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Anthony Bourdain ate a warthog anus like he meant it

It was 2009, and America had dodged a bullet. At least for the moment. Barack Obama was safely in office, having defeated John McCain. But we hadn’t heard the last from his vice-presidential hopeful, Sarah Palin. A few hundred people formed a long line at the Henrietta Borders book store, eager to get her autograph on her book, Going Rogue.

On the other side of the city that night, more than a thousand people were in the Auditorium Theater listening to Anthony Bourdain talk about food, dish on his fellow celebrity chefs and dispense wisdom from his world travels. He was erudite, and marvelous.

All of the local media attention was on Palin. Bourdain, who drew a much-larger crowd, one that actually paid to be at his event, drew hardly a mention.

Perhaps people are just smarter than the media.

The news is always bad these days. But the news of Bourdain’s suicide, at age 61, is particularly heavy for this beautiful Friday morning. I didn’t know the guy. And I don’t use the word “fan” often. But I was a fan. I was a fan from the moment I read “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” a 1999 story he wrote for The New Yorker about his career working in restaurants: All of the drugs, sex and questionable food practices that almost made you want to work in food services. I read the book that came out of it, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. I watched his television show A Cook’s World, and the shows that followed, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, and Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.

Through it all, Bourdain evolved from talking chef to television travel companion. What attracted me to him was his immense curiosity. He wasn’t like one of those overly garrulous Food Network hosts who would eat a warthog anus for a cheap laugh; Bourdain would eat a warthog anus out of respect for the Namibian culture that he was experiencing. Bourdain liked to drink and laugh, and he knew how to tell a story. That night at the Auditorium Theatre, he mocked television chefs such as Guy Fieri, who simply drops in on restaurants to rave about overblown cheeseburgers.

Bourdain walked away from the kitchen to experience the world. He was compassionate, immersing himself in important issues. Immigration was one. I remember one Bourdain show where he pointed out that, if it weren’t for immigrants, the New York City restaurant industry would have to shut down.

There’s a weekly column in The New York Times book review section, “By the Book,” a Q&A for authors. One question that’s always asked is: If you were the host of a dinner party and could invite anyone, living or dead, who would it be? That often prompts me to ask the same question of myself. The list shifts quite a bit. Musicians such as Tom Waits or Lucinda Williams. Or historical figures, Ben Franklin. Thinkers, Neil deGrasse Tyson or Carl Sagan. Gadflies, Tom Snyder, the host of the old Tomorrow show. Writers, William Burroughs, Margaret Atwood, Dorothy Parker or James Baldwin. Sometimes I think of the excellent essayist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who might even have an interesting basketball story to tell.

Bourdain was always on my list, without fail. Living or dead. I guess he’s still on the list.

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The Critical Mass

I read the Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Aug. 14

First coffee of a damp, very coffee-friendly day: Kenyan. First music of the day: Saxophonist Stanley Turrentine.

1, Your lead story, perhaps one year too late: “President Obama and his senior aides are considering whether the White House should adopt a  more combative approach on economic issues, seeking to highlight substantive differences with Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail rather than continuing to pursue elusive compromises, advisers to the president say.”

2, An awesome quote from the Chinese dissident filmmaker Zhao Liang, on how he felt while making Petition, his documentary on government crackdowns on Chinese citizens lodging protests against their local officials: “I remember quite clearly one of my middle-school teachers telling me that I was a stone with sharp, jagged edges, but that I would turn into a smooth river stone as I grew older. During the years while I was making this film, I felt like I was getting sharper and sharper instead.”

3, The obituary of Howard G. Paster illuminates not only some key policy moments of the Clinton administration, but reflects what’s happening today, as well. Paster, who was 66 when he died of encephalitis this week, was a key member of the Clinton team that pushed the NAFTA agreement through Congress. NAFTA is much criticized by both political parties – but by the Republicans in particular – as one of the main drains on jobs in this country. “As Mr. Clinton’s principal ambassador to Congress at the time, Mr. Paster had to overcome the opposition of a majority of House Democrats to pass NAFTA, relying heavily on Republican support instead,” The Times writes. Got that? Republicans were the driving force that enabled that piece of job-killing legislation. And then there’s this echo, one that resounds today: Paster “was less persuasive in selling Mr. Clinton’s package of measures to stimulate a faltering economy through public works, education grants and the extension of unemployment benefits,” The Times writes, quoting Paster: “I miscalculated over what it would take to negotiate a bill.”

4, Not too many people get an opening line like this in their obituary: “Nancy Wake did not like killing people.” Wake, who died last week in London at age 98, was credited with saving the lives of hundreds of Allied airmen and soldiers by sneaking them out of France and Spain. Her life “careered along a path that Hemingway might have sketched, from impoverished childhood to high society hostess in the south of France,” The Times writes. Wake also claimed “she once killed a German sentry with her bare hands and ordered the execution of a woman she believed to be  a German spy.” Neither act caused her any worry, she added. Wake was the model for many female resistance fighters in movies and TV, which Wake was fine with. However, she didn’t like it when her characters were involved in romances, a storyline which she insisted she never allowed herself during the war. “And in my old age, I regret it,” she said in a 1987 interview. “But you see, if I had accommodated one man, the word would have spread around, and I would have had to accommodate the whole damn lot!”

5, In the Sunday Review, essay writer Neil Gabler laments how The Atlantic magazine selected the 14 biggest ideas of the year – Hey it’s only August! – and picked “The Rise of the Middle Class – Just Not Ours” as No. 1. Not Exactly the Big Bang Theory, Gabler writes. “If  our ideas seem smaller nowadays, it’s not because we are dumber than our forebears but because we just don’t care as much about ideas as they did.”

6, Like most humans, I’m always wondering what Anthony Bourdain will be eating. He mentions the New York City’s Japanese/Korean barbecue restaurant Takaski, “heavy on the raw meat and offal. To have a place in New York that serves so much guts is encouraging and, in this case, delicious.”

7, In Texas, “coyotes are turning up on suburban lawns in search of food and water.” The Times notes that a paper published in 2007 in Science magazine claimed “Droughts will become the new climatology of the American Southwest within a time frame of years to decades.” Gov. Rick Perry is running for president, but “has had precious little to say about the drought that is devastating his state,” writes Richard Parker. “He did organize a prayer for rain back in April. Looking at that blazing hot, clear blue sky up there, it seems heaven isn’t listening.”

8, The Times editorial page continues to place the most recent economic lunacy, the debt ceiling debate and non-functional budget agreement that followed, in the laps of the Republican party. “The Republicans who produced this artificial crisis, and are responsible for its effects, say they would like nothing more than to see a reduction in state as well as federal spending. That is where government hits closest to home, affecting the size of classrooms,the bulbs in streetlights, the asphalt in potholes, and the lines in emergency rooms. They are well on their way to achieving their goal, making life more difficult on every city and town.”

9, This week in Iowa, Mitt Romney reminded a citizen that “Corporations are people, my friend.” Unfortunately, the Supreme Court says this is true allowing many millions of dollars, their sources hidden in a muddle of transactions, to alter the outcome of our elections. “The back-door money infused by Karl Rove, the Chamber of Commerce, the Koch brothers and others elected a slew of radial Republicans,” Maureen Dowd writes of the Tea Party conservatives. “Thanks to that Congressional wrecking crew, America’s credit rating has been downgraded and its economy has been hurt. At least Republicans are getting most of the blame for that, my friend.”

10, Last week, an appellate court ruled that two American citizens who had been tortured by American forces while imprisoned in Iraq in 2007 could go ahead with a lawsuit against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The men had been working for a private security contractor, and turned whisteblower when they became suspicious that the company was engaged in illegal weapons trafficking. One was detained for three months, the other for six weeks. They were released without explanation, or charges being filed.  Judge David Hamilton said that immunity for Rumsfeld “would amount to an extraordinary abdication of our government’s checks and balances that preserves Americans’ liberty.”

11, In the magazine, actor Larry Hagman – best known for his role as Dallas‘ J.R. Ewing, or maybe that astronaut fella in I Dream of Jeannie – tells of his plans for a final resting place, after acknowledging it’s probably illegal to throw a body in a wood chipper. “But I did want to be spread over a field and have marijuana and wheat planted and harvest it in a couple of years and then have a big marijuana cake enough for 200 to 300 people. People would eat a little of Larry.”

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: July 18

It is 7 a.m., and already two beef-broth injected brisket are on the smoker. First music of the day: The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Between Nothingness & Eternity. The coffee is Costa Rican. It is a beautiful morning on the deck.

1, Today’s lead story, “The Corrosive Legacy of Oil Spills,” confirms what you probably already know, or suspect: Every oil spill is different, but each leaves an ecological legacy that lasts for decades, even when it’s not readily visible. In 1969, a barge that hit the rocks off of West Falmouth, Mass., spilled 189,000 gallons of oil into Buzzards Bay. Yet even today, “the fiddler crabs at nearby Wild Harbor still act drunk, moving erratically and reacting slowly to predators,” The Times writes.

2, A few pages later, on Page 9, is another one of those overly earnest full-page ads by BP, saluting the company’s clean-up efforts in the Gulf.

3, Facebook is facing the inevitable: Death. The death of your Facebook friends. “Facebook says it has been grappling with how to handle the ghosts in the machine,” The Times reports, “but acknowledges that it has not found a good solution.”

4, I often wonder if Sarah Palin deserves all of the attention that she draws from the media, given the Tea Party’s well-documented tendency to exaggerate the size of the crowds at its rallies. Palin’s political action committee filed its quarterly financial report last week, claiming it raised $866,000 and donated $87,500 to Republican candidates, many supported by the Tea Party. The numbers, The Times notes, are “hardly exceptional for a prospective presidential candidate.”

5, Guatemala’s largest Mayan city-state, El Mirador, is under attack. The region, the size of New Jersey, is home to what may be the world’s largest ancient pyramid. “Great sweeps of Guatemalan rain forest,” The Times writes, once the cradle of one of the world’s great civilizations, are being razed by cattle-ranching drug barons.” Cattle-ranching drug barons. There’s a new global villain for you.

6, Columnist Matt Bai has a perceptive analysis of last week’s tiff between the Tea Party and the NAACP, which urged the group to face its racist aspects; and you’d have to be anesthetized to have not picked up on the Tea Party’s racism. But as Bai notes, “we tend to not recognize the generational divide that underlies it.” A poll finds that three-quarters of Tea Party supporters are older than 45, 29 percent are older than 64. In short, the Tea Party is fueled by people who grew up in a time and place where racism was more commonly practiced, or silently accepted as a part of the American landscape.

7, “Garbo couldn’t exist in the 21st Century,” writes Ben Brantley in the Sunday Styles section. “I mean Garbo the lady of mystery, not the rather dull, stingy woman who is reported to have resided behind the persona.” He goes on to add, “Today’s democracy of technology would, of course, conspire to put a fast and brutal end  to the tantalizing demi-invisibility that a Garbo sustained so well.”

8, While the cable entertainment shows are giggling and expressing their lightweight shock over Mel Gibson’s racist rants, before moving on to the Lindsay Lohan matter, columnist Frank Rich sees what the whole Gibson episode really means. Recalling his anti-Semitic rant captured on tape following a DUI arrest in 2006, Gibson “is the same talented, nasty, bigoted blowhard that he is today,” Rich writes. “But his fall says a lot about the changes in the country over the last six years.” Rich reminds us of what was happening in this country in 2004, when American “values” were being defined as shock over Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl costume and Newt Gingrich warning against the war on Christmas. Where are we today? The Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority are gone, as are Jerry Falwell and James Dobson and, “What remains of that old guard is stigmatized by its identification with poisonous crusades.” Rich points out how today’s conservative groups, such as the Tea Party, have had no comment on last month’s Massachusetts court order nullifying the anti-gay “Defense of Marriage Act,” or last week’s overturning of the FCC indecency rules put in place after Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction.” The virtue police of 2004 are withering away. Rich quotes New York Post conservative columnist Kyle Smith: “The morality armies have failed to inspire their children to join the crusade.”

9, The comedy of Climate Change deniers is coming to a boil, writes Nicholas D. Kristof after this, the hottest six months on the planet since such  data started being kept in 1880. Kristof cites the famed mountain climber David Brashears, who compared photos of Himalayan glaciers that he has taken with those taken by climbers from decades ago. “Time and again,” Kristof writes, “the same glaciers have shrunk drastically in every direction, often losing hundreds of feet in height.” How can we ignore this? Kristof cites research that suggests human brains evolved to understand imminent dangers, such as saber-toothed tigers, but not slowly encroaching trouble such as climate change.

10, In the magazine, “When Funny Goes Viral” tries to argue that we should be taking seriously all of these Internet postings of fat cats, Hitler screaming about pop-culture issues and sites like Chuck Norris Facts. For those of us who wonder daily where the Internet is going, and express dismay at what it has done to the thinking process, this seems useful. But the best the story can do is pose the same question as where it started: “Like, what, exactly, am I laughing at?”

11, The Book Review cuts into Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and People Who Cook, judging it as “half cooked.” Bourdain is the former chef and now world traveler who advocates against mediocrity (Rachel Ray) and for cultural authenticity (Vietnamese street food). Reviewer Christine Muhlke, a Times food editor, types with one hand that Bourdain may be too marinated in his own shtick, then with the other hand writes that Bourdain himself is all-too aware that his cynicism risks turning him into “Andy Rooney in a leather jacket.” I, for one, am not offended by a writer who “begins with a Lou Reed quotation and slides into a Graham-Green-meets-Tom-Waits reverie in Hanoi.” Bourdain remains one of the 10 guests I would invite to a fictional dinner party.

12, In The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century, writer Peter Watson gives us the rundown of how, by 1900, Germans were dominating philosophy, music, science, engineering. And yes, war. As reviewer Brian Ladd points out, while celebrating all that Germany gave the world, it’s a little shortsighted to shrug your shoulders at  the Nazis.

13, William Golding wrote Lord of the Flies, fought at D-Day, but was afraid of spiders.

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