Dinner Guest: Bourdain and me, and the ham

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In the weeks following his suicide in France, pieces about Anthony Bourdain filled my computer screen like the chicken tray at the last Popeye’s all-you-can-eat buffet in Lafayette, La. — at which, the internet tells me, Bourdain once dined for three days straight.

Sadly, most of what I knew about Bourdain came from memes that quote his breakthrough book, Kitchen Confidential, true backstage stories of New York City’s restaurant scene that hurtled him into the public eye. I think I caught the show a couple times. I admired his candor, what I knew of it, and his disrespect for authority which became legendary since he hit the bigs.

I suppose I was a fan in the way I’m a fan of the strange South African hip-hop weirdoes Die Antwoord — that is to say, in a general way and without all that much familiarity with the work.

His death saddened me, though, in ways I couldn’t explain: the hard work, the late-life success, the no-nonsense reporting all came to an end in a lonely French hotel room.

Bourdain’s first piece was an oyster, slurped fresh out of the shell off the coast of France. Mine was a ham sandwich.

I don’t think I could ever live up to the life of Anthony Bourdain, but I’m not hubristic enough to believe that it couldn’t have ended in similar fashion.

I bought the book last week, almost 20 years too late, and I’m tearing through it faster than a bowl of hot noodles on a cold day.

What strikes me hardest is how, at times, Bourdain’s story rhymes with my own, except his features more talent, harder drugs, a different stratosphere of success and, perhaps, one or two decisions at key moments in life that sent him one way and me another.

Like Bourdain, I remember the one thing I ate that got me interested in food. Bourdain’s first piece was an oyster, slurped fresh out of the shell on the coast of France. Mine was a ham sandwich.

But this was like no other ham sandwich I had ever eaten up to that point, which was about 1984, before bougie sandwiches existed. Besides a few fantastic New York deli classics, most sandwiches I had ever eaten from home kitchens came on square, gummy white bread. This sandwich, made by my friend Scott’s mother right there in her kitchen while I watched her do it, was on dense, brown bread, the kind that’s all over the place now but in 1984 was as obscure as black truffles. The ham came not from some pre-packaged lot or a deli man’s slicer, but in thick slabs off an actual ham. The cheese, too — Swiss, I believe — seemed cut specifically for the purpose of laying on my sandwich. A little bit of mayo, yes, and Dijon mustard, of course. But then there were — get this — sprouts on this sandwich. I had never in all my 14 years seen such a thing, had never in fact even tasted a sprout. They were crunchy and tasted slightly of the earth, and held the dressings marvelously.

From that moment, I became an insufferable food snob, scoffing at the Oscar Mayer garbage my parents’ were peddling and blowing my lunch money on quarter-pound cups of whatever looked interesting behind the glass at the German deli, things with names I didn’t recognize at the Kosher deli. At seafood restaurants, I veered away from the fried stuff, leaning more towards food in the shell: clams raw and roasted, steamers dipped in broth and butter, lobster whenever I could get it and shrimp when I couldn’t.

I didn’t get my first taste of real raw oyster until a few years later, after I’d left home for New Orleans. It happened at Cooter Brown’s, and like Bourdain, I found it to be salty and succulent, and hinting at the answers to all of life’s mysteries.

Unlike Bourdain, I still have not had my fill.

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