Anthony Bourdain, Typhoid Mary and Woody Guthrie: A Journey Into Late-Pandemic America

Anthony Bourdain died three years ago today, and I find myself wondering what the globetrotting raconteur would make of our current historical moment. For more than a year, travel, new experiences and flavors…plus the odd conversations with a stranger… were hard to come by. My storytelling trips were cancelled, vacation plans obliterated and visits with far flung relatives limited to screens. Wandering the wide world breaking bread with friends and strangers seemed to be memories of a lost world.

So I coped by living vicariously through Bourdain’s exploits eating his way around the world. After his death, I’d saved some of the episodes from his final season of Parts Unknown, a sort of drip-feed of vicarious travel to self-medicate through the dull routines of the lockdown. 

And now we’re staggering out of our warrens, back out into an America that’s different, strange and still scary. We’re blinking at the sun, the burnt-electric smell of armageddon still in the air: shuttered restaurants and business, hundreds of thousands lost to the virus and ashes from record fires still swirling in eddies on the concrete to remind us that the next climate disaster is around the corner. The crises mounted and instead of drawing us together, it has divided us more than ever. It’s enough to make me wonder if Bourdain’s approach still makes sense. Wandering the land breaking bread with strangers—especially those who live and think differently from you— seems like a quaint luxury. How will we ever bridge the chasm of our differences in this time of social distancing, when hugs and handshakes are still awkward and symbols…say an American flag on a baseball cap or a BLM sign on the lawn…cause us to jump to judgement?

I recently left my little college town bubble and headed southeast into the gloriously rumpled and folded and faulted Nevada fossil country to meet a geologist to talk about extinction, climate change and corals for a book project. I must admit I was a little trepidatious. In the old days, when chasing a story, I would make appointments with experts and also make some unplanned stops to chat up the locals. I’ve found that information flows freely in diners, restaurants and rural taverns. I’d seek out local voices whether in Australia, Bangladesh or rural Colorado. Local people, around the world, who eke out livings from the land they live on, can tell you a lot about a place and what it means to exist there.

But I was heading into the American backcountry where there had been some very vocal anti-masking demonstrations, where public health violations were the norm and also where the pandemic had spread like wildfire. In my lockdown compound I had read the news and judged entire swaths of this country from afar. It’s understandably hard to withhold that judgement: how many had died due to the childish refusal to put a piece of cloth over your face or wash your hands with vigor? I’m thinking of my brother-in-law Jim, who’s a COVID long-hauler with asthma and is still on oxygen six months after contracting the virus. He’s a hard-working, blue-collar technician who spent the pandemic fixing checkout machines. When I learned that he’d contracted the virus, I imagined some obstinate anti-masker in an American eagle freedom shirt smearing his contaminated fingers across a touchscreen in some desert Walmart, bellowing spittle when it broke down and Jim was summoned to fix it. Nowadays Jim gets winded simply getting up from his chair. He may never be able to return to work—because of someone else’s negligence, obstinance or pure mendacity. 

So this was what I was thinking as I started my first cross-country drive into the Great American Desert at the end of the pandemic. I was filled with judgement, hesitation and a newfound appreciation of the ugliness of the world. Bourdain believed that, despite all the ugliness, “it is a magnificent planet filled with fascinating and…more often than not…beautiful people.” Does his view still hold water as we shamble out into a new reality? 

I’m trying to think so. During the height of the spread of COVID-19, I had dug into Bourdain’s repertoire to come across one of his lesser known books, a slim historical account of one notorious vector of disease called Typhoid Mary. And I found that the approach that Bourdain takes in telling her story, with the empathy and humanity with which he portrays this walking public health violation, was precisely what I needed in my moment of emergence. 

* * *

Do you remember where you were when they closed the world? I can imagine myself answering this question someday, perhaps afflicting a grandchild with a repeat telling. For my father’s generation, it was the Kennedy Assassination, a shock in a movie theater when they stopped the projector to deliver the news. He still winces at the recollection. For me, as for many in this pandemic moment, it was a gradual shock.

I was abroad filming a documentary about ecology in the Wolgan Valley of New South Wales, Australia after the devastating bushfires. The trees that rimmed the valley and climbed the sandstone escarpments were blackened and post-apocalyptic, but hopeful new grass had returned to blanket the meadows, as had the kangaroos that now grazed with impunity. Bits of news seeped to our phones through the spotty reception, warning that toilet paper shortages and hoarding of bread flour were now global phenomena. I joked with the crew that we should roll a few of the old ranch trucks in front of The Gap, the only road entering this wild stretch of valley, and hunker down, feasting on the kangaroos until it all passed. I had, by the way, just learned that the marsupials are quite tasty if you prepare them properly. Such culinary discoveries are the soul of travel, something I’ve learned that through experience. And from watching Bourdain.

But it was only at LAX on the trip home that I understood how completely that travel was ending. The flight from Sydney…one of the last…had been empty. Tom Hanks was in isolation, airport workers wore masks and there were now separate queues in arrival for travelers who showed symptoms. It was scary…where would they send you if you showed a temperature?. By the time I made it back home to Oregon, it was real: public health decrees rendered us homebound. Film projects and writing research trips were all canceled. And I joined the rest of the world in limbo to wait out the virus.

* * *

It was what seems like ages ago, during the early nesting phase of the pandemic, that the idea of referencing Bourdain for insight first struck me. Like many, I’d improvised a home office, stacked up unread books and filled the streaming queue with the shows I’d been told to watch but never had. Was it time to read the new translation of The Brothers Karamazov? Or John McPhee’s dictionary-sized, Pulitzer-winning geology book Annals of the Former World? What about finally tackling The Sopranos?

And then the thought occurred, no less epiphanic for being so obvious: now would be the perfect time to catch up on the final episodes of Parts Unknown. These times were made for armchair travel. Since Bourdain’s death, I’d been doling out the last remaining episodes when I most needed them. There was something comforting about his reportage from the most desperate and troubled corners of the world, and the way he charted a course through political despair, tragic history and social strife to find the heart of a place through its food and the people who made and shared it. He would sit across the table from anyone, often an ideological opposite, and find communion through humble repast. 

But now the whole world is a troubled corner. I thought that Bourdain might offer a vision of what the world once was, and what it might be on the other side of this storm when we could again roam the earth and break bread. And that’s when I remembered the books. It’s easy to forget that Bourdain was more than a television host. He was a prolific writer. He wrote a dozen titles, many of which I had yet to read. And after a quick search I found the perfect volume to serve as a roadmap of our times. Almost too perfect. It was his work of nonfiction, Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical, and it is an excellent guide for looking at others as fellow human beings through a veil of panic and pestilence.

* * *

One only needs to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market, the beating heart of the Japanese cuisine that Bourdain so loved, to see tourists from all over the world documenting themselves eating strange things on sticks to understand that many of us are, in our own ways, aping Anthony Bourdain. He tapped into something singular about what it means to be a human being on this earth in this age of globalization: the way we wander around grazing on the novel while searching for a lost sense of community. It’s the smile on the face of the woman who hands you the stick of sweat matcha dangos with a nod of thanks. It’s the pleasure of a simple dish prepared lovingly for a few coins and to please a stranger. In a frenetic world where we are losing our roots, it’s the old couple who keep the corner Itzakaya and become your adopted grandparents for an evening, cooking for you with nods and smiles and making this wide, messy word cozy, if only for an evening. 

Such are the gifts that travel and food provide us.

With Bourdain, who only discovered this wider world in his mid-forties after a kitchen life on the bottom rung of the middle class, followed by an unexpected publishing success, we were able to watch a grown man evolve in front of the camera and we all began to believe it was possible for us to do the same. We watched his childlike glee over the sudden license to explore curious foods and exotic places as it slowly matured into a world-weary wisdom and a philosophical embrace of all of humanity. 

From his years as an executive chef, he’d acquired an arrogant swagger and crude kitchen humor that was at first amusing and often tedious. But there was something beyond his culinary machismo. When you peeled back the layers, you discovered more. It was an empathy, I believe, that came from the fact that below the onionskins of chef, television personality, raconteur and gadfly that emerged because he was, at his heart, a writer.

“There is nothing more foolish than a person who thinks they can make a living writing,” Bourdain once said. Of his kitchen days, he said: “I was in a profession where everyone was a writer or an actor.”

Bourdain was himself one of those wannabe writers. Well before his overnight success in 2000, with an essay plucked from the New Yorker slush pile that turned into the autobiographical bestseller Kitchen Confidential that launched him into the cultural spotlight, he’d published a pair of crime novels that languished largely unread. He’d even financed his book tours out of his own pocket to no avail. He returned to cooking to keep his creditors at bay…barely…until Kitchen Confidential charted a new course for him. 

But it wasn’t publishing that transformed his station. It was television celebrity, which eventually blurred his literary roots.

Bourdain was cast as a traveling chef in his first series, A Cook’s Tour, on the Food Network. It would not be the cozy food programming that he’d long lambasted, but something darker, edgier, more raw. Much of it was sensational: eating a still-beating cobra heart or munching on iguana tacos. But he elevated what he did through a nimble facility with words. The essays with which he narrates his final series, Parts Unknown, are clear-eyed, lyrical, honest and often profound. Being a chef provided him with an angle. But being a writer provided him with substance.

He never gave up on his writing. It’s telling that after the success of his first pair of books, he turned to write not to another sensationalized tell-all, but to historical nonfiction about an obscure figure, the story of a poor woman, an immigrant cook plagued by pestilence and her own stubborn denial. Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical might be the most empathic book that Bourdain wrote, which is why it is so perfect for this moment in history.

* * *

Mary Mallon, the historical figure at the heart of Bourdain’s book, was an Irish immigrant, a refugee from famine who made a hardscrabble living cooking for the wealthy families of New York in an era of growing divide between rich and poor. She was ultimately accused of spreading sickness and death among her employers, their families and beyond during a time when plagues were a factor of daily life in crowded cities. Then, as now, leveling blame provided a sort of bitter solace, and the panicked masses and bumbling authorities found comfort by naming a scapegoat.

Bourdain was attracted to Mary’s story through their shared professions. She was a fellow cook. “A reasonably capable one,” he notes in his introduction. He writes: “I’m interested in a tormented loner, a woman in a male world, in hostile territory, frequently on the run. And I’m interested in denial—the ways that Mary, and many of us, find to avoid the obvious, the lies we tell ourselves.”

Encapsulated in those remarks is so much of Bourdain’s own life in the years to come. Despite fame and privilege that was the polar opposite of what Mary Mallon experienced, he too trafficked in denial.

It’s impossible to separate the legacy of his life from the circumstances of his death by suicide. He took his own life in an idyllic small town in Alsace-Lorraine, France while filming his last season of Parts Unknown. It was a shock. Unfathomable. He was doing what he loved, and what so many of his fans wished that they could do. “Half-the men I know want to be you,” CBC journalist Wendy Mesley opens her final interview with him, “and half the women, too…has it really been that exciting, or has it really been hard work…awful?”

“No, I’m really having a good time,” Bourdain responds after a moment of hesitation that is, in hindsight, quite telling.

Maybe, like Mary Mallon, Bourdain was also “a tormented loner.” Maybe he actively sought to lose himself in “hostile territory.” Maybe like Mallon he was also afflicted by denial. Maybe some of Bourdain’s extraordinary empathy for Mary Mallon would stem from his own inner discord. 

There is a moment in an episode of Parts Unknown that was famously removed from circulation after his death where he spills a glimpse of his inner troubles to an Argentinian therapist: “I’ve got the best job in the world. I get to travel the world, meet interesting people. And still I’m not happy.” 

* * *

While Bourdain was often hard on his own shortcomings, he exhibits enormous compassion toward Mary Mallon. He admires her and expresses sympathy with the desperation of her plight and her treatment at the hands of health authorities and the press. In one hilarious sequence he even relishes her brazen defiance as she eludes the police, climbing ladders and slipping out windows until they have to wrestle her from an outhouse to bring her in for testing. He identifies with Mallon, “cook to cook.” Flawed human to flawed human. 

But he doesn’t let her off the hook.

Mallon left a trail of infections across the landscape of turn-of-the-century New York. The harm she caused is impossible to dispute, and Bourdain doesn’t try. Nor does he offer excuses. While at first her denial of her own status as a spreader of disease may have been plausible, later in her life, after release from a bleak island sanatorium on condition she give up her work as a cook, she still eventually made the callus decision to return to her trade.

There were understandable reasons for this. There weren’t many options for a single woman. Cooking kept her out of abject poverty. It provided her sense of self-worth. But that does not excuse her choices.

“The woman knew,” he writes, after she recklessly took up a job cooking at a maternity hospital under an assumed name. “She just didn’t care. They’d taken everything from her. She had no reason to love anyone, not the doctors, not the public, not her employers. Not the people for whom she now cooked.”

How could Bourdain reconcile this recklessness? After all, he made his reputation with a book that exposed the unhygienic underbelly of the restaurant industry. He famously advised readers to judge restaurants not on the execution of cuisine but the cleanliness of bathrooms.

As a fellow cook, he could see the world through her eyes. “It’s just that cooks, who work in isolated, hot, airless spaces, under tremendous pressure, lose perspective, they lose sight of who they’re actually cooking for.” Bourdain doesn’t forgive. But he strives to understand her despair and bitterness.

It’s this empathy that we need right now. Bourdain was able to look across class and gender divides into a previous century at a figure responsible for numerous outbreaks of a horrible disease that, in the end, she willfully spread. But he didn’t see a monster. He saw another frightened, desperate human being.

As we emerge into this new world engulfed in pandemic, we have to look at our fellow humans with that same empathy. I traveled to Nevada through small, ramshackle desert towns, some dwellings shabbier than what I’ve seen in the poorer sections of developing countries around the world, many of them obstinately flying flags perpetuating Trump’s big lie of election theft. It was tempting to turn to judgement. Judging by the random yard signs and demonstrated antipathy toward lingering mask requirements, this was a land of gun-toting anti-maskers and vaccine skeptics. There’s an entire political movement of Typhoid Marys. This was a test. Could I apply the empathic lessons from Bourdain’s book to the politically riven late-pandemic world?

* * *

As I packed to head into the American hinterlands to learn about the geology that undergirds the vast and soaring spaces of the Western Desert, I stopped at the local Bi-Mart, a no-brand discount store you find in many smaller towns in the Northwest. As I searched for camping fuel, I spotted a baseball cap with a distressed American flag in an endcap bin. I walked past it and scoffed. I imagined it might be worn by one of the mob who had stormed the Oregon capitol or Congress on January 6th. They’d claimed to be defending freedom…a freedom that apparently consisted of their right to project virus-laden spittle on my brother-in-law, carry assault weapons into democratic institutions or erase the votes of American citizens for being black, brown or from large cities.

I loaded up with camping supplies and raman noodles and was on my way to the cash register when I paused. What about that American flag cap had set me on a seeth? It wasn’t that long ago when the label “American” had meant something different to me. As a kid, I’d painted my bedroom furniture red, white and blue in a fit of patriotism. American, for me, once connoted farm boys who stormed Normandy beaches to rid a foreign land of the scourge of right-wing fascism. It was the people, black and white, who marched across the bridge in Selma. American was the Berlin speeches of JFK and, begrudgingly, Ronald Regan. It’s the flag of Rosa Parks and Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Teddy Rooseveldt’s Yellowstone and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. American, was our vast country, long-distance drives and changing landscapes, rows of corn, grassy plains with billowing clouds and the towering ranges of Western mountains. And maybe most of all, American, used to make me think of Woodie Guthrie and the song which all kids once sang, This Land is Your Land. From prairies to redwoods and the New York Islands. 

On impulse, I jumped out of line at the cash register to retrieve the cap. I’d be fucked, I thought, if I’m going to let those morons who stormed the capitol redefine that flag from me. They could keep their Confederate stars and bars, but the Woodie Guthrie flag was mine. It would be the banner for my journey back 200 million years into the North American past. I’d be digging for fossils on that most American of inventions: the vast swaths of public lands that paint the American west with possibility. This land is your land. This land is my land.

* * *

When I rolled into Mina, Nevada, I was hot, dusty, tired and hungry. I’d be meeting geologists in the field the next day, but there were no hotels, restaurants or campsites in sight. The only business was a bar with darkened windows and a porch full of bearded desert rats, a big American flag painted on the side of the building, plus several Trump 2024 bumper stickers on the trucks in the lot for good measure. I hesitated. Here was an establishment filled with people I’d prejudged, and who would have likely prejudged me if they knew I was about to hang out in the hills interviewing a couple university professors for a book I was writing about climate change. I thought I knew everything I needed to know about these people and that we would have nothing in common.

But I was wrong. 

I channeled my inner Bourdain and I pulled on my Woody Guthrie stars and stripes cap and I pushed my way through the door. There was a cluster of men huddled in the dark room and a young woman behind the bar. They all turned to size me up with blank expressions.

As I climbed on a stool, the owner emerged from the back. He was a large, bearded fellow, and he wore a similar cap to mine. He’d added a couple of pins to his: one a gem-encrusted cross and the other an assault rifle. But the flag was the same thirteen stripes and blue field with its fifty stars. Here, at least, was something we shared: a respect for a symbol. Perhaps for different reasons, but a respect all the same.

I ordered a beer. I asked directions for a place to camp, and one of the men walked me outside to trace the best route up the mountains with his finger silhouetted against the sunset. Back inside, I struck up a conversation with a miner and we talked about rock strata…his knowledge about the geological history of Nevada was, if anything, deeper than that of the professors I’d meet the following day. I ignored the “Trump 2024 Revenge Tour” poster behind the bar and the talk of being caught across the border in California with an assault rifle in the back seat or complaints about Ford going all-electric. When I posed one too many questions and was asked if I was a journalist, I demurred and said I was a “science writer,” which seemed less offensive to them. We then changed subjects and discussed the makes and models of our similar Jeeps and where was the best spot to camp in Dunlop Canyon. The cook fired up the deep fryer and we ordered wings and tots and as we partook of our greasy communion, I learned about the local custom of truck racing on the dry lake beds and the rules of long-distance, off-road poker, a game to while away the lonely hours in these parched lands a couple hundred miles from the nearest city.

As I stood to leave, the owner called over to me to ask if I needed water or anything else before I headed up into the hills for the night. “Whatever you need, we’ll fix you up,” he said.  I shook my head and doffed my Woody Guthrie cap. 

“Don’t be a stranger,” the bartendress called to me.

I climbed in the Jeep and tweaked the head of the bobble-head, surfing Obama figure that was glued to the dashboard and drove up into the high country, grateful for my new friends.

* * *

As with the essays that Bourdain narrates as bookends to episodes of Parts Unknown, his voice comes through most clearly in Typhoid Mary via the prologue and epilogue. And it is in the book’s final paragraphs where the author exhibits his greatest act of compassion.

In the final passage, Bourdain visits Mary Mallon’s grave. And there he presents her with a gift. He takes a powerful object out of his bag, an iconic symbol of his life, something that represents his whole identity: his chef’s knife. It’s an expensive totem and any cook’s most prized possession. He buries the knife in the ground below Mary’s headstone, forever fusing his fate with that of this complicated woman, a fellow cook, a loner, a notorious celebrity, a spreader of disease, a bitter, callous creature and a poor immigrant just trying to survive. 

With his closing gesture, Bourdain charts a way forward for the rest of us. If we can emulate the empathy he has for Mary Mallon, embracing the complexities, the good and the bad within her, and if we can look at others…and ourselves…with the same compassion—then we can slowly begin to remake a world where strangers can once again come together in communion over a simple dish, some morsel on a stick passed hand to hand amidst the chaos of a crowded market, a basket of greasy tots in the desert. 

If we try, we can look past the politics, the fear, the rage and anger and again recognize each other as a common species. The survival of our species depends on this. This is something that I learned as a kid singing Woody Guthrie songs. It’s something I learned from Anthony Bourdain and Mary Mallon. And it’s something I learned from a man in an American flag cap who offered me water in the desert. This is the kind of world where we can emerge from a pandemic. And that’s the kind of world where Anthony Bourdain still matters.

Published by David

Writer (Vintage), filmmaker (Three Days of Glory and Saving Atlantis), bookreader.

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