T he late Anthony Michael Bourdain needs no introduction. He single-handedly inspired a generation of travelers and foodies like me with his indelible charm, tenacious curiosity, and a raw authenticity that forever adjusted the lens through which we consume the world.
I’m paying homage to the New York-born legend by curating uniquely modified excerpts from the unedited transcripts, field notes, and other original content published by CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown in which Bourdain captivated a global audience with his fascinating perspective on life and his grand appreciation for all things travel, food, culture, and history.
This is Anthony Bourdain in his own words. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown: Mexico (Source: CNN)
Mexico is a country where every day, people fight to live. All too often, they lose that battle. A magnificent, heartbreakingly beautiful country. The music and food, and a uniquely Mexican, darkly funny, deeply-felt world view. Right down there, cuddled up in ethos, our brother from another mother.
Americans love Mexican food. We consume nachos, tacos, burritos, tortas, enchiladas, tamales and anything resembling Mexican in enormous quantities. We love Mexican beverages, happily knocking back huge amounts of tequila, mezcal, and Mexican beer every year. We love Mexican people—we sure employ a lot of them.
Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, and look after our children. As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy—the restaurant business as we know it—in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are “stealing American jobs.” But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had ONE American kid walk in my door and apply for a dishwashing job, a porter’s position—or even a job as a prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, probably, simply won’t do.
We love Mexican drugs. Maybe not you personally, but “we”, as a nation, certainly consume titanic amounts of them—and go to extraordinary lengths and expense to acquire them. We love Mexican music, Mexican beaches, Mexican architecture, interior design, Mexican films.
So, why don’t we love Mexico?
We throw up our hands and shrug at what happens and what is happening just across the border. Maybe we are embarrassed. Mexico, after all, has always been there for us, to service our darkest needs and desires. Whether it’s dress up like fools and get passed-out drunk and sunburned on spring break in Cancun, throw pesos at strippers in Tijuana, or get toasted on Mexican drugs, we are seldom on our best behavior in Mexico. They have seen many of us at our worst. They know our darkest desires.
In the service of our appetites, we spend billions and billions of dollars each year on Mexican drugs—while at the same time spending billions and billions more trying to prevent those drugs from reaching us. The effect on our society is everywhere to be seen. Whether it’s kids nodding off and overdosing in small town Vermont, gang violence in L.A., burned out neighborhoods in Detroit—it’s there to see. What we don’t see, however, haven’t really noticed, and don’t seem to much care about, is the 80,000 dead in Mexico, just in the past few years—mostly innocent victims. Eighty thousand families who’ve been touched directly by the so-called “War On Drugs”.
Mexico. Our brother from another mother. A country, with whom, like it or not, we are inexorably, deeply involved, in a close but often uncomfortable embrace. Look at it. It’s beautiful. It has some of the most ravishingly beautiful beaches on earth. Mountains, desert, jungle. Beautiful colonial architecture, a tragic, elegant, violent, ludicrous, heroic, lamentable, heartbreaking history. Mexican wine country rivals Tuscany for gorgeousness. Its archeological sites—the remnants of great empires, unrivaled anywhere.
And as much as we think we know and love it, we have barely scratched the surface of what Mexican food really is. It is NOT melted cheese over tortilla chips. It is not simple, or easy. It is not simply “bro food” at halftime. It is in fact, old—older even than the great cuisines of Europe, and often deeply complex, refined, subtle, and sophisticated. A true mole sauce, for instance, can take DAYS to make, a balance of freshly (always fresh) ingredients painstakingly prepared by hand. It could be, should be, one of the most exciting cuisines on the planet, if we paid attention. The old school cooks of Oaxaca make some of the more difficult and nuanced sauces in gastronomy. And some of the new generation—many of whom have trained in the kitchens of America and Europe—have returned home to take Mexican food to new and thrilling heights.
It’s a country I feel particularly attached to and grateful for. In nearly 30 years of cooking professionally, just about every time I walked into a new kitchen, it was a Mexican guy who looked after me, had my back, showed me what was what, and was there—and on the case—when the cooks like me, with backgrounds like mine, ran away to go skiing or surfing or simply flaked. I have been fortunate to track where some of those cooks come from, to go back home with them.
To small towns populated mostly by women—where in the evening, families gather at the town’s phone kiosk, waiting for calls from their husbands, sons and brothers who have left to work in our kitchens in the cities of the North. I have been fortunate enough to see where that affinity for cooking comes from, to experience moms and grandmothers preparing many delicious things, with pride and real love, passing that food made by hand from their hands to mine.
In years of making television in Mexico, it’s one of the places we, as a crew, are happiest when the day’s work is over. We’ll gather around a street stall and order soft tacos with fresh, bright, delicious salsas, drink cold Mexican beer, sip smoky mezcals, and listen with moist eyes to sentimental songs from street musicians. We will look around and remark, for the hundredth time, what an extraordinary place this is.
The received wisdom is that Mexico will never change. That is hopelessly corrupt, from top to bottom. That it is useless to resist—to care, to hope for a happier future. But there are heroes out there who refuse to go along. On this episode of “Parts Unknown,” we meet a few of them. People who are standing up against overwhelming odds, demanding accountability, demanding change—at great, even horrifying personal cost.
This show is for them.
Bourdain on the town of Tepito in Mexico City
Tepito is a city within its city. Its own thing. Either the dark center or the beating heart of Mexico City, depending on your point of view.
It’s the home of Santa Muerte, the skeletal St. Death. This is where they come: the impoverished, the oppressed, the marginalized, the criminal. People for whom the traditional church has less relevancy. For the unforgiven and the unforgivable. For those on whom the Catholic saints have turned their backs, there is Santa Muerte.
This is a place and Santa Muerte is a saint that accepts everybody. “Death to my enemies” written on a votive candle. Let’s face it, we’ve all prayed for that at one point or another.
Tepito is a poor neighborhood, for sure, and a tough one. A center of commerce, both above-board and not.
Perhaps a breakfast beverage first. A michelada. One giant beer with lemon, chili powder, salt and magi sauce.
LOCAL BLOGGER: It is known as being the lost souls neighborhood. In Tepito, there are no angels but lost souls.
BOURDAIN: What’s the saying?
LOCAL BLOGGER: Showing your “los huevos” to the death.
BOURDAIN: Show your balls to the devil or to…
LOCAL BLOGGER: …to the death.
Bourdain on traditional migas
On the menu, migas. The base comes from boiling cracked hambones to release the marrow, to which garlic, onion, cascabel chili (also known as the rattle chili) and episote is added. Thickened with stale bread and leftover tortillas.
Any great old culture where there’s poverty, there’s something like this. By the way, if you’re watching this after you do this, you’ve really got to wash your hands before you touch your — OK? That’s a rookie mistake. Don’t go piss right after.
Bourdain on mescal in Oaxaca
I came to Oaxaca for mescal. I like mescal more and more these days. And this guy, Ron Cooper, finds and sells some of the best mescal in the world.
We’re at the Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban.
COOPER: In pre-conquest Mexico, there were gods and goddesses of intoxication and ecstasy. The touch of a lover, the smell of a flower, the a-ha of an idea, all had gods and goddesses that took responsibility for those things.
BOURDAIN: All of your mescals come from different villages and only that village?
COOPER: Yes. And only one maker in that village. We call ourself single village mescal because most mescals are made with a blend of different villages all put together. No one goes home and has a cocktail in these Indian villages. They wait until there’s a special occasion.
Back in the day, it was cheap stuff with a worm in it and there were rumors that if you ate the worm, you would start tripping, there was a hallucinogenic component to mescal.
Bourdain on the food in Oaxaca and Chef Alejandro Ruiz Olmedo
In Oaxaca, ancient, indigenous traditions of ingredients define not only the mescal but also the food. This is Alejandro Ruiz Olmedo, one of Mexico’s best chefs. He started cooking young. When he was 12, his mother died and it fell on him to raise and feed his five siblings. Today he draws much of his inspiration from Oaxaca’s central market.
BOURDAIN: And I think most Americans’ view of Mexican food is like beans, fried tortilla, melted cheese, some chicken. In fact, in particular when we’re talking about Oaxaca, this is a deep, really sophisticated cuisine.
OLMEDO: That’s correct. Oaxaca has these different microclimates all over our territory and that gives us this enormous amount of spices, produce, fruits, chilis.
BOURDAIN: So tasty.
OLMEDO: All this is full of chilis. People think that Mexican food has to be necessarily spicy because of all the chili we use. And we go for flavor, not for the spices.
BOURDAIN: What most people miss is how really deep and really sophisticated the sauces here can be. Like Lyon is to France, Oaxaca is to Mexico, in my experience.
OLMEDO: You’re right. Also in my experience.
BOURDAIN: Not kissing your ass here. I was just in Lyon.
Bourdain on the quiet little town of Teotitlan del Valle
About 15 miles outside of Oaxaca, a town where the arts, crafts and traditions of pre-Hispanic Mexico are celebrated and packaged for consumption.
Abigail Mendoza and her sister Rufina are Zapotecan, original people from Mexico before the Spanish, before the Aztecs. This is her restaurant, where Abigail has been grinding corn by hand, making masa and moles like this, the ridiculously faithful, time-consuming, difficult, traditional way she was taught to make these things, and the way she’s been making them since she was 6 years old.
Look at her hands, by the way. Small, surprisingly delicate, given all the hard work, all the pushing, kneading, grinding stone against stone over the years. Then look at her forearms. The power there. It’s impressive and beautiful.
Migas La Güera
Bourdain ate: A michelada (from a nearby stall), migas (hambone broth prepared with garlic, onion, peppers, and epazote, thickened with stale bread and leftover tortillas).
Máximo Bistrot Local
Bourdain ate: Abalone with chiles, lemon, and brown butter; confit of suckling pig, topped with grandma’s salsa and served on a tortilla.
Cantina El Danubio
Bourdain had: Drinks
Central de Abastos Oaxaca
Bourdain ate: barbacoa tacos, consommé, tlayudas (perhaps best described as a Oaxacan pizza), Jarritos soda.
Bourdain had: Mezcal; seguesa (mole-and-chicken dish); cow and pork brains cooked with chiles, tomatoes, and yerba santa.
Bourdain on Mexican resilience
“Mexico is a country where everyday people fight to live. All too often they lose that battle. A magnificent, heartbreakingly beautiful country. The music and food and a uniquely Mexican, darkly funny, deeply felt worldview. Right down there, cuddled up in ethos, our brother from another mother.”
“In Mexico, people fight to live every day. One man stands alone, facing another man. His intent, to beat his opponent with his fists until he can resist no more. A match, yes, but, more accurately, a fight.”
“Who’s got a longer career: a narco or a boxer?”
“Expensive protein shakes and dietary supplements? Not so much. Boxers here eat what they can afford… That’s why Mexican fighters are so exciting. They’re hungry.”
“Not a lot of upward mobility here. The rich get richer; the poor get ground slowly under the wheel.”
“Tepito is a city within a city. Its own thing. Either the dark center or the beating heart of Mexico City, depending on your point of view. It’s the home of Santa Muerte, the skeletal St. Death. This is where they come: the impoverished, the oppressed, the marginalized, the criminal—people for whom the traditional church has less relevancy. For the unforgiven and the unforgivable. For those on whom the Catholic saints have turned their backs, there is Santa Muerte. This is a place and Santa Muerte is a saint that accepts everybody. “Death to my enemies” written on a votive candle. Let’s face it: We’ve all prayed for that at one point or another.”
“Tepito is a poor neighborhood, for sure, and a tough one. A center of commerce, both above board and not.”
“The quiet night in the Zócalo, the central square of Oaxaca. But even tonight there’s plenty of evidence of the struggle, the discontent, boiling just under the surface.”
Notes on narcos
“As I have come to know in my own life, drugs, even drug addiction, can be a survivable event. Death is not. Death is final.”
“Holy mother of Santa Muerte, please protect my stash of cocaine. Let it not be interfered with by the cops or the competition. Let any who would mess with me be killed. My enemies destroyed. Please forgive us our sins, for they are many.”
“What do you do if you’re one of these cops? You’re driving around one night. You see some guy outside of a bar beating somebody or disturbing the peace. You start to arrest him, and he’s got a diamond-studded pistol. It’s got his name on it. Now you realize you’ve just arrested somebody with serious, powerful connections. What do you do?”
“Under former President Felipe Calderón, Mexico launched a concerted war on drugs. Ostensibly against the notorious and seemingly untouchable cartels. Absolutely no one can say with any credibility, by the way, that Mexico’s war or our trillion-dollar war has had any effect in diminishing the flow of drugs into our country.”
“To me, the weak link are the bankers. A banker who launders money, he’s got a family, he’s got a reputation, he gives money to charity, his neighbors think he’s great, his kids think he’s wonderful, but he’s got something to lose. So I wouldn’t be prosecuting drug dealers. I would be prosecuting bankers.”
[Speaking to poet Javier Sicilia, through a translator] “Can he think of one place on Earth where the good guys are winning and where you are not ground under the wheels of the machine?”
On food and a few too many
“Perhaps a breakfast beverage first. A michelada. One giant beer with lemon, chili powder, salt, and maggi sauce.”
[Eating migas at Migas La Güera] “When you got nothin’, you make somethin’ really awesome out of nothin’. … Any great old culture where there’s poverty, there’s something like this.”
“The restaurant business, as I well know, ain’t no picnic. And in Mexico City it’s particularly rough.”
[On the food at Máximo Bistrot Local] “It’s going to be like Mick Jagger, you know, 50 years from now singing “Satisfaction.” There’s no getting away from it, man. This is so good. This is a classic.”
[Over his mezcal in Oaxaca] “Is this an enlightening high? Is this a good high?”
“I came to Oaxaca for mezcal. I like mezcal more and more these days.”
“Probably America’s most beloved food is what they think is Mexican food. And I think most Americans’ view of Mexican food is like beans, fried tortilla, melted cheese, some chicken. In fact, in particular when we’re talking about Oaxaca, this is a deep, really sophisticated cuisine.”
[On Oaxaca] “Like 500,000 varieties of corn. Something like that. I mean, this is where the good shit grows.”
[On Oaxaca] “I haven’t been anywhere in Mexico where the cooking is better than here.”
“The quiet little town of Teotitlán del Valle is about 15 miles outside of Oaxaca, a town where the arts, crafts, and traditions of pre-Hispanic Mexico are celebrated and packaged for consumption.”
[To chef Alejandro Ruiz Olmedo] “What most people miss is how really deep and really sophisticated the sauces here can be. Like Lyon is to France, Oaxaca is to Mexico in my experience… Not kissing your ass here. I was just in Lyon.”