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Anthony Bourdain (center) in Sri Lanka.

Over the past few weeks I have become quite addicted to a show on the
Travel Channel. It's a cooking show, strangely enough. Or maybe it's a
travel show. In any case it is Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.

Anthony Bourdain is not just an ordinary travel show host. He is part
all-consuming chef, part gonzo travel writer, part 19th century
explorer, and part cultural anthropologist. I suppose it is the later
that drew me to the show when I first came across it. Like an
anthropologist in the field, Bourdain truly gets up close and personal
with people on the show and their culture. Sometimes in a particular
city he will visit with some old friend. But just as often he is making
new ones. And as viewers you become his friend as well — he spends a
lot of time talking directly into the camera. Or at least glancing at
it every once in a while as he looks off into the distance, checking
things out.

He smokes cigarettes, unabashedly. He drinks just about any brand of
beer that comes his way. And of course most of all he eats. He eats
lots, without regard for cholesterol or sodium and without entering his
caloric intake into his cell phone. And yet he seems fit and slim. I
think the reason for that is simply that he walks. If he eats a lot, he
walks even more. Except perhaps for the trip in from and out to the
airport, or the occasional trip into the wilds, he spends a lot of time
as a pedestrian. He walks to restaurants he wants to visit, to a museum,
to another restaurant, to a famous local jazz joint, and back to whatever
hotel he is staying at. You rarely see him in a vehicle. All of which is
a good reminder that life really is about balancing things.

Bourdain visits famous landmarks and museums occasionally. And he
sometimes will dine at a famous world-class restaurant — what chef
wouldn't. But he is just as likely to go off the beaten path and visit
a 150 year old sea-side tavern, an art gallery which sells paintings
on black velvet, or some mom-and-pop sandwich joint. In that respect
No Reservations is similar to Globe Trekker, except that Bourdain
is at once much more serious and much more irreverent. And far more
original.

Almost half the food Bourdain wolfs down on the show is eaten somewhere
out in the wilds — grilled giant scallops with sweet onions on a beach,
blackened salmon on a camping trip, a breakfast of sweet and sour pork
in the middle of a jungle, gourmet sandwiches out on a picnic on a lava
desert in Iceland. All the food prepared by expert chefs, of course. To
me, at least, it was the outdoor feasts that usually looked the most
enticing for some reason. The vegetables served on the camping trip
outside Portland had my mouth watering and I soon had to hit the
refrigerator.

But these days the world can sometimes be a dangerous place. In an
episode which won an Emmy Award in 2007, Bourdain and his producer
and crew visited Beirut in July, 2006. As Bourdain notes, they arrived
very optimistic, exited about the food they were about to eat, excited
by the people that seemed ecstatic to welcome them there. But reality
quickly set in to the sound of automatic weapons fire in the distance.
And then, suddenly, things turned totally to shit. The Israeli-Hezbollah
war broke out and they were soon holed up in their hotel, prisoners of
circumstance. Luckily, the crew were among those who were eventually
evac'd by U.S. Navy ships. Bourdain had high praise for the U.S. Marines
on board who went around and talked with the evacuees and tried to
make them feel less fearful. And it was on board this ship that Bourdain
ate what might have been the most interesting food featured on his show,
a "high-school cafeteria" meal of chicken and noodles, corn dogs, and
macaroni and cheese. After all the uncertainty and stress and outright
fear, Bourdain says, "Nothing had ever tasted so good."

Which kind of puts things in perspective a bit.

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