By John Tyson
The Welch News
WELCH, W.Va. — Early Saturday morning before heading to Clarksburg, Anthony Bourdain spoke about his experience in southern West Virginia while filming an upcoming episode of his hit show, “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.”
Bourdain, 61 of New York City, is an American chef, author, and television personality known for his shows A Cook’s Tour, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, and of course, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unkown.
Instead of coming in to offer advice, Bourdain instead prefers to listen. “I would never in my life dare, as a New Yorker, give advice to West Virginians. That’s what everybody’s been doing for 200 years and I don’t want to be that guy,” said Bourdain in the garden area of the Count Gilu Motel in Welch.
So, what brought Bourdain to Southern West Virginia of all places? “I’ve traveled all over the world, and West Virginia, particularly southern West Virginia, is a very different place with a very different culture,” said Bourdain. “I’m comfortable in places that are different, so, I didn’t admire the intolerance, the sort of resistance in myself, to this place in my own country. How come I’m so comfortable in Vietnam and Lebanon but instinctively, like so many other New Yorkers, see West Virginia as a whole other land?”
Bourdain spoke about his first trip to the Mountain State to undergo HET (Hostile Environment Training) to get ready for filming an episode in Iraq. “Running around in the woods, learning first aid, how to deal with a potential hostage situation, stuff like that.”
Gazing around at the mountains as he smoked a cigarette, Anthony said, “It’s immediately apparent that it’s beautiful country. I’ve traveled a lot over the past few years to parts of America I didn’t think I’d like so much, but because of that I reached an expectation that I’m probably going to have a lot of fun in West Virginia; that I’m probably going to get along really well with the people there. I was also aware of the dismissive attitude.”
Bourdain doesn’t like to be in a room where everyone agrees with him. “If you look at social media, particularly after the election, the way people talk about West Virginia, the way it is generally portrayed in the press, even by people who are sympathetic, I don’t like that.”
The mission of the show was to do the opposite. “I thought, 'I want to be the guy to go down and make West Virginia look awesome,'” said Bourdain. “Because it’s got to be. Let’s do a show that’s different than everyone else’s show.”
Bourdain said he didn’t want to do the poverty tour, instead he was far more interested in why people stay. “There’s a reason people are so proud here, why they have stayed despite the difficulties. Let’s go look at that,” said Bourdain. “From the planning of the show, the mission was to go find the things that keep West Virginians here, that make them love the place, and look at coal from a coal miner’s point of view, because clearly everything people say about coal is bull**** from the left and the right.”
Touching upon the political divide, Bourdain has problems with both sides' handling of West Virginia. “I’m very aware that Democrats tend to see West Virginia as a lost cause, and culturally as existential enemies who are never going to vote with them, anymore anyway,” said Bourdain. “And Republicans, in my view, take it for granted. All they’ve got to do is step off the plane, say a few words, ‘Hey, we’re going to bring coal back,’ and get back on the plane.”
Bourdain wonders if anyone has a real sense of what it’s like here. “My job is I come down and ask a lot of stupid questions. Deliberately stupid questions, because I’m trying to get a smart answer and what people have been saying has been amazing, really heartfelt, heartbreaking, beautiful things.”
Bourdain said he heard people in McDowell county take care of each other, live a certain way, believe certain things, and that he had seen it with his own eyes, particularly at Friday night’s Mount View Homecoming game. “I was surprised by the racial ethnic makeup of the community that came together for the football game last night. I was surprised by the interracial couples, the easy familiarity and affection between people that is very different than in New York.” said Bourdain. “ We like to think of ourselves as this island of tolerance and forward thinking but we don’t know our neighbors that way. We talk a good game but we don’t really know each other and that kind of put us to shame.”
Bourdain also recognized that instinctive closeness to nature, the way some people here see the mountains as a source of food, always in the fallback position. He also saw that the roots of the coal industry have touched the lives of nearly everyone he encountered.
“Every single person I’ve sat down with, I’ve asked, ‘Are you from a coal family?’ Yes. ‘How many generations?’ Three, four, five. How deeply people identify, whether they still work in the coal industry or not, with that history and tradition. I understand this well from Pittsburgh,” said Bourdain. “People who haven’t worked in the steel industry for two generations are still very proud of that blue collar difficulty. A business that may have ground them down and failed them many, many times but that was still so much a part of who they are. I think that romantic attachment is something people miss.”
Anthony also touched on the opioid epidemic, saying he’s angry. “I’m angry that big pharmas could pump 3 million pills into a town of 350 people and nobody went to jail, like 25 years of jail. They talk about enforcement as a deterrent. Your neighbor here gets caught selling a few pills, he’s looking at a few years. When he gets out, he’s got even less options than before, so it’s hardly a deterrent. What else is he going to do?”
“Instead, you haul some pharma executive out of his house in Westchester in front of his kids and neighbors, the neighbors will take note. Behavior will change. Enforcement as a deterrent in that case would work,” said Bourdain.
Seeing the problems southern West Virginia is facing firsthand, Bourdain couldn’t help but notice a similarity to communities in the city. “The inner city communities, largely black, and how people have been treated here over the last 20 or 30 years are so very, very similar. Underserved schools, all of the social problems like neglect and scorn, higher levels of incarceration, higher levels of diabetes, all of that.”
Here, in this very different place, Anthony Bourdain immediately recognized these problems. “They’re big city problems, too. Anyone who is looking down on West Virginia better check their own community because these problems are in no way unique to West Virginia.”
Shining through the problems though, Bourdain claimed he was struck by how every meal begins with grace. “That everyone I met has been kind, welcoming, hospitable, whether I’m in a bar where everyone is half drunk, in a coal mine, in someone’s home, at a football game. People are, as they say, 'as advertised.'” said Bourdain. “They are genuinely hospitable, warm, straight-talkers with a dry sense of humor, and I feel a kinship to that.”
Describing his own life as basically dunking french fries for 30 years and living paycheck to paycheck until he was 44 years old, Bourdain knows what blue collar work is like. “I know what it’s like to struggle with an opioid addiction. That was my life, too, for a lot of years.”
Bourdain described walking through Welch and its empty storefronts where thriving businesses once were not as making him feel pity, but anger. “This is America, how’d that happen?” But looming over Welch is what McDowell county cannot be separated from. Its beauty, something Bourdain assures is very special.
“There aren’t a lot of places this beautiful left in the world and that’s something of incredible value. The question is will West Virginians be able to enjoy this beauty in 20 or 30 years?”
Other places to be featured in the episode are picking up because of tourism and new arrivals said Bourdain. “That’s great, but I’d like to see a world where the people that have been sticking it out all along and putting in their time enjoy the fruits of all that work and pride. We, the rest of the country, take so much out of this state and always have. The people are so nice here; it’s so beautiful.”
Understanding the community’s growing distrust with the media and other people flooding in to the area after the election, Bourdain wonders about his own impact on the area.
“I come here and I make it look like the most beautiful place on Earth. The happiest, most awesome place on Earth that every sane person should want to come to. Am I doing good? What happens if people start showing up? Is more tourism good? Are wealthy techies with start-ups looking for vacation homes in the hills really good for a place? It changes things when you say good things about a place and find something beautiful.”
Bourdain continued, “That’s not what they tell you in the movies and on TV. It doesn’t seem to be in anybody’s interest outside of the state to portray West Virginia as it is. The coverage has been ignorant, condescending, and hateful.”
He even brought up his recent posts on Twitter about the area, and some of the negative responses on the social media platform. “I say I’m here and that I’m having an amazing time and I get a bunch of idiots from my side of the aisle who have just kind of written off the place as a bunch of hillbillies down there. These same jokes you’ve been putting up with for 100 years. That makes me angry.”
Bourdain seemed moved as he summed up his experience here. “People here know what they've got. It’s a rare and beautiful thing. I’ve never been in a room with six or seven people who traveled so little and were not particularly interested in going any place.”
Their description of McDowell county? “Heaven is here. It’s got its problems, big problems even,” said Bourdain. “but I’m in the best place on Earth.”