If you were in Ithaca during the summer of 2016, you probably remember it being obscenely hot. You might also remember it as the summer of the worst drought in the recorded history of New York State. Now, during this drought, in my 100-year-old, un-air-conditioned house, I decided that the perfect dinner would be a chorizo and chickpea stew.
Here, I would like to apologize to my friend Julia Montejo, whom I had invited over for said dinner, for subjecting her to a meal that left both our shirts absolutely drenched in sweat and sticking to my faux-leather couch. What she didn’t know at the time, though, and what I haven’t really spoken about in the years since, is that I was using cooking as a coping mechanism. Dinner had to be that damn stew.
On the one hand, I kept making Latin dishes — especially Caribbean dishes — to ease the intense culture shock I was undergoing after returning to Ithaca from a semester abroad in Cuba. I had a fear that if I adjusted too quickly to my old life in the States, my time in Cuba would somehow be cheapened. Often, I asked myself if I had been anything more than a tourist parading around with a student visa. I began to avoid the inevitable “so what was Cuba like?” when I could, or else I answered it with a wry smile and a “warmer than an Ithaca winter.”
How could I explain something I was still processing? How could I explain the sum total of four months of just existing in a place and allowing it to fill my eyes and ears? Everybody always wanted to hear a specific version of the story: Cuba as an impoverished island, suffering under a failed socialist regime and desperate for the arrival of capitalism; Cuba as a resilient, anti-imperialist, revolutionary nation determined to bring socialism into the 21st century. I knew enough to say that neither one is wholly true, but who am I to choose a reality for a people not my own? While I figured out my place in this all, I did my best to keep my memories of Cuba close, and food allowed me a daily chance at that.
On the other hand, I was using cooking as a way to convince myself that I was still a functioning, normal human being. That summer, I was plagued by physical ailments that, at best, the doctors attributed to lingering, synergistic effects from an injury to my neck and shoulders. I had slow-burn headaches that lasted for weeks at a time; I began having trouble focusing my eyes on anything that wasn’t a dark, solid color; moving too fast made me disoriented. I’d had a concussion before, but this felt different. In most of my memories from that summer, I feel like I’m a few steps outside my body and watching everything through the heat waves coming up off the pavement. I went to work, grinned through the day, went home, and laid face down on my bed. I forced myself to attempt to lead a normal life — hence the cooking — but most days it felt like muscle memory was the only thing keeping me going. I tried physical therapy and was prescribed medication, but nothing even took the edge off. One of the drugs made things worse, and when I stopped taking it I had bouts of sleep paralysis. More and more, I felt I was only tangentially present in my own life. With this came the creeping sensation of intense loneliness, so I began taking refuge in my friends. Even if I was just lying immobile on the couch while they studied or talked or played Super Smash Brothers, at least I was there, and that had to count for something.
And so I return now to the ill-timed stew, Julia and her homemade tortillas (she had insisted), and Anthony Bourdain’s show, Parts Unknown. In the season six opener, he travels to Havana. I felt compelled to watch, figuring that if anyone could make a travel doc in Cuba that didn’t make me feel uncomfortable, it would be Bourdain. He did not disappoint. Throughout the episode, he asks almost exactly the same questions I had asked when I was there: Was there a fear that a boom in US tourism would lead Cuba down a path of trading its “authenticity” for monetary gain? Would it, as geographer Edward Relph would say, plunge Cuba into a “placelessness”— turning it into an empty shell that resists any associations or attachments beyond the word “vacation”? (If you’ve ever thought that all hotels feel vaguely familiar, you have experienced this phenomenon.)
While I won’t quote anyone from the episode here, as I highly recommend you go watch it, what struck me throughout was that Bourdain actually wanted to hear their answers. This wasn’t a performative solidarity against capitalist neo-imperialism; this wasn’t a grab at redemption or a pardon for being associated with an industry that largely relies upon that system; this was a genuine desire to see things through someone else’s eyes. His Cuban acquaintances almost always get the last word, and Bourdain never seems disappointed to hear an answer he wasn’t expecting or that directly contradicts his own ideas. I think this was his project throughout the whole series: to approach the world with open eyes and open ears; not to tell the stories of the world, but to ask the world for their stories. That he brought along a video camera for us is a gift we should not take lightly.
Or was it a gift at all? Especially now, in a time where the government of the United States is encouraging and manipulating ideas of difference, it seems more important than ever to be reminded of the common humanity sought by Bourdain and his show. I think what started as a gift has rapidly become a charge: bridge the gaps. Or, perhaps better phrasing is that Parts Unknown seeks to remind us that the differences, the gaps we imagine between us as people and as nations, are just that: imagined. That night in my sweltering apartment, Anthony Bourdain helped me begin to make sense of my relationship with Cuba. What mattered wasn’t what I did or what I could talk about, but that I was there. I had listened, and I was prepared to love and support the Cuban people, not the idea of Cuba. If for nothing else, Parts Unknown shows us that the soul of a place — that which makes it unique and emotionally significant — is located first and foremost in the lives of its inhabitants. To be allowed to share in these lives, even if only for a moment, is a beautiful thing.
On a more personal level, watching Parts Unknown reminded me that we’re rarely as alone as we think we are. So, I gave what love I could to the people around me, and they returned it in kind. Even if it was just my sorry head in a friend’s lap or a bowl of horrendously, inappropriately hot stew, I did what I could to keep on being — to keep on sharing myself with the world around me. And, a few more times when it was just me and my boiling apartment, I put on Parts Unknown to remind myself the world hadn’t fallen completely away.
And so, as we remember Bourdain for his punk-rocker persona and biting, cynical wit, let us also remember his compassion and empathy. Through food, he attempted to show us that our world is much smaller than we like to think. For that, I think we owe him a certain debt, not just of gratitude, but of work on our part. He knew that food was just one of many lenses through which to appreciate a culture — what mattered more was that you had to sit down with someone to share the meal. If Parts Unknown is a revelation of our common humanity, let it be a door, not a window; it’s still up to us to cross the threshold and take a place at the many tables in our own lives. That we eat different foods, so to speak, should not divide us, but inspire us to share and learn. It should inspire in us the same empathetic, wholehearted search for communion that Anthony Bourdain brought with him to every corner of the world.
Thank you, Chef.
Cornell University, Class of 2017
Consortium for Advanced Studies Abroad: Havana, Cuba, 2016