In a 2016 newspaper interview, Anthony Bourdain confessed: ‘I’d love to be able to say that I came from Detroit. That would be like the coolest thing I could ever say.’ Three years prior, Bourdain had closed the second season of his CNN show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown with an episode on the erstwhile Motor City. ‘Detroit’, Bourdain notes on his Tumblr post for the episode, ‘for many Americans, is an abstraction—truly, if incredibly, a part unknown.’ With ‘Parts Unknown’, Bourdain set out to crack open that enigma.
The son of a record-industry executive father and a New York Times staff editor mother, Bourdain spent much of the later part of his life rejecting the standards of ‘good taste’ that his upper-crust background would have suggested for him. In addition to a panoply of abused substances, Bourdain partook of the world’s gastronomy at the grassroots, eschewing the haute cuisine of his early career as an executive chef in some of New York City’s toniest restaurants.
True to form, in Detroit Bourdain avoided the hipster haunts that have been surveyed by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Vice. Instead of the white-folk version of BBQ offered up by former model Philip Cooley at Slow’s in gentrifying Corktown, for example, Bourdain opted for Greedy Greg’s Soul Food stand set up on an empty lot on the city’s decrepit East Side. There, Bourdain pronounced the collard greens ‘luxurious’.
Rather than frequent the establishments of local James Beard Award nominees, Bourdain and his guide, journalist Charlie LeDuff, beat it over to Duly’s Place in majority-Hispanic Southwest Detroit to sample the indigenous delicacy known as the Coney Island. He labeled the combination—a grilled hot dog on a soft bun, smothered in chili, yellow mustard, and raw onion—’symphonic’ in its interplay of ingredients.
These excursions into roads less traveled weren’t just in search of the outré or exotic. With Bourdain, cuisine was a way into culture and, more importantly, its social and political implications. The “Detroit” episode of Parts Unknown opens with an excerpt from a 1960s promo film that proclaims Detroit as ‘the Arsenal of Democracy in wartime and the economic pacesetter in peacetime’, starting with images of a bustling metropolis, which quickly dissolve into scenes of abandoned buildings and overgrown parcels of land. Eschewing the recent booster line some may have wanted him to embrace about Detroit as a ‘comeback’ city, Bourdain notes: ‘It’s no longer about victory. It’s about surviving.’
Thus, Bourdain writes on Tumblr that ‘this show is not about what went wrong. Or how bad things are. It’s about improvisers. About what it takes to dig in and stay.’ Also that ‘Detroit… IS America.’ If that’s so—and in this age of breathtaking inequality, apparent kleptocracy, the impending annihilation of the American middle class, and the widespread corruption of much that this nation has portended to stand for, I think it is—then we are all, as Bourdain seems to have sensed, Detroiters now.
At the time of his death, Bourdain was working as an executive producer on a four-part CNN documentary on Detroit, based on David Maraniss’s book, Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story (Simon & Schuster, 2015) which provides a kaleidoscopic view of the city in the year 1963 when it, and America, was ostensibly at its apogee.