Food, Empathy, and Continuing to Mourn Anthony Bourdain

It strikes me as cruelly serendipitous that three instances of people publicly shaming significant figures of the Trump Administration in the past week took place at restaurants: Kirstjen Nielsen hounded out of a Mexican restaurant, Stephen Miller being heckled and called a fascist, also at a Mexican restaurant, and of course Sarah Huckabee Sanders being asked to leave The Red Hen, a farm-to-table establishment in Virginia. Why was this all serendipitous, and cruelly so? Because it came fairly closely on the heels of the death of Anthony Bourdain.

As may or may not have been obvious from my last post, the past two weeks or so have really gotten to me. Based on the responses I received, I’m not alone. Mostly I use this blog as a means of thinking out loud, but every so often I manage to strike a nerve. Most posts of mine get between fifty and sixty hits; in the forty-hours after I hit the “publish” button, I received over four hundred. Which is, to be certain, exceptionally modest for online writing, but deeply gratifying nonetheless.

In hindsight, it was Bourdain’s death that was something of a tipping-point for me emotionally, and which made everything that followed that much more unbearable to think about. There is comfort to be had in knowing there are rational, humane, deeply intelligent thinkers at large in the world to whom we can reliably turn to for wisdom. Bourdain was just such a person for me, and his loss, apparently, is something I’m still working through.

I have no doubt he’d have had something to say about Nielsen and Miller’s tone-deaf choice of eating establishments, as well as Sanders’ expulsion from the Red Hen. I don’t know whether he’d have agreed with the latter, but I’m confident he would have said his piece with his usual wit and moral acumen; and what’s more, I would have been surprised if he hadn’t reminded us of how the food services industry, more than almost any other, is reliant upon undocumented labour. At the end of Kitchen Confidential, he offers advice to any young person considering a career as a chef. One of the big ones, simply, is learn to speak Spanish: almost everyone working the shit jobs in professional kitchens, from dishwashers to prep cooks, will likely be a recent immigrant from Central or South America. If Slytherin acolyte Stephen Miller could in fact wave a wand and make all eleven million undocumented immigrants disappear, the restaurant industry in America would collapse (as it would anyway, as all the food it might otherwise serve would lie rotting in farmers’ fields around the country for lack of hands to harvest it).

The point here is not so much to make the case for the practical value of undocumented immigrants and their economic contributions, as to look at these incidents as emblematic of cultural divides contrasted with cultural fusions. Bourdain’s transformation from bad-boy chef to food tourist to thoughtful, nuanced cultural critic was not actually that far a trip. French gastronomist Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s directive “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are”—perhaps most famously used as the epigraph for the original Japanese Iron Chef—articulates quite pithily the centrality of food to culture, and that was always the connection Bourdain made, whether he was eating his beloved noodles in Saigon or jig’s dinner in Newfoundland.

bourdain-obama

Remember when we had a president who didn’t tweet pictures of himself with fast food?

As Helen Rosner points out in The New Yorker, given the pervasiveness of Mexican cuisine in the U.S.—comprising an estimated nine percent of all restaurants, “more than the total number of pizzerias”—it “may have been pure statistical inevitability that caused Kirstjen Nielsen … to eat at a Mexican restaurant.” Rosner’s suggestion is made here, presumably, with her tongue in her cheek, but the larger point is more profound: namely, that U.S. culture on its most basic levels is inextricably multi-ethnic. Mexican food’s profusion is emblematic of this reality, especially considering one finds its influence everywhere, not just in Mexican restaurants. As Rosner observes,

… you can find fajitas at Chili’s, guacamole and chips at the Cheesecake Factory, churros at Disney World, quesadillas repurposed into burger buns at Applebee’s, margaritas at LongHorn Steakhouse, Baja-style fish tacos at hipster brunch spots, and nachos at every sports arena in America.

This is at once hopeful and troubling: hopeful, because it suggests a certain success of the American Idea, and thus the impossibility of the white nationalist project; troubling, because it also suggests a disconnection and appropriation. I can completely believe that Stephen Miller chose to dine at a Mexican restaurant specifically to troll people, but I can equally believe that Kirstjen Nielsen was completely oblivious to the idea that being seen at a Mexican restaurant while ICE tore children from families might be seen as being in poor taste. I can believe the latter because a lack of empathy for people can and often does go hand in hand with a callous disregard for people’s contributions to your quotidian reality. It can also tend to reduce those contributions to simplistic end empty signifiers, as when Trump tweeted a picture of himself eating a taco bowl with the caption “I love Hispanics!”—as if the act of eating Mexican-adjacent food gave the lie to his overt racism.

Indeed, it’s hard not to see in Trump’s love of fast food the distillation of many of his worst attributes: ignorance, selfish appetites and their need for instant gratification, self-destructiveness, and a profoundly incurious mind. Corporate fast food like McDonalds and KFC are an embodiment of empathy’s lack, as the entire business model is predicated on divorcing consumers from any sense of the food’s origins, both in terms of the plants and animals from which the food is made, but also its cultural origins, with companies like Taco Bell turning its products into simplistic caricatures that can be replicated quickly and efficiently with a minimum of skill for the lowest cost possible. Michael Pollan’s discussion of McDonald’s fries makes the point more eloquently than I can:

It’s thus easy to understand how the employees of The Red Hen would have found Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ presence in their establishment unbearable. Farm-to-table cuisine is philosophy as much as sustenance, rooted in an awareness of interconnectedness and community, and which advocates sustainable, humane, and organic farming practices. That kind of cuisine does not emerge without empathy and a social conscience, something that, at least in this one instance, proved incompatible with serving food to the unapologetic mouthpiece of an Administration with no empathy and no conscience.

If Nielsen, Miller, and Sanders are going to willingly work for an administration that vilifies cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism, it seems only fair that they should be denied the enjoyment of the benefits of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism.

I’m reasonably certain Anthony Bourdain would have agreed.

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