Eating together creates common ground - as the late Anthony Bourdain knew


We'll be bringing out reports and material from our successful "Friendly" event at the Devonport Guildhall in Plymouth over the next few days and weeks. But we were struck by what would seem like a small element of our event, which had a very big impact - the fact that we served up a delicious vegetarian curry, and bowls of fruit, as a part of our low ticket price (£3).

In the run-up to our exercises and performances, the sense of wellbeing and happiness in the room, as people worked their way through a potato saag, was tangible. A Polish woman took one of us aside during proceedings and said, "you will always do well if you open your meetings by breaking bread". We are taking note. 

But it reminded us of some of the commentary that has been generated around the unfortunate and untimely death (by suicide) of the US pop chef Anthony Bourdain. His cable series Parts Unknown (currently still running on the CNN channel in the UK) followed a familiar travelogue genre.

Yet many recent commentators have noted how much Bourdain used the occasion of cooking food to stage social events, which included the excluded, easily crossed boundaries, and showed the human side behind stereotypes.

As Jacobin magazine writes

Bourdain said of his crowning legacy, Parts Unknown, “Some shows are agenda-driven.” That agenda was at once banal and radical: “Show regular people doing everyday things.” The locations tipped viewers off to his politics. Bourdain visited Gaza, Iran, Cuba, Congo, Vietnam, Namibia, Libya, and Colombia. US locations featured West Virginia, Montana, and Cleveland. It was a roll call of neocon enemies and neoliberal abandonment. Bourdain used food to oppose the Washington consensus.

In Jerusalem, Bourdain remarked that the half-a-million Israeli settlers who’ve moved to the West Bank since 1967 are “all in contravention of international law [though] it seems to make little difference.” In Bethlehem, Bourdain said of Israel’s wall, “It doesn’t feel like anything other than what it is. A prison.” In Gaza, Laila El-Haddad, author of The Gaza Kitchen, explains how Israel shoots at and detains fishermen, before showing the diversity of Gaza through two meals.

First Bourdain joins a family gathering over a chicken, rice, and fried vegetable casserole. Then, apart from El-Haddad, a men’s-only feast of roasted young watermelon, tomatoes, chili, olive oil, and unleavened bread scooped from a collective pot. It’s a sumptuous way to demolish the image of Gazans as a monolithic faceless enemy.

In accepting an award for the Jerusalem episode, Bourdain let loose. “There is a measure I guess of how twisted and shallow our depiction of a people is that these images come as a shock to so many. The world has visited many terrible things on the Palestinian people, none more shameful than robbing them of their basic humanity. People are not statistics. That is all we attempted to show.”

Humanity is the current that runs through Bourdain’s best work. He showed solidarity and genuine affection for people, and disgust with brutal governments; tourist-led development, as in Cuba; colonialism, as in the Congo; and predatory capitalism, as in Puerto Rico...

In many countries, Bourdain is feted with elaborate feasts in people’s homes. Iran, he says, “is a land of secret recipes, passed down within families like treasured possessions,” as women prepare brick-red chicken stews, platters of fried fish, and rice dishes. He’s not downing $500 twenty-four-course tasting menus by swollen-head chefs. He’s recognizing women are responsible for the bulk of social and cultural reproduction that’s been usurped by the male-centric culinary empire model in the West. (See episode below, and "Why Iranians loved Anthony Bourdain") 

The Iran episode is particularly affecting because Bourdain and his crew spend much of the episode lingering over faces, smiles, families, laughter, children, picnics, and prayers. He was asking Americans if they are willing to bomb, shoot, and starve these people with an astonishingly rich and hospitable culture. (See Iran episode below):

Bourdain’s political transformation happened on the road to Beirut. He landed there in 2006, days before Israel bombarded the city. The episode is a verite documentary of a society upended in an instant. Lebanese journalist Kim Ghattas says that as a result, “Bourdain developed a new approach that used conversations about food to tell the story and politics of the countries he visited in ways that hard news couldn’t.”

In a coda to the 2006 Beirut war episode he mused on his approach. “I had begun to believe that the dinner table was the great leveler. Where people from opposite sides of the world could always sit down and talk and eat and drink, and if not solve all the world’s problems, at least find for a time common ground. Now, I’m not so sure.”

For what was meant to be a light-hearted series, Bourdain sank into darkness. “Maybe the world’s not like that at all. Maybe in the real world, the one without cameras and happy food and travel shows, everybody, the good and the bad together, are all crushed under the same terrible wheel. I hope, I really hope, I’m wrong about that.”

More from Jacobin here. We're sure he is - or sadly, was - wrong about that. We'll prefer to dwell on his belief that eating together can, indeed, be the great leveller. We hope to break bread with you soon.