Anthony Bourdain's Quest for Beauty

The human soul will stop at nothing to discover beauty. It will traverse foreign lands for a glimpse of nature not seen at home. It will write poetry and love letters and spend weeks of income earned via backbreaking labor only to kneel in a position of fragility and ask another to love them forever. It will tolerate months of muscles stretching and morning sickness to not just discover beauty but to hold it to its chest, beautiful heartbeat in rhythm with beautiful heartbeat.

But imagine the beauty your soul craves to be in the presence of, to feel and touch and taste, is food. Whether it's octopus in Queens or barbecue in the tiny town of Hemingway, SC, Anthony Bourdain was a man who sought out the beauty in food. But it wasn't just the food alone, because why would anyone living in the U.S. need to travel anywhere else solely for food?

No, it was the beauty in the culture of a place, in the people that created the food, not the food itself. The people who spent decades perfecting a dish, the ones who began prepping a meal at 5:00 a.m. while the world slept so that at 5:00 p.m. the world could enjoy it. Those were the people who Bourdain celebrated and enjoyed meeting. They held the beauty to be discovered.

Reality is evil and unfair, however, and most of us don't get to live like Bourdain did. We don't travel to exotic locations and dine on foreign delicacies and fine international wines. We don't have money to gorge ourselves on various appetizers and steaks and words we cannot pronounce in a French menu at some swanky restaurant in town. We are relegated to watching Bourdain do so from our mundane living rooms and uncomfortable couches and realizing that halfway through a Parts Unknown episode where Tony is educating us on sticky rice from Northern Thailand and how it mixes with a spicy chili paste and pork to make a dish fit for the gods, you've put away half a family-size bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. 

Not to worry. No one is judging you. Certainly not Bourdain, who has his culinary vices as well. After all, the beloved Waffle House was featured on an episode, described in such poetic terms you'd have thought Wordsworth himself had penned a review of covered-and-smothered hash browns. Yes, beauty is discoverable darn near anywhere, and Anthony Bourdain used the common medium of food to allow us, at the very least a visual peek behind the curtain of the beauty he was looking for.

Of course, us, the viewers, the ones who only know about that kind of beauty through imitation restaurants and cookbooks and re-tweeted articles from the New Yorker find our essential beauty in other areas. No, we don't get to travel to Berlin or Budapest or Buenos Aires. But we find beauty, slivers of it, in our daily lives. It's the parent staring into a perfectly cleaned playroom, shelves organized and toys all put away. It's the teacher and coach recognizing the kid that finally, after weeks of trying, gets it. It's the writer closing the laptop after hours of writing, recognizing another chapter of the novel is done. It's the restoration of an antique desk, a family heirloom, an old house. It's the birth of a child, the ceremony of the graduate, to "job well done" and "atta boy" to the worker. It's beauty. Big and small. And we search for it, yearn for it, chase after it every single day.

But beauty itself isn't the end game. It's the hunt, the sweat, the sacrifice of time and money and more time that makes something beautiful. If I got to see a Carolina sunset every hour of the day, the patient wait for 8:30 pm and the hope for no clouds and the configuring of where to be and just how serene the viewing environment is would be for naught. If earning a degree or writing a book or closing a million-dollar deal didn't involve work and time, the beauty at the end wouldn't be as wonderful. If Bourdain didn't travel to remote places and find hole-in-the-wall bars and eateries in the middle of nowhere, and if he didn't write about them all with such eloquence, and furthermore if he didn't spend years mastering culinary arts and developing relationships with people in the writing, film, and cooking industry, then the beauty he sought would not have been uncovered.

But it was uncovered. It was unveiled episode by episode, places we will never physically go, he took us to. Ideas and stories and struggles and triumphs we will never experience, he shared with us. We can only hope those he influenced along the way will carry on the path of discovering beauty and be so willing to invite us into just a few moments of it. Just like Bourdain did. And we will go along finding our own pockets of beauty, sharing them with those we love and even some we don't. And if those moments of beauty involve some culinary delight, all the better.