At Twin Cities Agenda, one of our main areas of focus is on local food and drink. Good food and drink, hopefully. And, at its best, it’s writing that also discusses the importance of food and drink: The relationship a new restaurant has with the neighborhood that surrounds it, the impact it might have on the landscape, the mission and passion and vision of its chef, founder, staff, diners. The history and recipes that started it all. The use of local ingredients over Sysco food trucks and the stories that are told through recipes, on plates. And the things we eat at home with our families.
We don’t always achieve this goal. But we try. And we try, really, because one man did it first, did it right, and never favored deadlines, social media clicks, or whatever-might-sell-best over the quality and integrity of his work in a digital age.
He was not the first such writer, of course. But M.F.K. Fisher’s poetry and whimsy is something of the past; from a time, unfortunately, that I’ll never know. Anthony Bourdain brought it into the future, or at least created the roadmap for where to go: The dining and diners of today. The now. He reminded us that food is for everyone; it is at once for one and for all, and all food, from highbrow to low, is awesome. Can tell a story. Can represent culture in a way that few other things are able to. And, simply, plainly, that it’s meant to be eaten and enjoyed.
As legendary author Jim Harrison (1937 – 2016), whom Bourdain admired and spent time with in Livingston, Montana, stated plainly, “How feebly the arts compete with the idea of what we’re going to eat next.”
Anthony Bourdain didn’t spend much time in Minnesota. He visited St. Paul’s Saigon (now iPho by Saigon) in 2002 while on A Cook’s Tour. Minneapolis made it into only one episode of his TV work, and that was the “Heartland” episode of No Reservations in which he visited the now-shuttered Doug Flicker restaurant Piccolo. He said it was one of the best dining experiences he’d had. We cheered. It gave us hope that our Twin Cities might actually be the dining destinations we knew they were.
I had always hoped to convince Mr. Bourdain to come and spend a few more days in St. Paul, show him around the cobblestone streets and 19th century architecture, share with him the joys of the city, eat good food, get drunk on local beer and spirits. End up somewhere along the banks of the Mississippi beneath the Robert Street Bridge and the blinking red “1” of the First National Bank Building.
We would have walked through the stalls of Hmongtown Marketplace and discussed the impact and importance of Hmong immigrants from Laos, Vietnam, China, and Thailand who made their home in Minnesota after the “Secret War” in Vietnam – and how a frigid city like St. Paul has benefited endlessly from their presence. We would have eaten injera at Fasika, and visited District del Sol and East 7th for some of the finest in Latin cooking. We would have ordered shellfish at Meritage. We would have booked a table at Mucci’s after drinking Hamm’s at The Spot. And then I would have told him that, while Mucci’s might be our new gold standard, DeGidio’s still has the best red sauce in town down the street (unchanged since 1933), and Cossetta, and Carmelo’s, and Yarusso Bros keep utilitarian Italian thriving in the city as well.
It’d make for good television, I thought. He’d love it here as much as we do. I still believe this to be true – though my goal shifted, at some point, from trying to convince him (or anyone) to come and force a story to simply supporting the places that would make him, or anyone, want to visit on their own. It’s a more inward-looking approach, I know, in an age of self-promotion and narcissistic grandeur. But we vote quietly with our wallets.
And St. Paul is not a flashy kind of city. That is perhaps what I (and the thousands of other fans of Bourdain’s show and work) appreciated most about him: It didn’t need to be flashy to be worthy. It didn’t need to be perfect. It didn’t need to be backed by millions of dollars or celebrity endorsements. It wasn’t wealth porn he was making, or something based in inaccessibility. Everything and everyone, he told us, is interesting when we sit down to eat. The great equalizer: We eat together. Food is the thing that always has and always will meet us halfway.
St. Paul is a blue-collar town, rich in history set along North America’s longest river. There are old restaurants still run by the family members of original owners that tell us tales about how the city has changed, and how that exemplifies the changes found across the United States as a whole. There are new, exciting places that look to the future. There is culture and diversity in food. Not flashy: Special to the people who live here.
Worthy of an hour of television on CNN, maybe. With Bourdain’s touch? Then – definitely.
Bourdain, who truly defined the notion of lust for life, is no longer with us. Whether’s he’s sitting down now to some great feast in the sky (fresh oysters served with champagne, of course) or lives on only in reruns and Netflix-saved episodes of his various shows, is not for me to say.
He’ll never make another episode. He’ll never tell another story of unseen people and places; the magic of the world. He’ll never come to St. Paul.
But I still try and look at the city, and any city that I visit, in the way that he might have: Delicious is a state of mind, not an activity. It’s not a standard set by anyone else. And the reasons why we eat, well, they’re just as important.
This is what I learned, first from his Kitchen Confidential and then throughout the nearly two decades of writing and television. While I was a teenager, and the kitchens of summer jobs were the same sweaty dens of sin and flavor he described, and on the flip side while sitting down to dinner with candles and white tablecloths. As I grew to appreciate food, especially food shared with friends and family, in new and exciting ways. As I learned how to please a nagging, gnawing hunger. How to satiate an appetite for the unknown. How to enjoy life and everything in it. This remains true forever – or at least until we are all finally, completely, happily, full.