembrandt Park, stopping to admire the beautiful gardens, a hidden teahouse, two rabbits browsing on the verge. Ducks of all sorts waddled in the marshy margins. We crossed canals and pedaled alongside them, using the omnipresent dedicated bike lanes. I worked up an appetite and after a stop in the Rijksmuseum we met our lunch reservation at Rijks, the adjoining fancy restaurant. The day before we had been turned away, and at our table we watched several people fall victim to this popularity. “We have 110 reservations for lunch,” the manager told a disappointed family.
Four oysters to start, very much tasting of the sea, and not as chewy as our usual Connecticut ones. fresh baked bread, a Dornfelder cold-climate red wine. Amy gets ham of goat kid, while I ordered a four-part duck, including heart and tongue. Duck egg in broth with duck tongue, spinach, and wild garlic, a glazed duck leg with citrus marmalade, oxalis, and ginger gravy, a barbecued duck heart with crispy rice, goat yoghurt, and butter chicken sauce, and slices of duck breast with liver cream, cassis, and pine tops. After more museums, we eat tapas at a cheap restaurant in the tourist district – Iberico ham, olives, crispy fried squid, beef cheeks, steamed buns, washed down with a Temperanillo. We browsed a flower market, and Amy bought seeds for a lemon tree, to plant on our porch.
Despite my enjoyment of these fabulous meals, it all reminded me of Bourdain, and thoughts of suicide are not exactly conducive to a pleasant meal. Early that morning I imagined how easy it would be to step out of the hotel window and fall to my death, though I had no urge to do so. My anxiety, deep though it sometimes becomes, has not got the better of me yet. I am not exhausted enough, not unhappy enough. For some reason, which we may never know, Bourdain was driven past this edge to a final despair.
The following day we walked the streets, passing over small bridges, avoiding legions of cyclists barreling by. Boxes of flowers provide splashes of color against the houses – white-fronted, stone-colored, or shades of brick, from red to gray to beige. But the ones that draw my eyes are the many painted black. I remembered being in Amsterdam in January, and it was one of the soberest cities in the world, like a smoke-blackened Old Master painting. At the Van Gogh Museum, I was confronted with the story of yet another person who made beautiful art, but also committed suicide. We walked along the Herengracht, passing the Westkerk, where Rembrandt is buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. We take the tour through Anne Frank’s house, shuffling along with thousands of other silent tourists, passing through the hidden attic, peering at the pages of her beautiful diary.
I had another bad night, but well after dawn my wife put her hand on my arm and lulled me to sleep. We left for The Hague, where we ate delicious Surinamese kip kerrie and tempeh sandwiches while a misty rain falls outside. After doing a quick brush-up on the history of Suriname, we realized that it was a country we were both interested in visiting someday. That’s what usually happens, and for us, there is almost no place in the world that is not intriguing. There just isn’t enough money or time.
That is a reason many, including me, envied Bourdain his job. He was actually paid to do this sort of travel, instead of saving up for years to afford it. And though he spoke about his anxiety, his former drug addictions, and his fears for the world, he seemed happy. Was it all just an illusion? We can review his work now and see the troubling evidence. In his piece “The Dive,” he described how he came to the edge of a one-hundred-fifty-foot cliff in Sicily, and full of beer and hope he jumped. “And you know what surprised me?” he wrote. “I didn’t care. I was not afraid. I’ve known love. I’ve seen many beautiful things. And it was enough.” He was “stone cold,” “serene,” and “happy” as he dropped. At the time I first read this I saw it as an act of defiance, a shout in the face of death. Now I am not so sure.
After staring at The Goldfinch in the Mauritshuis far too long, we stopped at a food truck to try another local specialty, the broodje haring, a raw herring sandwich with onions. Then that evening we ate dinner Umami den Haag, with six-course meals of tasty delights like tempura beech mushrooms and sour sea bass. I try the houndshark, another first. But during the meal I burdened Amy with my anxieties again. She talked me through the episode, but I was sad that I couldn’t help thinking about future troubles, even here is this beautiful city, away from that world, seeing great art and eating great food. Of course, that is exactly what happened to Anthony Bourdain. The people we envy the most are often those who need our sympathy, our help, our love.
We returned to the hotel and shared a couple of glasses of Oude Genever. Amy sat next to me on a lounge with her hand on my arm, talking about visiting Indonesia and Suriname someday, and I knew that whatever came I was loved. I was I, but I was also we. I had generous friends, I had a few loyal readers, I had thousands of students I tried to help over the years. And the next day I woke late, and my anxiety and insomnia were gone, at least for now.
Two days later we took the tram to Delft, picked up a classic blue and white Delft tile for my mother, and went to see the humble grave of Vermeer at the Old Church. I cried, as I often do at the graves of writers and artists, letting something out of me. We continued on to Rotterdam and the giant indoor Markthal, painted with scenes of food in what many call the largest work of art in the world. We hopped from stall to stall, culture to culture, taste to taste. Boquerones and xiao long baos, Iberico ham and Dutch cheese. Almost stuffed already, my wife and I shared a Surinamese bakkeljauw roti filled with spiced potatoes, green onions, and pink salted cod that might have been the best sandwich I have ever had.
Anthony Bourdain had handed me that sandwich, or at least given me the courage to try it. As Melville intimated in Moby Dick, his body was not his substance. The best part of him lives on. Another American giant, Walt Whitman, put it a different way:
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Bourdain’s final despair may continue to trouble us, but his words and essence and love have filtered out to others across the globe. And the secret is that it is not just the famous writers and television hosts who give us “good health,” it is every small-town chef and struggling farmer, every factory worker and flight attendant, every world traveler and stay-at-home parent. Every human being.
Bourdain knew that secret, and taught and retaught it to us many times. I just wish that at the end he could have remembered. For his sake, and my own, I will do my best never to forget.
About the Author:
Eric D. Lehman teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Bridgeport and his work has been published in dozens of journals and magazines. He is the author of twelve books, including Shadows of Paris, Homegrown Terror, and Becoming Tom Thumb. His latest book, Great Pan Is Dead: My Encounters With Coincidence will be published in 2019 by Little Bound Books. Follow him @afootinconnecticut, and visit his website at www.ericdlehman.org.