What Tony Taught Us

I’ve been thinking a lot about Tony lately.

I do love his punk-rock, leather-jacket attitude. He’ll pepper his conversations with curse words, talk in this rapid-fire patter I knew well, and he’ll tell everyone how he thinks about … whatever.

Now, he never liked The Grateful Dead. He doesn’t know what he’s missing, right? But he does like Johnny Thunders. And so do I.

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Johnny Thunders

Anyway, what really gets me about Tony is how he can sit down at any table with some of the weirdest food in front of him and start a conversation with people he doesn’t know – and he doesn’t agree with — and love it.

He truly believes this New Testament, Sunday morning communion idea of breaking bread can dismantle differences between us and bring the most divisive together.

That has always been Tony’s mission. He is trained chef. But he’s also a journalist by accident. He has a gift for coaxing people to talk  about all kinds of things because he simply asks.

Plus, he believes in this five-word sentence: It’s hard to hate up-close.

“Open your mind, get up off the couch,” he used to say. “Move.”

That is his mantra. Or … was.

Like many of us, I found out about Anthony Bourdain’s death on a Friday morning, June 8. I was getting ready for work, when my wife, Katherine, tumbled down the stairs into the kitchen announcing the breaking news from CNN.

Bourdain. Dead. Found in his hotel room. In France.

Damn.

Minutes later, I drove southbound to High Point, bothered once again by loss and listening to a podcast to get my mind off the daily roar of bad news. That’s when I came across what’s new with one of my favorites, “WTF with Marc Maron.”

After news of Tony’s death began to spread worldwide, Maron posted that morning an interview he had with Tony in 2011. I tuned in.

I listened to it on my way to work, on my walk at lunch and on my way home.  Thirty minutes in to a nearly two-hour podcast, I realized why I liked this guy who loved Johnny Thunders.

Here’s what he said:

tony-2“To sit down with people and eat with them — and express a little interest in their food, what interests them and makes them happy — it may not be the answer to world peace. But it’s a start.

“See, I’ve been treated so well in places I never thought I would be treated so well. I’ve been constantly proven wrong about my preconceptions about places like Saudi Arabia.

“I mean, there is this tremendous tradition built around food everywhere. People respond positively to a stranger who shows up and says, ‘I don’t want to talk politics. I don’t give a shit about our differences. What do you eat? What did your mom make you? What do you make around here? What do you like? What makes you happy?’

“It’s something I actually bring up a lot when I talk about the Tea Party because as a Leftie Democrat it’s really easy for me to see all the things I find scary and offensive about the Tea Party.

“But I’ve filmed in places like Saudi Arabia and Vietnam and mainland China, and I’ve broken bread with ex-KGB officers and ex-Viet Cong cadres, and with people from very fundamentalist Muslim sects. So, when I started traveling around my own country, I said, ‘Listen, you know, why can’t I be friends with Ted Nugent. Why can’t I find some common ground here?

“They’re angry. They’re scared. They feel disenfranchised. They feel the government has let them down. They’re manifesting it. I don’t agree with what they say about anything. But I definitely understand anger and disenfranchisement.

Maron: “Ted Nugent would go out and kill an animal with you.”

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Bourdain with Nugent

Tony: “He’s a buddy, largely built around food. We don’t have much else in common, but I’ll say this about what do have in common with him and the Tea Party. We both like beer, and we both like barbecue. That’s something.

“And hopefully, that could be the beginning of a conversation, and that’s much better than sneering at each other relentlessly. That’s counterproductive.

“I don’t know if we’d have a sensible discussion about the issues, but I’m guessing — in fact, I know. I’ve spent time in Hunt Country, Gun Country, Red State America, and I KNOW I could have a good time with those people.

“I even like them, and I respect them. Don’t necessarily agree with them. But I’ve sat down at many tables with people whose political views and views of the world is completely, insanely over the top.

“If a talking head on Fox was saying it, I would be bleeding from my ears. But you sit down at somebody’s table, and there they are with their kids and they’re feeding me biscuits, it’s hard not to find something to love.”

Maron: “Absolutely. But when you’re sitting across the table and enjoying barbecue and biscuits with those people, they’re saying in their brain, ‘We’ll get ‘em. He’ll come around to the way we think.’”

Tony: “Well, that’s better than the alternative. ‘Fuck that, guy.’”

Tony was curious about the world around him, and because of his popular CNN show, “Parts Unknown,” we found out what he discovered.

Then, over a table of food in some corner of the world where I so often needed a map to find, Tony asked questions and listened.

“Why do I have to bend somebody to my way of thinking if I simply want to have dinner with them?” Tony told Maron.

Since his death last month, people have wrestled with what happened. Tony was a recovering drug addict, and he talked openly about his own personal demons, from  battling depression to  being addicted for years to heroin and cocaine.

So, it didn’t surprise anyone when his death was ruled a suicide. After a dinner where he drank a lot of alcohol, he hanged himself in his hotel room. Tony was 61.

You can read about him here. And here. And here.

Says The New Yorker’s David Remnick: “He invented something on television. Which is to say, under the guise of food journalism, he was showing more parts of the world than most television does at all.

“It wasn’t war reporting, it wasn’t political reporting as such, but it had a kind of energy and appetite for knowing the other….If that show was about anything, it was about sitting at the same table with people who are not like you, which sounds awfully corny but is pretty damned noble at the same time.”

It does seem pretty damned noble in our Divided States of America.

I talked to Michael Robinson about all that.

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Michael Robinson, left; and Akir Khan.

Michael, Akir Khan and I used to sit across from one another often. Over a lunch of subs and fries, we’d talk about religion, race and the frustration of higher education just up the street from where we worked at High Point University.

We called the sub shop where we ate our “Rib Shack.” You know, after that spot in the Netflix series “House of Cards.”  We’d sit in a faux-wood booth by the window and plow a lot of conversational ground at that lazy bend in the road near campus.

Michael is now the program director for the Piedmont Triad chapter for the National Conference for Community and Justice of the Piedmont Triad, and we were talking the other day about Anytown.

It’s NCCJ’s annual summer camp in the mountains where teenagers learn how to exercise their empathy muscles, and my daughter, Elizabeth, was going in a few days. So, I called Michael to catch up.

During our conversation, I asked his about his workshop series he calls “Shifting Lenses.”

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Michael Robinson doing his “Shifting Lenses” workshop at Scuppernong Books in downtown Greensboro,.

A year or so ago, Michael created “Shifting Lenses” in my pocket of the South in Greensboro, North Carolina, because he wanted people to go deep and discuss race and our other thorny issues to help them understand one another better.

You can read about “Shifting Lenses” here.

Michael is now taking “Shifting Lenses” nationwide, bound for places like Chicago and St. Louis. And he’ll start those tough discussions, he tells me, over dinner.

That’s when I took to my keyboard. I knew I had to take some notes. I asked Michael why. He answered — and he barely took a breath.

“The food is a way to bring the conversation together. That is something we used to do, and we don’t do anymore.  So, we have to reteach ourselves. We need to have long meals, where we can talk about the real questions in people’s lives. When you do that, you slow down, and that is the entry point for deeper connections.

“It’s that ‘I’m sitting beside you, I’m sitting across the table from you.’ When we do that, we can talk about our culture, our history, and we bring out what we have about ourselves and share it.

“I mean, we all need to eat. So, it made sense doing that with “Shifting Lenses.” Take the conversation where people are.”

Like Anthony Bourdain?

“You know, he inspired me,” Michael tells me. “His journalism, it wasn’t just about the food or how great the food was. Like when he did his show from the Congo. It was about the Congo. The food was the backdrop, and that’s when I saw the possibilities.”

We do see the possibilities. Jon Roethling does. He calls himself a “plant geek.” He makes his living at High Point University digging in the dirt and making things incredibly beautiful.

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Jon and Adrieene Roethling, plant people.

He’s the curator of HPU’s arboretum and botanical gardens, and he does know his flowers and plants. Ask him about an Athyrium ghost, a Martagon Lily or a variegated Solomon Seal, and he’ll give you the most indiscriminate of details about them.

And with the Solomon Seal, he’ll even bark like a seal.

But beside plants and flowers, Jon also knows Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.”

He first got hooked to the show when he saw the episode where Bourdain and President Obama sat on plastic stools two years ago and ate bun cha in some blink-and-miss noodle restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam.

That was a great episode, wasn’t it?obama-2

After Bourdain’s death, Jon and his wife, Adrienne, dove into watching episode after episode after episode of “Parts Unknown.” They both loved the sense of discovery they found with each one.

 

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After Bourdain’s death, President Obama wrote on Twitter: “Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer. This is how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food—but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him.”

“His show’s not cookie-cutter, and he’s so unassuming when he talks to people,” Jon tells me the other day between our discussions about plants and flowers. “He’s just able to draw them out. But when I’m watching, I’m constantly asking myself why. Why?”

We all are. And we’ll never have an answer for the what and the why of June 7.

But through Tony, we do know in a very powerful way how food can bring us together to participate in  tough conversations – or even conversations in general – when we’re across the table from one another.

It reminds me of something else I heard a few weeks back on another podcast. It came  from uber-podcaster and best-selling author Tim Ferriss. He was interviewing Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind the book-and-blog phenomenon, “The Humans of New York.”

Brandon-1Here’s the 411 on Stanton: He’s a Georgia native, a former bond trader in Chicago who got fired and moved to New York City not knowing a soul.

But he did have his camera.

So, he began this project he first dreamed up in Chicago. He stopped people on the streets, asked if he could take their photograph and talked to them for about 90 minutes about all kinds of stuff.

He got everything started with really three questions:

What was your biggest struggle?

How has your life turned out differently than you expected it to?

What do you feel most guilty about?

Like Anthony Bourdain, Stanton gets people to open up. Why? Stanton has an answer.

“I’ve spent seven years in these conversations with 10,000 people, and it’s not necessarily that I’ve gotten so good at asking questions. It’s just that I’ve gotten so comfortable in the presence of strangers.

“I can sit with them without an ounce of self-consciousness and just be. Just be curious about them. Then, there is this energy that happens. It doesn’t feel like someone is interviewing you. It feels like someone who knows you, who cares about you and who is really interested in what goes on in your life.

“It’s very subtle and hard to describe. It’s just that energy of being there. It’s something I had to earn.”

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Brandon Stanton

That brings me back to my 16-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. And dinner.

When we Rowes eat, Elizabeth keeps pretty quiet. But a few days ago, she had a friend over, and I asked him to stay for dinner. He accepted, and there at the dinner table, over a plate of baked chicken and Brussels Sprouts, Elizabeth lit up.

She started conversations. She laughed. She even got a bit snarky. And yes, she talked. A lot.

Maybe it was because her friend was at her elbow.

Maybe she was trying to impress him.

Maybe she loves Brussels Sprouts.

Or maybe, just maybe, she doesn’t mind breaking bread with us and participate in some thought-provoking conversation about what is happening that affects her teenage world.

Who knows?

But it showed me once again how a table of food can break the silence of anyone — all because of the ripple effect of what’s between our knife and fork.

Thanks, Tony.

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