Imagining The Baltimore “Parts Unknown” Episode That Will Never Be Filmed
Former chef, journalist and TV personality Anthony Bourdain took his own life last week in France. He was 61.
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I was a huge fan of Bourdain’s, having watched his shows No Reservations, The Layover and Parts Unknown over the last thirteen years. His death hit me harder than I ever expected the death of a celebrity to affect me. In death, I realized how big an influence he played in shaping me as a person, especially when it came to food, travel and understanding different cultures and people around the world. And I am not the only one. The Internet is full of touching tributes from his friends and fans who, like me, are mourning the loss of a genuinely good person. One of the tributes I read ended with a line that slayed me. “The world needs more Anthony Bourdains. Tragically, now it has none.”
In 2009, Bourdain visited Baltimore as part of a No Reservations episode dedicated to the “rust belt” cities of Baltimore, Buffalo and Detroit. It struck me, and others, as odd since Baltimore is not a typical “rust belt” city. It was also disappointing that Bourdain wasn’t dedicating a full episode to Baltimore as it deserved, and had to share time with those other cities. While in Baltimore, Bourdain reminisced on his brief time as a chef in the city in the early 1980’s bemoaning the city’s lack of good drugs. Not surprisingly, the No Reservations Baltimore segment took on a The Wire vibe as Bourdain hung out with Felicia Pearson, the actress who portrayed Snoop on the show as well as Jay Landsman, visiting Mo’s Seafood and Chaps Pit Beef with them respectively. In short, it was a show that did not portray Baltimore in the most positive light.
Long before, and now after his death I have always imagined what a proper full episode would have looked like had Bourdain visited Baltimore and the region. Here’s my take on what that episode could have been.
Bourdain arrives in Baltimore, commenting on the “rust belt” episode and how he pissed a lot of people off by short shifting the city and its residents. “I’m as loved in this city about as much as Jeffrey Maier,” Bourdain would say in his smarmy, self-depreciating way while arriving at BWI. Maybe his pal Zamir Gotta would come along for the ride again as he did on the “rust belt” episode. I personally would prefer to see what Eric Ripert would have thought about Baltimore’s signature offerings — crabcakes, pit beef and Natty Boh. The interplay between Bourdain and Gotta or Ripert was always a highlight of those episodes.
The first stop is Faidley’s at Lexington Market where Bourdain tries a crabcake and some of the more adventurous fare offered there, such as frog legs, raccoons and muskrat. “Muskrat?” Bourdain would muse upon seeing that it’s in season. I’m guessing a joke about “Muskrat Love” by Captain and Tennille would be in order. He would talk to owners Bill and Nancy Devine, and if you’ve ever been to Faidley’s, you’d definitely recognize them since they’re always there. (Shout out to Bill for giving me a Faidley’s hat on Opening Day a few years ago. I’m still wearing it in good health, Bill.) Bourdain would be a fan of the crabcake, which is among my favorites in the area, and it would be a perfect segue way to getting Bourdain on a crabbing boat.
If you’ve ever seen an episode where Bourdain attempts to fish or snorkel for lobster or octopus you’d know that those segments often end in failure, sometimes with dead sea life being thrown into the water for him to “catch”, sending Bourdain into a pissed off drinking rage, as happened on the Parts Unknown episode in Sicily. But today, Bourdain is successful. He learns how to tie chicken necks to crab traps and pull them out of the water. They catch a bushel. His host offers to have him over that night for a crab feast.
Later that day Bourdain would visit Sagamore Spirit Distillery with owner Kevin Plank, who also owns Under Armour and has plans to develop Port Covington. Here Bourdain would talk about the dangers of gentrification and the need for affordable housing, issues surrounding the Port Covington development, while sipping on Rye whiskey. “If there was whiskey this good when I was a chef here, I would have had a whole different opinion of Baltimore.” That night, Bourdain attends the crab feast at a home on the water. There’s a bonfire and music. Kids chase each other on the lawn. He picks crabs among a dozen or so locals, eats grilled corn on the cob and drinks cold Natty Boh. “You have to love the can,” he’d say. “You know a beer is good when the cartoon on the can is winking at you.”
The next mourning, Bourdain visits the neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester with The Wire creator, David Simon. (Fun fact, Bourdain was a writer on Simon’s Treme.) “So we need to speak about the elephant in the room,” Bourdain would say while wandering through the neighborhood with State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby or Mayor Catherine Pugh. “The increase of crime in Baltimore since Gray’s death.” A video clip plays, summarizing Freddy Gray’s death, the ensuing riots, the trial, and the subsequent increased crime rate which has taken the lives of hundreds of Baltimoreans since then. This would be the deep part of the episode, showing off the dark heart of Baltimore City.
There would need to be a commercial break in order to transition to a lighter subject matter, which would be the region’s thriving microbrewery industry, including representatives from Flying Dog (Bourdain has always been a fan of artist Ralph Steadman), Union, Heavy Seas and Brewer’s Art. “So you guys have to explain something to me,” Bourdain would say. “Everywhere I go, I see this Natty Boh guy winking at me. He’s even winking at you from the sky. The beer isn’t even brewed in Maryland anymore and honestly, it’s not even that good. So why are people drinking that, or any other macro swill, over good locally-brewed beer like this?” Then there would be an discussion of the retro-beer craze that struck hipsters in the 2000’s but has given way to more microbreweries and the need for drinking better beer.
Then he’d go to Woodberry Kitchen, the premier restaurant in the city, and chat with James Beard Award winning chef, Spike Gjerde to speak about the ever-changing culinary scene in Baltimore. “Is Baltimore a fine-dining city?” Bourdain would ask. “I see people sitting on picnic tables, picking crabs, drinking beer out of a pitcher. DC is right down the road and is a fine dining city. Is there enough room for upscale dining in Baltimore? Is there a market for it? And if so, what does that look like?” Gjerde would temper his reply. “Yes and no,” and go on to explain that Woodberry Kitchen uses local ingredients to do upscale local food and that many upscale restaurants in the city do the same. “Baltimore has a very proud, very unique culinary history. Heavy in seafood: crabs, oysters, rockfish. You can do those things very simply — raw, fried or grilled. Or you can elevate those things with French cooking techniques or serve them in a very straight-forward way. And neither one is better than the other. Just different.”
With the episode winding to a close, Bourdain crosses the bay bridge to explore the eastern shore: Easton, Cambridge, Salisbury – meeting the watermen and crab pickers, many of them immigrants on seasonal work visas hit hard by the Trump administration — who live off the bay and its tributaries. He ends up in Ocean City. “This takes me back to my childhood at Asbury Park,” Bourdian would say while walking the boardwalk. He’d stop at Thrasher’s for some French fries and ask the server for some ketchup and get a mean look. “I feared for my life just now,” Bourdain would crack, savoring the fries and trying to keep the seagulls at bay.
Back on the western shore, Bourdain would visit Annapolis and squeeze into a narrow booth at Chick and Ruth’s Delly to share a meal with Governor Larry Hogan. Bourdain would order a crabcake. “I’ve had wonderful crabcakes here. It seems impossible to screw up, so why are there so many terrible crabcakes out there?” Bourdain would muse. “Crabcakes and football, that’s what Maryland does,” Hogan would say with a smile before explaining the secrets to a good crabcake. “It’s all about the lump crab meat and the moisture level of the binder.” Then Bourdain would get down to business. “Tell me about the future for Baltimore, and Maryland.” Bourdain would say. “What does that look like?” Hogan would give a measured answer, one that promises that the best is yet to come, juxtaposed with the images of blighted Baltimore neighborhoods.
Bourdain ends the episode with a patented, introspective final thought, somehow encapsulating the region better than many lifelong residents. The final image would be of Bourdain standing on some rundown dock on the harbor, overlooking the million-dollar waterfront condos, maybe the Under Armour campus behind him. “What the future holds for Baltimore, and Maryland, is anyone’s guess.”
The credits roll.
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