Grappling with Parts Unknown

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In 2018, as part of healing myself from a big breakup and the unconscious patterns that led to it, I started an overdue nutrition reset. I was eating out a lot, too much; or cooking for taste alone, feeling terrible, with no sense of what would really nourish me. I was looking at food as a coping mechanism or social function (almost always paired with alcohol) and it was making me sick and depressed.

So in October, I hired a nutritionist. She’s helped me put together a plan — more cooking at home, armed with practical information on what to eat and how to eat it. Over time, I am actually looking forward to the entire meal process, from shopping at local markets to cleaning up after. I’m using all my pots, pans and utensils, and have pulled out some long-neglected cookbooks. Instead of overwhelm, it’s anticipation, and it is permeating all aspects of my life.

I recently added a photo of one of my kitchen heroes, Anthony Bourdain, to the wall behind my sink as inspiration. It’s been so hard to think about him since his death, but I’ve missed him — voracious and curious and a relentless champion of the underdog. It’s a younger photo; he’s staring wryly at the camera in a sun dappled produce market, piles of green peppers and oranges out of focus behind him. This was a photo of good times, of promise, and that’s where I am right now with food and cooking and life in general. I’m excited about what I’m discovering in myself, from my newfound love of roasted pumpkin to the natural euphoria I have after a well-composed meal and night of sleep.

It was with this enthusiasm that I was finally prepared to watch Tony’s last season of Parts Unknown. I’d been avoiding it, but I wanted to salivate over new flavors from the places he exposed us to. Buenos Aires jumped out as I spent some time there in 2016. I thought Tony’s adventures would motivate me with the skirt steak I bought from the farmers market that morning. And there’s no meatier place on this earth than Buenos Aires. I hit play and settled in with a nostalgic smile.

Well, joke’s on me because if you’ve seen the Buenos Aires episode, you know that it’s a fucking heartbreaker.

Tony talks dejectedly to chefs and Porteños (residents of BA) next to platters of glistening meat. I learned that it’s a common practice in Buenos Aires to see a therapist, many Porteños do it. And laying on the leather chaise of one therapist became a recurring bit of this Parts Unknown episode. He laments the downward spiral after a sad airport hamburger, sometimes lasting for days, and how the glow of a truly transcendent bite might only last a few minutes. It was his trademark cheeky response but there was an incredible weight of truth to it.

He talks about how essentially unhappy he is.

Right there, on a literal therapist’s couch, on his TV show.

I paused Netflix. I was taken aback. I had assumed this persona was for tv. I always found his candor refreshing, but without the delight of discovery in his earlier work, and in light of the tragedy that follows, this was gut-wrenching.

I didn’t watch it before his death. I don’t know if it would have struck me then as a harbinger of what was to come. I don’t know how much of it has to do with what I’m looking for in my life now vs. during my 20's. Had he always been like this and I just didn’t notice?

This was more than I bargained for in my innocent longing for the great equalizer Tony of No Reservations, the rock n’ roll Tony of Les Halles, the irreverent Tony of Kitchen Confidential, companion on my lap as I rode that Amtrak train to my new home in California 9 years ago. But there was something about the way he talked that resonated with where I was mentally just months ago. The depressed feeling seeping in everywhere. The fear of drowning that I had to change my whole life for. Leave a loving, if ingenuous, fiancé. Move alone into a new home. Quit drinking. Delete social media from my phone. Throw myself into altMBA. Hire a nutritionist. Finally start navigating the health of my body and mind after years of confusion and numbing and neglect.

I also would have stopped at nothing to change how I felt. It seems to me like Tony just took a different path at rock bottom. Where he went out, I went in. And though it wasn’t easy on everyone, the turn I took over time provided a positive path forward, especially considering the permanent effects of the alternative. I’ve made room for hope, ruthlessly heaving away any obstacles, and it feels rich and meaningful and full of possibility.

I read an article not long ago about how it’s not a gaping mystery that people like Tony go the suicide route. They’ve accomplished more on paper than most of us can even dream of. They had attained outer “success” — it didn’t provide the happiness we’re all promised. They still felt disconnected. Tony said the only person he could communicate well with was his 8 year old daughter. He said he travels 200 days a year. That’s a lot of time away from home. What would home even feel like for him? There he was sharing his struggles with the world from a therapist’s couch and even that (especially that?) couldn’t fix it.

He spent so much of his life looking into the unknown “out there”, but I wonder how he dealt with himself when the cameras were off. I assumed he was happy overall, we all did. We are woefully out of touch with the bizarre, unique, seasonal ingredient of ourselves and what to do with it when no one is looking. I think we can forget that the world will forgive us for taking care of ourselves. Maybe he would have considered leaving wild success and random fans who put pictures of him up in their kitchens to spend time with an 8 year old. That choice seems clear at this point.

Watching him in the heartbreaking lead-up to his death supported my conviction that my own about-face from last year was the best move I could have made. When I realized that being loved was not enough to feel whole, I knew I had to focus inward. This came by way of both what I put into my body and also decoding my psyche. I’ve prioritized good nutrition and exercise, reduced social “fluff”, and am making more time to engage with other people who support my growth. First rocks in my cup. And this state of health makes it possible to face my unexplored self, stepping into my own parts unknown. It’s terrifying, but also exhilarating. By applying curiosity and knowledge to what I take in, I can show up in a way that feels good and gives me strength to cope with the inevitable struggles.

This is the first year I have faith that I will follow through on my New Year’s resolutions in… well, as long as I can remember. It’s as foreign an experience to me as tatsoi or pomelo was just a few months ago. But blissful resolve is, in fact, an ingredient in the farmer’s market of humanity. It might be uncommon, but it’s available to us all. When the days becomes debilitating, we have the option to go in. And for that I am grateful.

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