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Anthony Bourdain and 'The Taste of Freedom'
May 19, 2013  | By Eric Gould  | 1 comment

Sunday DVR programming has always been a problem of triage, with most channels running their best shows against each other on that coveted night. That gets even more difficult tonight at 9 p.m. ET thanks to CNN's travel show, Parts Unknown, starring chef, crime novelist and, what? – electronic diarist? – Anthony Bourdain, who makes an intrepid jaunt to Libya.

Bourdain's old show, Travel Channel's No Reservations, wrapped up last season after nine years, and frequently set itself apart from the standard travel fare with Bourdain's trademark blend of literary quotes and grassroots point of view. Those are usually delivered in down-beat cafes over a bowl of the most savory-looking soups and curries to be had anywhere.

In the past, Bourdain has bounced between the ordinary and the fringe, from Texas barbecue joints to post-war militia zones like Kurdistan and Mozambique. This year, with the move to CNN, his new Parts Unknown series turns up his travelogue format to 11. Presumably graced with bigger budgets and a more experienced news company, Bourdain now opts for more difficult areas, more often.

This year, the show has gone to former drug-cartel hinterlands in Columbia and to military-controlled Myanmar, where press censorship is now being incrementally relaxed. Not exactly first picks for a vacation tour, but ones certainly fitting Bourdain's bill for difficult spots normally dismissed as lost, dismal or inaccessible.

Instead of the oppressive gulags we might expect, Bourdain found them filled with vital, ebullient people shopping and working, despite the instability or violence around them. The politics of life may be out of hand, but the daily business of buying peppers, and cooking, goes on.

Sunday night's trip through the half-desert, half-tropical Mediterranean coast of Libya seems at once tantalizing and just plain ill-advised. The post-Gaddafi environment, while sprouting signs of freedom and optimism, is a sort of Mad Max-style arrangement of militias overseeing and maintaining a regular, but eerie calm. Bourdain's convoy, with private security guards, goes to Misrata, home to the earliest battles of the rebellion. They arrive at dusk to find a town still predominantly in bombed-out ruins, divided by militia checkpoints.

As bad as Misrata looks, Gaddafi's former palace and headquarters near Tripoli looks worse (above), now just a heap of rubble as a result of NATO bombings. Bourdain speaks to one former fighter who explains how they sent bombing coordinates to @NATO via Twitter. The online forum, it seems, is good for more than just letting your followers know how you took your latte this morning.

Parts Unknown's earlier trips this season to Rangoon and Tangier included ghostly footage and quotes from George Orwell and William S. Burroughs, as Bourdain found cafes and squares where the legendary writers went. He similarly twists his way through Tripoli market stalls and alleyways, still covered in graffiti from the revolution.

It's part of the method – as rigorous as a  recipe for one of the mouth-watering dishes he films. Neither a war reporter nor a journalist, Bourdain essentially is an electronic-essayist of culture and food who sometimes goes political as a matter of dinner conversation. He mashes up history, stunning photography and cooking notes into an anthropological stew that seems to give the truest sense of a place. Out of all the travel shows, it comes closest to the spirit and adventure of the old Lowell Thomas newsreels of the 1930s and '40s.

The Libyan show, Bourdain writes, "is the best piece of work I’ve ever been part of. Some of that pride comes from recalling how difficult it was." The episode includes a visit to a Misrata storefront museum – there are walls covered with photo portraits of local residents killed in the fighting against Gaddafi's troops, and a gruesome, video loop of the dictator's last few minutes at the hands of the rebel fighters.

It also includes a visit to a Tripoli KFC-styled fried-chicken fast-food shop, called "Uncle Kentucky" (top). He sits with another young freedom-fighter veteran, Jawhar, over a tray of take-out. Jawhar says that this style of place, once forbidden by the totalitarian regime, represents the possibility of Libya emulating nearby Europe, "being like everyone else."

He holds up a piece of crispy chicken and says, earnestly, "This is the taste of freedom."

Bourdain comments later that sharing food can be, and often is, more important than sharing political views. Over a grill at a beach party outside Tripoli, he says, "Barbecue may not be the road to world peace... but it's a start."
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I was transfixed by Bourdain's "Parts Unknown". What better way to connect to other people in remote places than with a conversation over dinner. His style is intimate and relates to all. Great viewing!
May 20, 2013   |  Reply
No doubt, Bourdain knows how to build a story. Very good stuff, indeed. –EG
May 21, 2013
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