Chefs, food journalists, and enthusiastic eaters spent the weekend offering up remembrances of and tributes to Anthony Bourdain for his role in making food and the people who cook it part of the national conversation. With books like A Cook’s Tour and television series like No Reservations, the chef, author, and TV personality almost single-handedly taught Americans to see eating as an adventure. But while his program popularized global cuisines, the most important lesson he taught his readers and viewers wasn’t about dishes. It was about how to eat together. Bourdain understood that eating wasn’t just consumption, it was an act of sharing. And if parents take anything away from the gustatory life of Anthony Bourdain, it should be that dining together is as important as the act of eating itself.
From the beginnings of Bourdain’s television career, one thing was clear: No Reservations was as much about the people he was eating with as it was about the food. He lingered around overloaded tables with a vast array of diverse personalities. He spoke about obesity with Ted Nugent over wild game and biscuits. He talked about what it means to lead the free world with Barack Obama over a bowl of noodles in Hanoi. He ate family meals with guerrilla peshmerga fighters in Kurdistan. On each of the shows, the food was lovingly zoomed in on and complimented, but the conversation was the core of the meal.
Speaking with Marc Maron on the comedian’s WTF podcast, Bourdain noted the power food had to bring people together. “It may not be the answer to World Peace,” he told Maron. “But it’s a start.”
This is both part of what made Anthony Bourdain great, his fundamentally humane approach to making and eating food, and also what parents lose sight of as they try to convince kids to eat vegetables or abandon the children’s menu. When the focus is on the food, none of it really works. There isn’t any peace at the table. It is, in and of itself a war zone. When the focus is on eating the food together, a moment is created — connections are forged.
Bourdain perfectly modeled the behavior that pediatric nutritionists inevitably encourage: sitting down and eating as a family. Nutrition, when understood in the context of a family meal, is a side effect of togetherness. Do the one thing and the other thing — the whole balanced diet thing — comes.
Bourdain showed how deeply connective togetherness while sharing food could be. Eating together slows the pace of shoveling food into our faces while also providing a natural cadence for conversation. I talk, you eat. Now, I eat and you talk. And when we have no common ground? We have the meal to discuss. And maybe that meal brings us to other meals and memories. And maybe those memories allow us to be vulnerable.
Bourdain explained this very thing when talking about the bizarre connection he formed as a “lefty” with notorious conservatives he ate with like Nugent. “We don’t have much in common,” he said. “But we both like beer and we both like barbecue. To sneer at each other relentlessly feels counterproductive.”
That’s why Bourdain’s conversations could become so deeply moving and personal. It wasn’t because he was a trained journalist. He wasn’t. What made him so good at talking to people was that he was a practiced diner. He knew how to use food as a catalyst for conversation.
That’s what parents should be doing at the dinner table. A family meal is a moment in the day that puts everyone face-to-face. It is the one moment in our scattered lives when phones are put down and forks are picked up. Sure, it’s a time for nourishment. But more importantly, it’s a time for parents to ask and answer questions. It’s a time for us to experience our kids and for our kids to experience us.
It’s not always easy, of course. Sometimes we are at a loss for what to say and Bourdain admitted to sometimes feeling a tad intimidated by a few of his subjects. But regardless of whether he was speaking to heroes like Iggy Pop or curmudgeonly iconoclasts like comics author Harvey Pekar, Bourdain’s delight at being at the table was always apparent.
As parents, we should follow that example. Because the children at our table are more important than any statesman or rock star could ever be, and what they have to say about their lives is much more important.
Perhaps Bourdain’s final lesson in dining together is that it’s not a given. We may feel like we have forever to sit down and see these sweet faces across the table, but the truth is that we most assuredly do not. We need to enjoy the time we have with those we love today. And if we enjoy that time at a dinner table over a home cooked meal, so much the better.