Anthony Bourdain Made Marginalized Communities Like Mine Feel Worthy
As a native West Virginian, I never thought I'd see my home state represented with respect and fairness—until Bourdain showed up.
Photo: Parts Unknown/CNN
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In the introduction to Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes, Kentucky-born food writer Ronni Lundy shared an observation that will sound familiar to anyone who lived—or still lives—in that often maligned section of the Appalachian Mountains: “I discovered quickly that my understanding of the mountains and the people I knew and loved was not much like the one presented on television, in movies, or in Life magazine,” she wrote. “When I told stories from my childhood, my new friends didn’t hear them as I experienced them. Instead, they translated them through images from The Beverly Hillbillies, The War on Poverty, Deliverance.”
As a native West Virginian, I nodded my head repeatedly when I first read that paragraph, before looking around my empty apartment and wishing I could read it out loud to someone else. To be West Virginian means that you’re too often treated as a caricature or, worse, as a punchline. It means to constantly defend your history, your traditions and the honor of 1.8 million others to the kinds of people who have only seen its treetops through the window of a regional jet on its way to… anywhere else.
My parents are both from Welch, West Virginia, a once-thriving coal town which used to proudly wear the nickname “Little New York.” Their Welch— that Welch—only exists in scalloped-edge photographs, in yellowing high school yearbooks, and in census data proving that they didn’t just imagine it all. Welch now has a dwindling population of just over 1,800, a poor town in the poorest county in the country, a place where adult men have the same life-expectancy as men in Malawi. In the past few years, it has developed a heartbreaking kind of name recognition, becoming almost synonymous with words like ‘opioid’ and ‘overdose’ and ‘despair.’
In the months before the 2016 presidential election, journalists from seemingly everywhere landed in Welch, so they could film hours of B-roll of sagging roofs or rusted shopping carts overturned in the Tug Fork river, and interview would-be Donald Trump voters with accents that were often subtitled on even American television stations. “Why do those people stay there?” network anchors and newspaper columnists and armchair sociologists implied—or just asked outright.
And then, Anthony Bourdain decided to go to West Virginia, and let West Virginians answer that question for themselves.
Bourdain died on Friday at age 61, and his passing has been marked with shock, disbelief, and deep sadness across America, as well as in the countless cities and countries that he visited during 15-plus years of traveling for the Food Network, the Travel Channel, and CNN. But it seems to especially resonate with this West Virginian, and for others around the state who appreciated his attempts to connect with a group of people that others have criticized, ridiculed, or flat-out exploited.
Ironically, it was some of that endless “poverty tourism” that contributed to Bourdain’s interest in filming an episode of Parts Unknown in West Virginia. “It doesn’t seem to be in anybody’s interest outside of the state to portray West Virginia as it is,” he told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. “The coverage has been ignorant, condescending, and hateful.”
But he also realized his own preconceptions—and that’s one of the many things that made him a compelling storyteller, and an always-reliable narrator. “I’m comfortable in places that are different, so, I didn’t admire the intolerance, the sort of resistance in myself, to this place in my own country,” he continued. “How come I’m so comfortable in Vietnam and Lebanon but instinctively, like so many other New Yorkers, see West Virginia as a whole other land?”
So Bourdain went to West Virginia—he went to Welch, too—and that trip served as the premiere for Season 11 of Parts Unknown. In his Field Notes, he called the episode a “plea for understanding” for the state’s residents and their “daunting challenges,” urging his audience to treat it with the same compassion that they’ve treated episodes set in Vietnam and Nigeria. (And it’s kind of mindblowing to imagine putting that disclaimer on any other part of America.)
That episode illustrated so much of what made Bourdain such a wonderful host, tour guide, and dinner guest: his willingness to ask and listen in equal measure and his willingness to respect the person, even if you’re diametrically opposed to some of their opinions. But every episode was essentially his 30-minute reminder that the things that we fear, hate, or ridicule are almost always the ones we’ve never taken the time to understand.
“People of southern West Virginia feel for the first time someone from the outside media came in and told a story they were proud of,” chef Mike Costello said on Friday morning. “When someone comes here with the goal of being open-minded and learning about a place, it shows how encouraged and empowered people can be when they’re able to tell their own story.” (Costello’s Lost Creek Farm was featured in the episode).
Shortly after Bourdain finished filming, someone tweeted to him to ask what he recommended as an “absolute must-do” for any visitor to West Virginia. “Forget where you came from,” he wrote. “Open your mind.”
On behalf of West Virginians, thank you for that.
Thank you for everything.