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Parts Known: Anthony Bourdain and the Passage of Time While Living on TV

The late host and culinary traveler showed us, across many years and hundreds of hours of television, just what the cost of a life committed to discovery could be

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An Acadian town assembles, gathered in preparation for a moment that can’t come soon enough. The camera fixes its gaze on a table lined with knives of varying lengths, saws, axes, pots, a cylindrical salt container. Three musicians sit around in the shade of a 6 a.m. morning in rural Louisiana as one tunes a violin. A man sharpens an ax, another sharpens a knife. An abundance of steam flows away from a tub containing scalding-hot water. A congregation surrounds a kennel holding a pig; in unison the men, women, and children say the Lord’s Prayer. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. A pistol enters the frame just as the pig inches forward; muzzle and snout are so close they nearly meet in an Eskimo kiss. A man in blue jeans holds the gun with a finger on the trigger. End scene.

Fast forward — years forward. A familiar voice bellows. “The thundering hooves of many horses,” he says with a cadence as distinct these days as a mother’s beckon. Men in vibrant, absurdist garb stride through the Acadian prairie on horseback on a dreary late-winter morning. Imagine the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Then imagine tens of dozens of them. Then imagine them as demonic, sentient piñatas. “The sound of a thousand beer cans popping open,” he continues. “And music. Always music. Be afraid. Be very afraid — no, really.” Fade to black.

Roughly seven years and 13 seasons of television across two different shows on two different networks separate these two scenes. They are the cold opens to Anthony Bourdain’s “Cajun Country,” the final destination in Season 7 of No Reservations, aired in 2011, and “Cajun Mardi Gras,” the penultimate episode of Parts Unknown Season 11, aired nine days after Bourdain’s suicide in June. Together, the episodes showcase the lesser-known region of Louisiana known as Acadiana, where French colonists in parts of North America found refuge after the French and Indian War. Bourdain, deep in the country’s southland, embeds himself in a community unlike any in America he’s ever seen, and paints the scene in strokes that reflect both awe and bemusement. The 2011 episode is my favorite Bourdain production, ever; the June 2018 episode is, both in foresight and in hindsight, a melancholy glimpse at just how much everything had changed in the time between.

“Cajun Country” won’t be found on any of the Best of Bourdain lists that emerged after his untimely death. Its editing and sequencing aren’t quite up to par in comparison to the more cinematic works within the Bourdain oeuvre. The first half of “Cajun Country” doesn’t take place in Cajun Country at all. It is a considered look at New Orleans and its Creole culture with the help of The Wire’s Wendell Pierce and Treme story editor Lolis Eric Elie — jazz, Willie Mae’s fried chicken, and the curious local specialty of ya-ka-mein serve as narrative guideposts. The average American is acquainted with New Orleans; the second half of the episode, in Acadiana, is seemingly a portal into another world. Establishing the Cajun-Creole yin and yang early on in the episode is important to understanding the fluidity of Louisiana culture at large; after all, Tony’s first bite to eat in Acadiana is at a Cajun restaurant called Glenda’s Creole Kitchen in Breaux Bridge, roughly 10 miles from Lafayette.

One gets a sense very early on during Bourdain’s time in Glenda’s that he’s forged a sort of kinship with the techniques that define Cajun cooking. The foundations of the cuisine require a complete dismantling of classic French sensibility. Roux — a mixture of flour and fat commonly used in French cooking as a thickener — is cooked for so long that it effectively loses most of its thickening potential, rendering it a dark, elemental seasoning, lending a stew the irreplicable depth of something having been cooked slowly under low heat. Meats and vegetables are encouraged to scorch and stick to the bottom of a pan, where they are resuscitated with the help of a deglazing liquid. There is a built-in optimism in Cajun cuisine; so-called mistakes are not only accepted, but embraced as a core identity. There is always room for redemption. It’s the flavor of seeing light at the end of the tunnel, in spite of everything.

Toby Rodriguez, a local sculptor, guides Tony through the offerings at Glenda’s and urges him to try the stuffed turkey wings, a dish that would linger in Bourdain’s memory for years to come. Soon, Rodriguez would open the doors to one of the most euphoric 20 minutes in the history of Bourdain’s television career.

Bourdain is invited to a boucherie, a traditional Cajun gathering where an entire community assembles to help butcher and cook a pig. It is an all-day affair, with plenty of music and booze. The night before the events (which itself was an all-day party full of food and booze), Bourdain, as the honored guest, is asked to kill the pig at six in the morning. After some dodging, he relents. The episode’s cold open replays in full, 26 minutes after it was first teased. Bourdain sways, nervously laughing. The prayer ends, and two bullets go through the pig’s head. There was no shortage of ethical dilemmas over the course of Bourdain’s television career, and he rarely shied from them. As much as he dreaded the act, he knew he would be complicit in its death anyway. And if there were any way to honor a pig after its death, it would be to make sure its body did not fall in vain. Mere seconds later, the pig is already being prepared for butchery. The pig’s various parts are dismantled within minutes and sequestered to various cooking stations, where community members prepare their specialties. There is barbecue, there are stews, there are cracklins, and a whole lot of sausage. Nothing is left to waste; not pig, nor time.

Episodes typically play out in a series of vignettes stitched together to offer a sense of continuity; the disparate voices shade the many dimensions of a given town, city, or region. The second half of “Cajun Country” is one of the rare instances in which the entire community came to Bourdain. Every other shot in the episode for 20-plus minutes is Bourdain marveling at the efficiency of everyone at the party, almost telepathically communicating with one another, knowing exactly where they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to be cooking. He’s baffled by the technical proficiency of all men, women, and children — if it wasn’t their cooking skills, it was their musicianship, but more often than not, it was both.

Earlier in the season, he’d dined at chef Ferran Adrià’s legendary El Bulli, then regarded as the world’s best restaurant, in its final days of service. Two dishes he ate in Cajun Country — a saucy dish of stuffed crawfish heads, a pork backbone stew — were the best he’d had since that trip to Catalonia. Like the El Bulli episode, “Cajun Country” seemingly captured a once-in-a-lifetime experience through the senses of our most reliable narrator. Bourdain’s utter disbelief in the beauty and systemic order of the boucherie was perhaps best captured in his narration, which contained some of the most lurid imagery of the series.

“Let us eat,” he said toward the end of the 20-plus-minute segment. “And drink. And be transported to a happy, magical place where everything smells like slow-cooked pork and the real world soon falls away and we frolic like gods on Olympus, as we’re shuffled off on a cloud only later — much later — to crash to earth, to heave ourselves into chairs and beds, or simply lay there, dreaming of pig, pig, pig.”

By Season 7 of No Reservations, Bourdain’s obsession with pork was made abundantly clear. At the Cajun boucherie, Bourdain didn’t just stumble into one of America’s great hidden traditions, he found his own personal utopia. It felt good to see him so happy.

Bourdain’s shows have the power to change lives and perspectives. What’s mundane in one culture can be a revelation in another; the intersection of those two stages of experience can unlock a conversation that might never have been started previously. Bourdain’s ecstatic depiction of a boucherie didn’t fundamentally change the way it operated, but it was an affirmation to locals about the customs worth preserving and sharing. Rodriguez, who was the head butcher back in 2011, told NPR that there was “an immediate tidal wave of attention and interest in this thing I didn’t think was that special.”

In the intervening years between Bourdain’s visits, Rodriguez became a roving ambassador for the Acadian boucherie, taking the traditional methods of butchery and preparation across the country, and as far away as Italy. In the “Cajun Mardi Gras” episode of Parts Unknown, Rodriguez resurfaces seven years after his first meeting with Bourdain, but is almost unrecognizable. The once scrawny, clean-shaven Cajun has a full beard, with a thick tuft of white hair streaming down his chin.

The episode has callbacks to Bourdain’s first time in Cajun Country. Tony makes a beeline for the stuffed turkey wings at Laura’s II in Lafayette, hearkening to the experience he had at Glenda’s seven years earlier. There is another animal killed at point-blank range, except this time, it’s a chicken. And this time, there is no setup: It happens not five minutes into the episode. It’s not Bourdain who pulls the trigger, but a teenager who stares into the camera with a smug smile, as if to say This is how it’s done.

Bourdain fielded numerous requests to return for Mardi Gras out in Acadiana, an experience considerably different from the events in New Orleans, far more rooted in the event’s centuries-old French origins. It was an act of defiance, mockery, and utter contempt for the aristocracy by the marginalized lower classes. At the heart of Mardi Gras is the courir, an all-day Acadian custom of drinking, eating, and dancing along a specified route through a town. Everyone is dressed in bright, frilly, and outlandish full-body ensembles. Everybody gets drunk and makes the most of the day’s revelry. Along the way, participants go house-to-house and “beg” for food. Often what is given are live chickens tossed into the fields. Thus, courir (French for “run”). Grown men chase wildly after them, literally risking life and limb, in hopes of capturing the prize (later to be used in a gumbo). Bourdain himself couldn’t help but draw parallels to The Purge. He watched the festivities unfold, but largely from afar; after a stint on the run, he’d gotten a stunt double to don his Mardi Gras costume and partake in the shenanigans. In another era, it wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine Bourdain partaking in the madness, but in 2018, in the middle of a medieval Mardi Gras, it became noticeable how Bourdain was beginning to feel his age.

He was 61 years old then. The physical pain he’d allow his body to withstand was largely reserved for Brazilian jiu jitsu, which had become a pillar in the late years of his life. He seemed more game to discuss the gender inequality of the Mardi Gras festivities, casually likening the male-dominated situation to Saudi Arabia. As a few drunken revelers cannonballed into a small pond in their Mardi Gras costumes, Bourdain questioned their sense like a pragmatic uncle. “No chicken’s worth that,” he said. “What, you’re going to be freezing cold with a moist nutsack for the rest of the day? No!”

Perhaps it was a pragmatism beaten into him the hard way. His schedule demanded self-preservation. “I change location every two weeks,” he told The New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe last year. “For fifteen years, more or less, I’ve been travelling two hundred days a year.” For a man who was once the platonic ideal of an unrepentant, unbeholden, badass cook and rebel gourmand, it was the mundanities of life that seemed to give him the most joy. “I really love doing laundry,” Bourdain told People in May. “When I go home, putting my laundry in the machine and then hearing the dryer going around, that’s very comforting to me.”

The trip back to Acadiana didn’t offer him the same euphoria he’d felt the first time around; the only revelation he’d had by the end of his trip was the wonder he’d managed to leave the town with only a few bruises and a hip that’s still intact. By the time Ash Wednesday rolled around, Bourdain was already on his way out of town. There was no time for Rodriguez to tell Bourdain about the whole-hog restaurant he was planning to open in New Orleans, all thanks to the light that Bourdain had shone on the culture all those years ago. “He was a bit removed, tired,” Rodriguez told NPR. “I wondered how difficult it must be to be him.”

On Wednesday, it was announced that CNN would release a 12th season of Bourdain’s Parts Unknown posthumously. There will be five region-specific episodes in the seven-episode season, and two additional chronicling the back end of the production and Bourdain’s impact through archival footage. Only one episode, set in Kenya, will have Bourdain’s full, iconic narration. It’s nearly impossible to fathom one episode without it, let alone four.

I’ve watched the Mardi Gras episode more than a handful of times over the past three weeks. It wasn’t the first new episode to air after his death, nor was it the last. But something about it haunts me. As Bourdain transitions into Lafayette and the eventual stuffed turkey wings at Laura’s, and the discussion of Creole cowboys, zydeco music, and the indigenous French Creole culture present in the region, a simple accordion melody leads us inside Sid’s One Stop, a convenience store on Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. in Lafayette. Owner Sid Williams is the man behind the accordion; he sings a song in French with a halting rhythm. I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. Maybe it’s just my imagination, but every time it plays in my head it takes on a familiar cadence, one as distinct these days as a mother’s beckon. One the world isn’t liable to forget anytime soon.