Today’s guest blogger is Audrey Wick, a full-time professor of English at Blinn College in Texas. There, she is a writing teacher who writes. Readers can connect with Audrey to learn more about her projects at audreywick.com or on Twitter and Instagram @WickWrites.
The first time I taught Anthony Bourdain’s writing in my freshman composition class at an open enrollment community college in rural Texas, my goal was to get students to actually want to read what I assigned. For years, that had been a struggle.
So when I read the first chapter of Bourdain’s memoir Kitchen Confidential, I thought my students might love it as much as I did. I added it to my syllabus. Bourdain was sandwiched between writings by Deborah Tannen (a linguist) and John Krakauer (a mountaineer). Language, food, and the outdoors seemed like a sensible sequence.
Although most of the authors I assigned were contemporary, the majority of my students hadn’t heard of them. With Bourdain, that changed a bit through the years. Prior exposure to him grew due to his popularity on television and social media, though even this academic year, there were still only a handful of students in class who held a vague notion of who he was. Most in my composition course had not read anything by him.
So I got to teach them. And what an honor that was.
Every time I taught Bourdain’s writing, I would start by having students share memories tied to food. We all have them, after all, and I wasn’t immune to sharing my own. I wanted them to feel the power of Bourdain’s overall message before we looked deeper at specifics.
Once we navigated that, I would then share photos of the author along with some television promo shots. I usually had a Parts Unknown clip cued up to play; my favorite was from one of his several trips to Vietnam.
In the video, Bourdain ate alone on a low plastic stool with scooters racing by. The colorful bowl he held in his hands steamed with something fresh, though even he admitted that he wasn’t quite sure what it was. He praised the merits of simple eating and adventurous living. His voice echoed through our classroom with the line, “This is the path to true happiness and wisdom.”
I never tired of seeing that video.
I also coined a fun phrase for students to help them dissect his writing techniques: “What Would Bourdain Do?” With “WWBD” on the board at the front of the room, students would work to uncover a variety of techniques that Bourdain displayed which they could reasonably apply to their own writing. Like learning to cook, they learned the essential ingredients of writing from Bourdain:
- Create a compelling title. Make people want to read more.
- Start strong. A crisp opening sentence with a singular main idea will do.
- Write honestly. Everyone has life experiences worth sharing.
- Shock the reader. A well-placed emotional reaction is powerful.
- Don’t be afraid to show vulnerability. Readers appreciate this.
Bourdain probably never intended his memoir to be a model for developing writers in a college class, but it was — and it still is. Hundreds and hundreds of my students have benefited over the years.
A particularly memorable portion of class was when we discussed the oyster section. Through several paragraphs, Bourdain describes the experience of eating a new food while on vacation with his family in the south of France. It was his first trip abroad, and he had just finished the fourth grade. Needless to assume, his palate wasn’t yet attuned to such a dish. He writes, “I had my first oyster. Now, this was a truly significant event. I remember it like I remember losing my virginity — and in many ways, more fondly.”
Typically, I would read this section aloud, seeing students squirm in their seats a bit by hearing it, letting the rawness and emotion reverberate through the room.
Of course, they laughed. I’m glad they did. Bourdain wrote humor well. I wanted them to see the power of that too.
My new class has reconvened for the academic year, but with Bourdain’s death, I haven’t been ready to teach his work. I don’t like talking about him in the past tense. Still, I realize that because of his death, he may be more accessible to students who have perhaps heard his name on social media or in news reports.
When I am ready to teach his work again, I could use an excerpt from Kitchen Confidential, A Cook’s Tour, Medium Raw, or even a transcript from Parts Unknown. Contextualizing it and having students read section A1 “Reading and writing critically” from A Writer’s Reference will prepare them for engaging with the selection. Then, in class, I can guide them through skills of active reading as we put into practice the specific techniques mentioned: previewing a text, annotating a text, conversing with a text, and asking the “So what?” question.
After all, “So what?” certainly sounds like a question Bourdain would ask.
There’s an allure to Bourdain’s writing, and I hope to be ready to share his work with students again soon. Until that time, I am grateful to the influence he had on students — and on me.