What I’m Streaming: ‘Parts Unknown’
Anthony Bourdain Explores Culture Through Food
Before Anthony Bourdain took his own life on Friday, June 8th, I had heard of his show, but had never bothered watching it. Though I had felt a connection to him through his book, Kitchen Confidential, I had never bothered to check out the series. There’s no good or bad reason why; I just didn’t. Maybe it’s because I never enjoyed food shows that much.
When I pulled up his show, Parts Unknown, Netflix informed me it would be leaving on June 16th. Within the first few minutes of the first episode, I knew I had to watch as many episodes as I could before the end date.
As it turns out, Parts Unknown is not a show about food. It’s a show about culture that uses food as a doorway to explore other cultures.
The first episode is set in Myanmar, formerly Burma. He introduces Myanmar to us through a series of violent images. For most of us, that is all that we know of Myanmar: a ruthless military regime where protestors are murdered by the authorities, and sometimes in the middle of the street, right in front of everybody. The military regime has recently begun to relax its hold on the state, which allowed for Bourdain and his crew to come in and explore the country. He meets with a handful of individuals and shares food with them— the cuisine of the country— and he learns about them, the people.
Here are his words on the Mexican culture:
“Americans love Mexican food. We consume nachos, tacos, burritos, tortas, enchiladas, tamales and anything resembling Mexican in enormous quantities. We love Mexican beverages, happily knocking back huge amounts of tequila, mezcal, and Mexican beer every year. We love Mexican people—we sure employ a lot of them. Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, and look after our children. As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy—the restaurant business as we know it—in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are stealing American jobs. But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had ONE American kid walk in my door and apply for a dishwashing job, a porter’s position—or even a job as a prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, probably, simply won’t do.
We love Mexican drugs. Maybe not you personally, but “we”, as a nation, certainly consume titanic amounts of them—and go to extraordinary lengths and expense to acquire them. We love Mexican music, Mexican beaches, Mexican architecture, interior design, Mexican films.
So, why don’t we love Mexico?
We throw up our hands and shrug at what happens and what is happening just across the border. Maybe we are embarrassed. Mexico, after all, has always been there for us, to service our darkest needs and desires. Whether it’s dress up like fools and get passed-out drunk and sunburned on spring break in Cancun, throw pesos at strippers in Tijuana, or get toasted on Mexican drugs, we are seldom on our best behavior in Mexico. They have seen many of us at our worst. They know our darkest desires.
In the service of our appetites, we spend billions and billions of dollars each year on Mexican drugs—while at the same time spending billions and billions more trying to prevent those drugs from reaching us. The effect on our society is everywhere to be seen. Whether it’s kids nodding off and overdosing in small-town Vermont, gang violence in L.A., burned out neighborhoods in Detroit—it’s there to see. What we don’t see, however, haven’t really noticed, and don’t seem to much care about, is the 80,000 dead in Mexico, just in the past few years—mostly innocent victims. Eighty thousand families who’ve been touched directly by the so-called “War On Drugs.”
Mexico. Our brother from another mother. A country, with whom, like it or not, we are inexorably, deeply involved, in a close but often uncomfortable embrace. Look at it. It’s beautiful. It has some of the most ravishingly beautiful beaches on earth. Mountains, desert, jungle. Beautiful colonial architecture, a tragic, elegant, violent, ludicrous, heroic, lamentable, heartbreaking history. Mexican wine country rivals Tuscany for gorgeousness. Its archeological sites—the remnants of great empires, unrivaled anywhere. And as much as we think we know and love it, we have barely scratched the surface of what Mexican food really is. It is NOT melted cheese over tortilla chips. It is not simple, or easy. It is not simply “bro food” at halftime. It is in fact, old—older even than the great cuisines of Europe, and often deeply complex, refined, subtle, and sophisticated. A true mole sauce, for instance, can take DAYS to make, a balance of freshly (always fresh) ingredients painstakingly prepared by hand. It could be, should be, one of the most exciting cuisines on the planet, if we paid attention. The old school cooks of Oaxaca make some of the more difficult and nuanced sauces in gastronomy. And some of the new generation—many of whom have trained in the kitchens of America and Europe—have returned home to take Mexican food to new and thrilling heights.
It’s a country I feel particularly attached to and grateful for. In nearly 30 years of cooking professionally, just about every time I walked into a new kitchen, it was a Mexican guy who looked after me, had my back, showed me what was what, and was there—and on the case—when the cooks like me, with backgrounds like mine, ran away to go skiing or surfing or simply flaked. I have been fortunate to track where some of those cooks come from, to go back home with them. To small towns populated mostly by women—where in the evening, families gather at the town’s phone kiosk, waiting for calls from their husbands, sons and brothers who have left to work in our kitchens in the cities of the North. I have been fortunate enough to see where that affinity for cooking comes from, to experience moms and grandmothers preparing many delicious things, with pride and real love, passing that food made by hand from their hands to mine.
In years of making television in Mexico, it’s one of the places we, as a crew, are happiest when the day’s work is over. We’ll gather around a street stall and order soft tacos with fresh, bright, delicious salsas, drink cold Mexican beer, sip smoky mezcals, and listen with moist eyes to sentimental songs from street musicians. We will look around and remark, for the hundredth time, what an extraordinary place this is.
The received wisdom is that Mexico will never change. That is hopelessly corrupt, from top to bottom. That it is useless to resist—to care, to hope for a happier future. But there are heroes out there who refuse to go along. On this episode of “Parts Unknown,” we meet a few of them. People who are standing up against overwhelming odds, demanding accountability, demanding change—at great, even horrifying personal cost.”
In this time, his words seem more timely than ever.
However, back to the man we primarily think of most as a food lover. When it comes to trying something new, Bourdain is not about to pass it up.
Bourdain was also famously known to abhor vegetarians:
“Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food. The body, these waterheads imagine, is a temple that should not be polluted by animal protein. It’s healthier, they insist, though every vegetarian waiter I’ve worked with is brought down by any rumor of a cold. Oh, I’ll accommodate them, I’ll rummage around for something to feed them, for a ‘vegetarian plate’, if called on to do so. Fourteen dollars for a few slices of grilled eggplant and zucchini suits my food cost fine.”
In one of the other first few episodes of the series, Bourdain travels to a place and explores a culture much closer than Myanmar: Koreatown.
He opens the series with the violent images from April 1992, during which time the LAPD abandoned Koreatown after the verdict of the Rodney King trial and the subsequent riots. The Korean shop owners felt betrayed as they were left to defend themselves, their homes and their shops.
After this peek into Korean culture, he takes us to a Sizzler with second-generation Korean-American artist David Choe. Why Sizzler? Growing up, the Koreans didn’t have a lot of money. Eating out was a treat, and when they did so, it was at McDonald’s.
Watching this Korean-American put together a plate from a Sizzler’s salad bar made me look at it in new ways. Now, I want to try it again, and he’s right when he introduces Bourdain to the bread at Sizzler because it’s really the best!
Another place Bourdain is taken to is Jollibee. It’s a restaurant primarily found in the Philippines, and has two locations in LA: Eagle Rock and Panorama City. They order the Aloha Burger, the SPAM slider, and a drink called the Halo Halo. I’ve never thought much about SPAM, but as I watched this episode, I wanted a SPAM slider.
Sadly, Jollibee took the SPAM slider off their menu in January of this year. Dammit. Although, the sandwich looks pretty straightforward: SPAM, mayo, bread. Maybe I can make one at home?
After plowing through episodes of the first season, I was relieved to find out that Netflix has, in fact, extended its streaming deal with Parts Unknown. They have promised to run it for months and months to come.
Sweet. I’m going to make a SPAM slider and watch another episode.