KIMBALL — When Linda McKinney of McDowell County received a call from a CNN producer with the TV show, “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” she was a bit apprehensive.
“They (the show’s producers) found out about this little Italian woman who lived in McDowell County and who fed people,” she said, referring to not only her cooking skills but to her food bank in Kimball, Five Loaves and Two Fishes. “They wanted me to be on the show.”
But she hesitated.
“I wasn’t interested at first because you know how McDowell County is portrayed on television,” she said, referring to the usual negative publicity about the decline in the coal industry, a lack of jobs and the drug problems.
But after more conversations, a visit to the food bank by the producers and a commitment from them the county would not be portrayed in a negative light, she changed her mind about being in the show.
Being in the show was a little more involved than she first realized.
“They asked if I would be interested in having Anthony Bourdain, they called him Tony, come to eat,” she said. “They said, ‘We want him to come to your home and sit down and eat as if it were a family meal.’ I said, ‘Why, sure, he’s welcome here.’”
Part of that meal last October as well as other adventures in McDowell County and West Virginia, including going into a coal mine and attending a Mt. View football game, will be featured on the season premiere of the show, airing April 29 at 9 p.m. on CNN. The show is an extended version on the Mountain State.
McKinney said her assignment was simple: cook a meal for Bourdain based on some of her favorite family Italian recipes and treat him as guest for dinner.
But there was a concern she had to tell the producers.
“He does have some ‘language’ at times and we don’t curse in the house,” she said. “But the producers told me he would be a (respectful) guest in my home and he wanted me to cook for him like a family.”
With that out of the way and their request to keep everything secret about his visit, she agreed, and knew straightaway she would cook her Nonna’s (Italian for grandmother) red sauce, rigatoni, one of her own creations, spaghetti pizza, a pickled chicken dish and an egg custard for dessert since they told her Bourdain was not a big fan of sweets.
Her grandmother moved to McDowell County in 1913 as her family sought work in the coal mines, she said, and never spoke English. She raised her after her mother died, teaching her how to cook the “old-fashioned” way and on a wood cookstove.
Using all fresh ingredients she started preparing for the meal, with tomatoes and herbs her son, Joel, grows in his hydroponic garden at the food bank.
The spaghetti pizza, she said, is layered like a pizza, except the spaghetti is prepared in a way to use as a crust. Covered with red sauce that has slow-cooked for many hours and pepperoni, McKinney said no one has ever seen it anywhere else. As it turned out, Bourdain had never heard of it either.
Before the big night, though, producers descended on her house.
“Our living room and dining room area was turned into a television studio,” she said.
On the day of the dinner Bourdain flew into Charlotte and was driven to McDowell County, staying at Count Guli Motel in Welch.
McKinney said she didn’t quite know what to expect that evening. “I was afraid I would do something wrong.”
But she decided that it was her home and she would do as she usually does at home.
“I treated him like I treat anyone else,” she said. “I thought, if he doesn’t like this stuff I’m going to flip this table over, and I’ve been known to do that.”
During and after the meal, it was typical Italian family, she said. “He may have wanted a quiet family meal, but Italians are never quiet. We scream and yell and throw our hands up in the air.”
As she quickly learned, he fit right in.
“We talked about everything,” she said. “He wanted to talk about coal mining and he talked to my son Joel about agriculture and how all my children moved back here.”
They even have had a private conversation on the back porch, the contents of which she would not share.
But the best thing, she said, was that he had a second helping of her rigatoni.
“He was very gracious, very kind,” she said. “He actually liked McDowell County and spent three days here. He probably didn’t have to stay that long. I think it was peaceful here, he got some peace of mind.”
McKinney said he talked about some of his world travels.
“He said he has sat with kings and queens and tribal lords in the jungle, but you never refuse anyone’s food because it comes from the heart,” she said. “They would be offended.”
McKinney said after dinner they had coffee that her daughter brought from the Chocolate Moose in Beckley and they all relaxed.
“He was such a kind, generous man. He was so, so gentle and humble,” she said.
McKinney said some of the crew also went to the food bank to interview people and learn about what she did there.
The producers also came back to her house the next day and put everything back in place as it was.
“They cleaned up a bit and hung out for awhile,” she said. “We had plenty of leftovers so we ate again.”
McKinney said it was quite an experience, and one she is glad she did.
And he loved her food, especially her grandmother’s red sauce.
“They filmed me making the sauce,” she said. “It’s the sauce that makes it.”
Besides, she added, “I love to cook for people, even a world class chef. Anyone is welcome in my home.”
According to the show’s website, the season 11 premiere will be aired 9 p.m. to 10:15 p.m.
“Bourdain digs deep into the proud, often misunderstood culture of West Virginia, as he traverses a 5,000 foot mine, observes the demolition derby–like sport of rock-bouncing and dines on signature Appalachian dishes,” the website says. “Bourdain’s own preconceptions are dashed as he finds the West Virginian attitude to be a remarkable dichotomy, both resolute and open-minded.”
As Bourdain dines with residents, they “candidly discuss their staunch views on the second amendment, Donald Trump, life beyond the coal industry, and the reclamation of West Virginian cuisine.”
— Contact Charles Boothe at firstname.lastname@example.org