Original track by Himanshu Suri for Parts Unknown: Punjab.
“He gave the impression that very many cities had rubbed him smooth.”
The pool at the Grand Hotel del Paraguay is, best as I can tell, unused. Maybe it’s the heat—and the humidity—which are considerable and relentless. Or the lack of a bar, or towels, or staff. But nobody else seems to come. I am alone, waist deep, mesmerized by the heat, torpor, and the thin, black hose that dances around the bottom like a serpent as it pumps fresh water into the deep end. There is a very large parrot in a cage nearby. Occasionally, he screeches at me.
As I’m standing here, too tired to swim, too jet-lagged to sleep, I’m trying to put some thoughts together about Punjab—about the show I filmed months, many airports, many planes, many miles ago, my sun-baked brain, further addled, no doubt by many excellent Paraguayan beers last night, the Vietnamese pain medication I’ve been taking for my back and the anti-malarials I’ve been on since Tanzania (which I’m convinced are making me psychotic. Last night, I dreamed I was being chased by a chain saw wielding Joe Pesci through a convenience store. He was wearing a cocktail dress.) I try to shuffle through my memory file, the highlight reel, for images of India, the foothills of the Himalayas. The Golden Temple. Amritsar…The former hill station of Shimla…
Bit by bit, it seeps back:
First? The colors. In India— Punjab in particular, the thing you notice first, the thing that stays with you is the colors. They pop, they LEAP right out at you. It’s like somebody, just before you got off the plane, changed the lenses in your head, turned up your color receptors from 7 to like…14. You completely understand why The Beatles would want to drop acid, come here—and stare at stuff. Because it’s beautiful and the colors…the colors, man, burn right through your eyeballs and into your brain. No Maharishi needed.
Recognizing this, we made sure, when setting the various color balances for this show, to jack things up, make SURE that it will look for you like it looked for us. Electric. Trippy. And always beautiful. We will be forgiven, I hope, for (yet again), ripping off a favorite director in an early sequence. Call it an homage.
I generally don’t care much what people take away from my shows. Of course, I hope people like what they see. I hope they are entertained—and interested. That they find the images beautiful or striking. It’s nice—very nice—when people notice the good technical work of the directors of photography and the editors and producers. But, I’m not much for attempting to inspire or “enlighten” or educate. That’s far, far from what I’m thinking about when I make sure my carry-on is free of liquids or gels, that my laptop is out of my bag and in the plastic tray, shoes and belt off.
But with this episode, Punjab, it would make me very happy if a few more people out there got a clearer picture of the Sikh religion is. WHO Sikhs are and who they are not. A little about the central concepts and intent and principles of their faith. The degree to which we in the West (myself included) are ignorant of such things is pretty spectacular.
I’ve made much fun of vegetarians over the years and am said, frequently, to “hate” them. This is not true. I am dismissive and (okay) contemptuous of food that is made with ideology or a narrow world view as its first priority. I am made unhappy and even angry when a restaurant that claims to celebrate the vegetable in fact, utterly ignores the seasons, the conditions of ripeness that make vegetables interesting and wonderful in the first place—when such places, with determination and malice aforethought, MURDER vegetable after vegetable, sacrificing carrot after carrot, soybean after soybean to a sludgy, monochromatic, mush.
NOT so in India.
In India, to eat vegetarian is usually a joyous and joyful thing. Bright colors, wildly varying textures, huge selections, thrilling blends of spices and assertive, delicious flavors. Accompanied always by wonderful, freshly made breads. I could happily go veg for a week—or even weeks at a time.
Hope you enjoy the show. Our first of the new season.
And remember: EAT YOUR VEGETABLES!
On Wednesday, December 11th, join anthonybourdain in a conversation with Albert Maysles on food and the art of auteur filmmaking at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Introduction by Marcus Samuelsson.
Screening clips from Albert’s documentaries and Parts Unknown, including clip from the director’s cut of Tokyo episode!
Proceeds will benefit the Maysles Documentary Center, a not for profit organization dedicated to the exhibition and production of documentary films that inspire dialogue and action.
This is it.
The last episode of our second season of PARTS UNKNOWN.
And I’m glad it’s set in Detroit. Because Detroit, for many Americans, is an abstraction—truly, if incredibly, a part unknown.
One only need look at some of our representatives who, a while back, were actually suggesting that it might be okay to let the beleaguered auto industry fend for itself, to leave Detroit to its fate to see how blithely willing much of America would be to point the gun straight at their own heads and pull the trigger.
Detroit isn’t just a national treasure. It IS America. And wherever you may live, you wouldn’t be there—and wouldn’t be who you are in the same way—without Detroit.
Detroiters hate what they call “ruin porn.” And it’s understandable the unease and even anger that must come with seeing tourists, gawkers, (and television crews) come to your city to pose giddily in front of abandoned factories, public buildings, the symbols of former empire.
I, too, I’m afraid, am guilty of wallowing in ruin porn, of making sure we pointed our cameras, lingered even, in the waist high grass, overgrown gardens, abandoned mansions, crumbling towers, denuded neighborhoods of what was once an all powerful metropolis, the engine of capitalism.
But there was no turning away. It’s there—everywhere you look, right in your face, taking up skyline, dead center: the things that were left after Everything Went Terribly Wrong. These aren’t just empty buildings—they’re monuments. And we shot them, illuminated them like monuments, with, I hope, the same respect as the Parthenon, the Coliseum, the remains of a magnificent—if ancient—civilization.
As much as many of our Detroit fans might have wanted this show to be about what’s going right in their city, neither is it particularly about what went wrong.
We know what went wrong.
The fall of the automobile industry, the shrinkage of population, flight of the middle class, drugs… and some of the most spectacularly, unapologetically rapacious, incompetent and corrupt leadership imaginable.
But I love Detroit. I think it’s beautiful. I think it’s one of the most beautiful cities in America—still. The same incompetence and neglect that led to its current state of affairs has, at least, left us with a cityscape that even now, taunts us with the memories of our once outsized dreams. Unlike most other cities who ran into trouble when steel or textiles or industry left town, Detroit didn’t (or couldn’t ) go on the usual idiot building spree, tearing down old buildings and paving over city center as “pedestrian malls”, ruining the city’s character and stripping its center in favor of the “shopping districts”, convention centers and faux “ye Olde Towne” hubs that so many places imagined would revive their fortunes and instead left their city centers empty, characterless and without heart—looking like everyplace else.
Detroit looks like nowhere else. Detroit looks like motherfuckin’ Detroit. As it should.
I’ll say it again. And again.
I love Detroit. I love Detroiters. You’ve got to have a sense of humor to live in a city so relentlessly fucked. You’ve got to be tough—and occasionally even devious. And Detroiters are funny, tough—and supreme improvisers. They are also among the best and most fun drinkers in the country.
A few years ago, for another series, we filmed a show called “The Rust Belt” but which we jokingly referred to as “The Fucked Up Cities Show. We spent time in Buffalo, Baltimore and Detroit. When the show aired, the responses from Baltimore and Buffalo were mostly outrage:
“Why didn’t you show our new symphony Hall?”
“That’s not the city I live in! Why didn’t you show the positive side? There are great craft breweries in the hipster district!”
Detroiters however, reacted differently.
“We’re WAY more fucked up than those punks,” many told me, with the straight on, confrontational, slightly injured pride that makes Detroiters so..well…awesome. “What are THEY whining about?”
Consensus seemed to be that Baltimore and Buffalo didn’t deserve to be on the same hour of television as their beloved— if deeply afflicted city—because their problems weren’t nearly as massive—and the strength, toughness and sense of humor required to stay loyal to Detroit was of another level entirely.
Looking back, if I were to compare Detroit’s mentality to any other city, I’d look to New Orleans. Both city’s hardcore, born and bred “ain’t never leaving” home teams refuse to even consider living anywhere else—no matter what happens. It takes a special breed.
So, 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. I hope, that even among ruins, audiences will see what I see: an extraordinarily beautiful city—unlike any other in America—still. It’s where so many of our uniquely American hopes and dreams were forged—the things that make us who we are: the automobile, the highway—the dream of mobility— for ALL Americans. Credit. Music. It’s where the American Dream was created. And it’s STILL the American Dream—if a different one that we are, all of us, together, sooner or later, going to have to figure out.
Detroit is shrinking.
The artists and innovators, activists, and artisans who are coming in will no doubt, do much to transform the city—mostly in very positive ways.
But who will live in the Detroit of 25 years in the future?
It will still be beautiful. That’s for sure.
It will certainly be smaller.
But will all the tough bastards who stuck it out for so long—against ridiculous odds—who fought and continue to fight for their neighborhoods and their homes—will they still be there?
Those who watch this show, smugly thinking, “that could never happen to my city” are dreaming. Detroit’s problems are America’s problems.
One only need look at New York’s Lower East Side, or Meat District to see what’s possibly coming down the pike for Detroit when it inevitably “recovers”. What’s coming down the pike for all of us.
Empty lots and burned out buildings are bad. But are cupcake shops, galleries and artisanal baristas necessarily better?
Maybe, probably, but maybe not.
And we better ask ourselves if that’s what we want.
Oh. And before I forget. Every time I visit Detroit, somebody asks me if I’ve had a good Coney yet.
Apparently, I never had a great one.
I finally got one.
I understand now.
It’s that time again. Time to slip out early in the morning and deflate the pool floaties. “Mr. Crockie”, the crocodile, looks up at me accusingly as he shrivels on the chaise lounge. Two air mattresses wait for similar treatment behind him. I gather up the super-soakers, the water pistols, plastic sharks, two purple rubber octopi, the goggles, plastic treasure chest and shuttle them into the garage. It’s a rental property, so I’m not sure if I’ll see them again.
Overcome with sadness, I actually wave goodbye to Mr. Crockie.
Later, I’ll take my wife and daughter down to the beach for a last look. We’ll wait until its after 5—so there will be parking spots and no crowds— only a few locals surf casting. Which will, of course, only make it look more beautiful and more sad, that magnificent grey and dark green Atlantic surf breaking in the early evening light that cinematographers call “golden hour”, the smell of salt air, a particularly briny variety unique to the Northeast—accompanied, perhaps, by the vestigial scent of steamer clams opening in a pot somewhere, lobsters dying under pressure, drawn butter, distant deep fryers, corn on the cob. Or will I only imagine that part?… The light will have taken on that extra level of clarity that says Autumn. As if someone has just slapped on a higher quality lens and made everything crisper, brought everything into focus.
It’s the death of summer.
This was my second “real” vacation of the last decade. Many of you will no doubt be thinking, “Uh…wait a minute, asshole—your whole life is a vacation!”
For A COOKS TOUR, then NO RESERVATIONS and now PARTS UNKNOWN, I’ve been in near constant motion for most of the past 13 years. I go to some pretty cool, pretty interesting places. This year, I went to Israel, Spain, Japan, South Africa, Sicily, Denmark— and Detroit. I go wherever I want.
But since the birth of my daughter, I’d never, until last year, had a real family vacation. By “real family vacation”, I mean “normal”—like on TV, like in movies, or like it was when I my family would take me “down the shore” in Jersey. A vacation like I was raised to think you were supposed to have— back in the day when home ownership and a week near a beach was not an unrealistic thing for a single income middle class family to hope for. When it seemed the whole neighborhood would load their station wagons with children and comic books, Coppertone and cabana wear and head to Barnegat Light or Seaside Heights.
So vacation for me is idealized, admittedly over-romanticized, total immersion into fatherhood, into the suburban/vacation dream, backyard barbecues, entertaining at home—what some troubled observers have referred to as my “going Full Ina.”
After years on the margins—followed by years traveling— now that I’m finally an actual Dad, and finally able to actually take some time off— I admit, I do, occasionally, go overboard with the enthusiasm.
My first few days of vacation, I submit anyone in my orbit to a brutal and relentless program of nostalgic touchstones from my dimly remembered youth. There’s a frenetic quality to my hospitality— a desperation, a manic rush to do it all:
“Wake UP!! Daddy’s making pancakes!!” a typical day might begin. I will then pile way too many (“plain? Blueberry? Chocolate chip?”)— in front of still bleary eyed family and guests, sighing painfully when they don’t administer both syrup and thoughtfully pre-softened butter the way I’d like them to. This will be almost immediately followed by urgent, military style preparation for an expedition to the beach. By the time the assembled have been marched into the car, sandwiches will have already been assembled, cut on the diagonal, wrapped first in plastic wrap then put in carefully labeled sandwich bags. (Bags will be labeled by both contents of sandwich and designated eater). Various fruits, beverages, napkins and wipes will have been pre-positioned in the cooler bag— along with the cold packs and disposal bag. Umbrellas, beach chairs, plastic pails and shovels will have been put in car the night before. Towels at ready. I am, after 30 years in the restaurant business, nothing if not organized.
Later, after multiple trips to stores and farm stands—where I shop like an Italian grandmother on amphetamines, alternately squeezing fruit, elbowing indecisive customers in the produce aisle and giving unwanted cooking advice to total strangers (“You definitely don’t want to marinate that. I don’t give a shit what your ‘chef’ says.” ), I will carefully rotate stock in the refrigerator, I will poach off some chicken breasts and replenish the chicken salad for tomorrow, start deep prep like vinaigrette, dicing vegetables for ratatouille. More often than not, my menu (which I obsessively decided on last week as part of a seven day cycle ) is something simple—an over the top “greatest hits of my childhood” menu—or “ “golden moments Anthology”. If you are lucky enough (or unlucky enough) to be my guest during the month of August, you can rest assured that you will eat the fucking freshly sliced, impeccably sourced local heirloom tomato salad. You better notice the artful way I have separated the yellow tomato slices from the green and various hues of red. That I have alternated between opposing, contrasting colors as I spiraled slices, domino-like around the service platter. Notice please that each slice is the identical thickness. That I have drizzled the tomatoes at only the very last minute with a very fine olive oil—and that the balsamico that I applied like thick syrup is from the town of Modena, where the old man who sold it to me drained it from his personal batteria.
The steamers will have been carefully purged, of course, to remove as much sand and grit as possible. But there will be conveniently located bowls of broth near your seat, for the dipping and washing process so important to the correct enjoyment of your clams. Drawn and clarified butter will also be nearby. Should you require any help or instruction as to the proper technique for removing your steamer from the shell, slipping the dark stocking-like membrane off its foot, or the dipping sequence, please let me know. Because if you fuck it up, I will be glaring at you with barely concealed hate.
The lobsters will arrive with shells thoughtfully cracked ahead of time. You will find that your claws separate easily—having been deftly and professionally levered just…so— by a heavy knife. The tails will have been halved and segregated from claws, fanned out at the Southern end of the platter—claws to the North. A few heads will provide impressive garnish at the center of the platter, their antennae twirling heavenwards –but not all of them. Because only my wife, God bless her, is cool enough to dig everything out of the heads.
The corn will arrive, still steaming, freshly salted, and drenched evenly with ungodly amounts of whole butter. Holders will be nearby. Please don’t stab yourself—as I will be displeased to interrupt my duties as maniac obsessive host in order to ferry you to the nearby hospital.
At such time as the main courses are finished, and the wine has been consumed, discarded shells, lobster guts, napkins and other effluent will be quickly rolled up in the convenient newspaper tablecloth.
Rest assured that your cheese course—and there will be a fucking cheese course and yes, you will fucking eat it—has been sitting out for some time so as to be ready to be served at Optimum temperature.
Dessert? You’re on your own. What do I look like? A fucking pastry chef?
It’s pretty much like this everyday. On those days when we have no guests, I’m tempted to wander the streets, looking for someone to kidnap –to whom I can subject to my cycle menu. I’m like a psychotic version of Ina Garten. But if Jeffrey isn’t “sooo happy I made meatloaf”, I’ll bury him in a shallow grave.
Tomorrow will be hamburgers! And Hot dogs! Not to worry! There will be the right, the perfect potato buns. Relish. American cheese. Said cheese slices will have been pre-separated and replaced, kitty corner, in a neat stack, for easy-grab action once I’m at the grill. There will be ketchup, of course, and two types of mustard. I prefer Dijon style—but as a man who respects tradition, I will also provide yellow, ballpark style mustard.
Ordinarily, I would berate guests who put ketchup on my hot dogs, or mess up my burgers with a mix of mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise—but because it’s summer, and I’m all about mellow—I will let it pass.
The homemade potato salad, made by me—from freshly boiled fingerling potatoes– their skins slipped off while still hot, folded with mayonnaise, a touch of red wine vinegar, freshly cracked pepper, salt and herb from the garden will be most excellent.
In my insane efforts to make up for a largely misspent life, and my guilt at being away so often and for so long, I will have overcompensated by perhaps overproducing. Simply put—there will be more food than any reasonable person could be expected to eat. You will, however, be expected to eat it.
You will be happy at my house. We will all be happy together.
And normal. Absolutely normal.
Anyway…that’s all over now. Now it’s back to the city, unpack the bags, pack the bags. Go from normal to the farthest from normal anyone can go. Sometime Friday, I’ll be caked with leftover studio make-up, sitting alone in my hotel room above Sunset Boulevard, eating room service spaghetti Bolognese, or In’N’Out Burger.
And—oh, yeah…on Sunday night of the 15th, I’ll be watching the season premier of PARTS UNKNOWN. We shot it in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. I’m particularly proud of this one—as it’s sure to piss off just about everybody.
Before I set out to travel this world, 12 years ago, I used to believe that the human race as a whole was basically a few steps above wolves.
That given the slightest change in circumstances, we would all, sooner or later, tear each other to shreds. That we were, at root, self-interested, cowardly, envious and potentially dangerous in groups. I have since come to believe — after many meals with many different people in many, many different places — that though there is no shortage of people who would do us harm, we are essentially good.
That the world is, in fact, filled with mostly good and decent people who are simply doing the best they can. Everybody, it turns out, is proud of their food (when they have it). They enjoy sharing it with others (if they can). They love their children. They like a good joke. Sitting at the table has allowed me a privileged perspective and access that others, looking principally for “the story,” do not, I believe, always get.
People feel free, with a goofy American guy who has expressed interest only in their food and what they do for fun, to tell stories about themselves — to let their guard down, to be and to reveal, on occasion, their truest selves.
I am not a journalist. I am not a foreign correspondent. I am, at best, an essayist and enthusiast. An amateur. I hope to show you what people are like at the table, at home, in their businesses, at play. And when and if, later, you read about or see the places I’ve been on the news, you’ll have a better idea of who, exactly, lives there.
"Parts Unknown" is supposed to be about food, culture and travel — as seen through the prism of food. We will learn along with you. When we look at familiar locations, we hope to look at them from a lesser-known perspective, examine aspects unfamiliar to most.
People, wherever they live, are not statistics. They are not abstractions. Bad things happen to good people all the time. When they do, hopefully, you’ll have a better idea who, and what, on a human scale, is involved.
I’m not saying that sitting down with people and sharing a plate is the answer to world peace. Not by a long shot. But it can’t hurt.
Hotel El Minzah, Tangier