Image Credit: Patri Hadad
“Anthony Bourdain made everyone come to the same table //
How loud the echo right before dawn.”
-Naomi Shihab Nye
On that Friday in June 2018—the day that cook and television host Anthony Bourdain died—I pulled off the highway to buy pie. I wasn’t particularly hungry, but I love finding delicious spots on the way to places, thumbing through stacks of old magazines while polishing off a pulled pork sandwich or homemade soup. There was the snack oasis with strawberry-rhubarb cobbler on the way to my grandma’s house, the restaurant with perfectly fried okra between Charlotte and Asheville, the café in the Catskills—found on a childhood trip with my dad—with the crooked floor and well-seasoned sweet potato fries. The cartoon slice on the exit sign suggested Rock Springs Café might be such a place, but after crossing over the highway and heading south on the frontage road, I found a giant restaurant with a packed parking lot instead, flanked by gift shops. Still, a golden-crusted pie with a slice missing was painted above the entrance, cherries spilling out and seducing me in.
I pulled open the double doors and nearly bumped into a woman in her early fifties, frosted hair brushing against her pink t-shirt. “Pardon me,” I said, but she didn’t respond. Instead, she gave me a funny look and shuffled uncomfortably, fingering the gold-plated cross around her neck. As I walked through the dining room to the bathroom, the looks continued: polo-shirted groups of retirees peered up from their burgers and stared a few seconds too long, as though they were trying to figure out whether I was a boy or a girl and were concerned that I was neither. I was suddenly very aware of my buzzed head and the v-neck t-shirt worn on my 5’2 frame; of my stomping stride and voice that hit a few octaves too high. I felt a little like an interloper in a 1980s teen flick, a city freak arriving in that small town to teach high school girls to dance and worship the devil and kiss each other.
The waitstaff—young and kind in a way that was genuine, as though they knew I stood out and wanted to guide me—pointed me to the pie counter. I browsed the shelf of preserves for ice cream mix-ins; the blueberry balsamic looked delicious, but a small jar was above my budget and might spoil in the car. The pies were pre-packaged and expensive—six bucks for a small slice that didn’t look as good as the illustrated one on the highway sign—and the uncomfortable glances continued, making my looking feel like lurking. So I thanked the cashier by the front door and headed to the parking lot empty-handed.
Before getting back in the car I replied to Roxy, who sent me a “How u doin bud” text an hour before, while I was navigating Phoenix traffic. I was headed to the Verde Valley, where a few of us planned to spend the weekend at a bed-and-breakfast tucked into a canyon and managed by our friend and Roxy’s partner, Shell. Roxy referred to the trip, in her exuberant wordsmith way, as “vay-gay-tion”, and sent out careful road directions staccatoed with bits of poetry that read like lavender bursts in a desert bouquet. I was excited to be en route, to cleave out a rare couple days in my too-busy life to sit around lazily, cook, and swap stories with friends.
I didn’t tell Roxy about my attempt to buy pie. “Weirdly sad about Tony Bourdain,” I wrote instead, “He was such a compassionate and brilliant storyteller.”
It was with some cynicism that one winter, holed up in my badly insulated Tucson house and bored of shows like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, I put on an episode of Parts Unknown, Bourdain’s food and travel television show. I knew the host by his Kitchen Confidential-reputation as a broey chef, and assumed he was the sort of person I—a clumsy, assigned-female-at-birth line cook—wouldn’t want to be stuck working back-of-house with. While I can’t remember which episode I saw first, I do know that my impressions of Bourdain were upended almost immediately.
In the first few episodes I watched, I saw how Bourdain refused to ignore the politics surrounding the places he visited and meals he ate. In Jamaica, the television host spoke with Oracabessa fishermen and a crew of women restaurant owners near Winnifred Beach about luxury resort developers that were buying up shorefront property and land-locking residents on their own island. “Who gets to live in paradise?” Bourdain asked over and over in that episode, a refrain that underscored Jamaica’s stark race and class divides. In Parts Unknown: Jerusalem, the television host trespassed against the ideologies of the United States and Israeli governments by calling into question Israeli settlers and speaking to Jewish and Arab restaurant owners working to heal the divide between their peoples. He toured Gaza with journalist and cookbook author Laila el-Haddad, who spoke of the impacts of occupation on Arab fishermen and the potential of food media to chip away at stereotypes of Palestinians as nothing more than, as she says in the episode, “gunmen and wailing women.” Their travels through Gaza were peppered with these alternative culinary narratives, including a scene where El-Haddad and Bourdain ate watermelon salad with displaced Palestinian elders who spoke of a prophesied return to their ancestral lands.
Hooked, I started watching three or four episodes a night, without headphones—much to the chagrin of the early-rising legal aid worker who lived in the room next to mine. Over the next three years, I continued to binge-watch Bourdain’s shows, buying new seasons as soon as they were released and finishing them within a week. By the time I drove through the high desert on that June day, I had seen every single episode of Parts Unknown and Bourdain’s earlier show, No Reservations. Still, biting back tears, I was surprised at how much the loss of someone I didn’t know could impact me. It wasn’t until I was rounding the traffic circles in the Verde Valley, minutes away from the bed-and-breakfast, that I realized I had spent more time with Bourdain than anyone else I’d never met—more time, actually, than I had with many of my closest friends, especially over the last few years.
I pulled up the canyon’s hairpin road in the early afternoon, and my arrival prompted Roxy to tell Shell about Bourdain’s death.
“What?” Shell said, sipping an ice-cold seltzer to keep the late spring heat at bay, “You’re kidding.” The three of us stood on their patio, next to a picnic table and under a painted tile of St. Francis, my suitcase still in my hands.
“No,” I replied, the word fumbling out of my mouth.
“Really? That’s. It’s. Fuck, really?”
I nodded. Yes.
Shell was once the kitchen manager at a Tucson café where I worked the line. Despite doing my job in a less-than-stellar fashion—during the brunch rush, I tended to leave bacon in the oven too long and burn it to a crisp; and I sometimes forgot to put nuts in the pesto—we remain friends. They love healthy, locally sourced cooking in an almost religious way, and I love learning from them whenever we end up in a kitchen together. We once churned out a multi-course meal for a friend’s birthday-party-slash-performance-piece where guests were invited to eat a course off her (very clean) body, each dish attended to with the same care Shell would have given it at a fine dining restaurant. I spent that night learning to flambé bananas and cook romanesco to the sounds of friends giggling as they decorated the celebrant’s legs with charred leeks and lettuce leaf tacos.
Shell and I exchanged a flurry of food-related texts in the days leading up to vay-gay-tion, and I arrived with a cooler of produce and canned goods from Tucson grocery stores and farmers markets: verdolagas, Arizona sweet limes, coconut milk and peach jam for ice cream. Roxy carried the cooler from the car, then Shell and I put the food away, tucking it into the cabinets and fridge in their small kitchen.
“After culinary school, I didn’t even want to be in the industry. All my classmates were going into corporate,” Shell, who grew up as the youngest child in a large and chaotic Catholic family, told me as we worked, “On the plane, going home, I read five chapters of Bourdain’s book. It was the first time I heard that other ways of eating existed—local food, farm-to-table stuff. It opened up a new world.” In the years that followed, Shell pursued their culinary passions any way they could, working two or three jobs at a time to make ends meet in an industry where wages are often far too low.
A year or so before my trip, Shell was hired to manage the bed-and-breakfast in the Verde Valley, and moved into a staff cottage built against the side of the canyon. Just outside the cottage’s door, an herb and vegetable garden sprawled downslope–over that weekend, I took to running barefoot across the oven-like ground to grab squash, sage, and lavender for meals. A flock of chickens that Shell referred to as “my girls” wandered the garden during the day and spent the night in a coop tucked amid fig and citrus trees; they provided the rosy brown eggs Shell brought back to the house for us and prepared for bed-and-breakfast guests each the morning.
Then there were the rows of biodynamic grape vines perched on a slope across the canyon. Shell drove us to the vineyard in a golf cart, deftly navigating the rutted dirt road, and once there answered my nerdy questions: “What varieties?” “Montepulciano, sangiovese and nero amaro.” “Oh look, there’s a rose bush, that’s to signal the phylloxera epidemic right? ‘Cause roses get phylloxera before vines do?” A broad smile, a nod. The vines were planted eight years before, but it wasn’t until Shell arrived with the knowledge of how to cultivate, press, and ferment grapes—skills acquired while working harvests in Oregon and California—that the bed-and-breakfast started making wine.
Later, covering the peach trees in the garden with netting to protect them from birds, I thought about the story Shell told in the kitchen. I didn’t know which of Bourdain’s books they were referring to, and didn’t particularly connect his work to the farm-to-table movement. And yet, that was something Shell found in a few chapters they read on the way home from culinary school, something that rooted and stuck.
Over the next couple weeks, friends and writers I admired would share what Bourdain meant to them and each time it would seem like they were bringing up something different. How, in interviews and on his television shows, he advocated on behalf of undocumented restaurant workers in the United States, speaking out against deportation and for pathways to citizenship. His skills as a video essayist who, at his best, wove interviews, questions, music, and narration into a provocative whole. The food and drink traditions that influenced their own work as cooks and food writers; the way hours spent watching him drink chicha in Peru and inhale pasta at a Roman osteria not only inspired them to hit the road, but to appreciate the culinary treasures in their own towns.
Their stories pointed at what I loved most about Bourdain’s work: how he articulated that food is culture and culture is political, saying out loud what I knew in my gut to be true. Bourdain gave me the courage to name the culture-making that took place when I gathered with fellow queers, anarchists and travelers around a table or fire pit—whether we were eating burritos at a mass mobilization in Pittsburgh or scooping machaca onto tortillas at a humanitarian camp along the US-Mexico border. We were sharing meals, yes, but we were also bringing the communities we longed for into being.
And yet, the previous three years—years I watched Bourdain’s shows obsessively—had been marked by change. I no longer spent leisurely mornings drinking coffee with my roommates and whatever guests happened to be sleeping on our couch; and I didn’t jump ship during the summers to cook at environmental activist gatherings, like I did in my early twenties. Instead, I went back to college, gigged as a restaurant columnist, and started a job in arts education. My partner and I moved out of our collective houses and into an apartment together. And my mental health disorder—which I was diagnosed with shortly after moving to Tucson—worsened, and isolation became a kind of survival mechanism. Too busy and too anxious to spend time with friends, I made a hasty plate of tacos and opened my laptop to watch Bourdain gather with families and friends in the Philippines, Armenia, and Ethiopia instead. Over platters of grilled meats and lovingly prepared vegetables, they shared traditions and traded jokes; dreamed away borders and of a kinder, better world. Before I knew it, these celluloid tables and taped conversations had replaced the once-cherished communal mealtimes in my own life.
Aubrey and Aria pulled up the dirt driveway late Friday afternoon. They left Tucson around the same time I did, but traveling with a baby meant they had to make more stops and subsequently got stuck in rush hour traffic. By the time they parked Ruby was fast asleep, their head nodding up and down as Aubrey carefully removed their carseat from the truck and set it gently on the ground.
I met Aria and Aubrey shortly after moving to Arizona—Aria and I became friends while helping with Beehive Collective presentations in New Mexico, and Aubrey moved from Ohio into my partner’s house a few months after that. Our friendships were re-cemented three years later, when we all performed in a queer staging of Macbeth. Aria doled out post-apocalyptic charms and punk-femme curses as one of the Three Witches, while Aubrey and I were cast as children. We both played with toys on stage and, during each performance, tiptoed behind the hand painted set to find each other, trading the props we needed for our scenes and miming giggles as we did so. Aria and Aubrey were my first local friends to have a child and, unable to afford daycare, asked their wider queer community to take on babysitting shifts. I volunteered to occasionally watch Ruby and, despite being raised as an only child and knowing next-to-nothing about infants, their parents trusted me. I found that I wasn’t awful at changing diapers, getting thrown up on, and soothing them as they cried for forty-five minutes straight.
While Roxy gave the trio a golf-cart tour of the property and Shell finished their evening chores in the garden, I started dinner. I harvested and fried up homegrown zucchini and herbs for calabacitas; and simmered onions until translucent, then added beans and a spicy broth to the pot. By the time everyone returned to the house I was toasting thick corn tortillas that Aria and Aubrey brought from Anita Street Market, a bakery Aria had introduced me to years before.
“Hey, Shell,” I said, flipping a tortilla, “Can you try the salsa in the fridge and fix it? It tastes funny.” Earlier that afternoon, Roxy and I made peach-mango salsa and seasoned it with what we thought was cayenne but was actually paprika, making the fruit taste too smoky. Shell adjusted it, adding citrus and spices until it was just right, while Roxy worked on the pile of dishes crowding the sink. She cheered us on and danced in a pair of cut off shorts as she scrubbed. Aubrey and Aria looked after Ruby, who had just started crawling—albeit in a lopsided, crone-like way—and seemed to be everywhere all at once.
As I finished the meal, I wondered if this act of cooking for loved ones, of taking time to celebrate this queer world we found ourselves in—at least temporarily, at least this weekend—was a fitting way to honor Bourdain, who believed so deeply in the power of gathering over meals that he once told a reporter, “Food is everything we are.” I wasn’t sure, and he probably wouldn’t have been either—for Bourdain, the path always seemed to be more about asking questions than having answers. Still, it felt fitting to stand over that stove, flipping the squash and tasting the beans, lost in my grief and wondering and gratitude.
When the food was done, I carried the dishes to the patio. We sat down to dinner, demolishing tostadas loaded with guacamole and squash. Ruby ate the black beans with relish, smearing the mushy legumes all over their face and pushing a smile across mine—Ihad cooked for this little growing creature and they liked it. After dinner and dessert—avocado chocolate pudding, one of Shell’s specialities—Aubrey and I walked to the edge of the patio and looked up at a sky filled with stars. I guessed at constellations and spotted only one, the one I always found: Orion.
We spent the weekend in the kitchen and on the lawn, making and enjoying meals. We hiked to a stone circle in the canyon, dogs at our ankles. We marveled as Ruby, shown a box full of toys, ignored them for a clean plunger they used as a sort of walking stick. We dove into the toy box ourselves, flipping through the View-Master Shell used to take on family road trips, imagining their way to Smoky Mountains National Park and Acadia.
We stayed up late talking about the families we come from and how they’ve struggled with who we are, recalling moments when parents or siblings ignored our pronouns or lashed out about who we brought to holiday dinner. We also talked about the communities we’ve built and the ways we’ve organized our lives: living on bare-bones budgets so we can immerse ourselves in solidarity work; trying to make a life and living as a figure model and a nurse midwife; raising a baby using all-gender pronouns so that they will, whenever they’re ready, get to choose who they are. How forging a life as queer parents, cooks and writers was certainly hard but also, at times, beautiful, and how privileged we were to find ways to survive in a world where LGBTQ lives are precarious and often too short. We tossed out phrases of support and, finding moments of levity, laughed, our voices hitting the tops of the cottonwood trees. It was as though we were one of those families or groups of friends featured in Bourdain’s shows—as if he could have shown up any minute, a kind and curious guest in a country of queerness.
But before all of that—before the tostada dinner and the weekend of long, sweet conversations—Shell selected a bottle of wine made from the grapes grown across the canyon. They cracked it open, poured us each glass, and led us to the patch of grass in front their cottage. They spoke, in their gregarious way, of Bourdain and what he gave to the world of food. When Shell finished their eulogy, we tipped our glasses over and let the wine sink back into the rich red soil it came from.
“For Anthony,” Shell said.
“For Anthony,” we all repeated.
And also for us.
Wren Awry (right) is a writer, educator, and cook living on occupied Tohono O’odham land in Tucson, Arizona. Their essays and poems have been published by Entropy, Essay Daily, Rust + Moth, and Ghost City Press, among other venues. They curate Nourishing Resistance, an interview series about food, culture, and social change that’s hosted at Bone + All; and work as an Education Coordinator at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, where they develop, support, and implement creative writing programs for K-12 students.