An Ode to Anthony Bourdain (feat. Banana-Rum Icebox Cake)

I’ve started this post over and over. A lot has happened in the past month and a half. I got married. I went on an epic mini-honeymoon road trip. We had a second reception in my hometown, right next door to my high school’s prom. I couldn’t decide on whether I wanted to write about my wedding cake, or make a top 5 list of the things we ate on our honeymoon, or whether I should just steam ahead and write about what I was cooking.

And then Anthony Bourdain died.

I always forget how torturous baking can be in the summer in Indiana, whether or not you have air conditioning. No matter what you do, the oven turns the entire apartment into a sweatbox. There’s an icebox cake cookbook that I’ve been checking out of the library for the past couple years, but I’ve never made any of the recipes.

This year, I’m determined. There are so many good options. A Milk Dud cake. A black pepper rum cake. Peanut butter cup cake. Lavender-blueberry.

What I decided on: banana-rum cake.

I’ve loved Anthony Bourdain for a very long time. Over the past few years (that, interestingly enough, coincide with the years I spent at my last job), I lost track of him. I think part of me had given up on him. I was tired of seeing and hearing about the world through the lens of a snarky white guy. I was disappointed with his choices to do things like hang out with Ted Nugent. I was tired of the “bad boy” thing, of the Hunter S. Thompson-inspired aesthetic thing. Of all the testosterone and macho stuff.

In the last few months, I began following him and his girlfriend Asia Argento more closely on Instagram. I watched as he vocally and strongly supported Asia, particularly at the Cannes Film Festival when she publicly accused Harvey Weinstein of raping her. I watched as he supported the #MeToo movement, and modeled what it looked like to be a self-reflective man who realizes that he’s been contributing to rape culture. He asked himself why the women in his life didn’t feel comfortable enough to come to him with their stories of assault? He asked himself not only what he did, but what did he let happen? What did he let the men around him get away with?

The technically-late-spring weather here has been erratic. One week, it’s unbearably humid, sunny, and in the mid-90s. The next week, it’s overcast, humid-ish, stormy, and in the low to mid-80s (which feels a whole lot better than a humid 95 degrees, trust me).

This week is a stormy one, which means it’s cool enough for me to cook. So I started to caramelize bananas.

The bananas had been ripening on the counter for the past week or so, so they had lots of brown spots. I sliced up six of them, then threw them into a large sauce pan that had a nice chunk of nearly-browned butter in it.

Yes, I have a shitty red, plastic cutting board that has been with me for the past 10 years. I want to get rid of it, but I also love it?

Yes, I have a shitty red, plastic cutting board that has been with me for the past 10 years. I want to get rid of it, but I also love it?

As soon as the bananas hit the butter, the sweetest and best smell filled the air. I love the smell of browning butter and I love the smell of bananas. I didn’t know that, together, they make a knee-buckling aroma that I would gladly swaddle myself in for the rest of time.

After letting the bananas soften up a bit, I put in some brown sugar, a healthy glug of spiced rum, and a pinch of salt. Caramelizing things is the best thing.  

It feels important for me to tell you that the day Anthony died, I made boxed macaroni and cheese for dinner. I also made an avocado cream out of yogurt and spices (and avocado), and a lime sour cream made with lime zest and spices. I ate the mac and cheese along side my veggie burrito leftovers, and topped them both with that lime sour cream.

I took my weird, oddly comforting meal to the living room and ate it while I watched the Manila episode of Parts Unknown. I had never seen it before.

At the beginning of the episode in a voiceover, Anthony says, “Filipinos are, for reasons I have yet to figure out, probably the most giving of all people on the planet.”

I began crying into my weird sour cream and mac-and-cheese dinner, and I didn’t stop for the entire episode.

Next: the pudding. I threw sugar, cornstarch, salt, whole milk and heavy cream into a saucepan, whisked them all together, and then whisked an egg in. Then I turned the stove to medium-high and whisked the mixture constantly.

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While doing all this, I listened to Anthony Bourdain’s 2011 interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. He must have recently done the Ted Nugent episode, because he talked a little bit about it. About how, in all his travels, you can always find something in common with someone, no matter how different your worldviews are. Those common things are usually food and drink. He talked about how he had argued with Nugent and gotten him to agree that Michelle Obama’s lunch meal program was a good thing.

Three years ago, in a pre-45 world, I would have written this whole thing off. I would have said (and did say) that it wasn’t enough. Ted Nugent is a pretty disgusting human being, and he’s said some unconscionable things.

As it stands, it’s still not enough. But I also wonder, with the world we live in today, would Anthony have done anything differently in the same situation? Would he still have agreed to do the segment? Would he have leaned harder into difficult conversations? Would he have felt an obligation to try to straighten out Nugent, white dude to white dude? Would he have felt there was something at stake?

After the pudding thickened and began to bubble, I did a final frantic 45 seconds of vigorous whisking and then took it off the heat. I mixed in another healthy glug of rum, some butter, and vanilla extract.  I set it aside to cool a bit, next to my cooling-to-room-temp caramelized bananas. (My room temp was probably 83 degrees, so *shrugs*. Was that the temperature the cookbook authors had in mind? Probably not, but that’s how shit goes in my house.)

The day Anthony died, a friend sent me a New Yorker piece written by Helen Rosner. It’s a beautiful piece, and one of the best ones written in memory of him.

In it, she outlines exactly why I gave up on Anthony all those years ago:

“I asked him, point blank, if he considered himself a feminist. His answer was long and circuitous, what I’d come to think of as classic Bourdain: more of a story than a statement, eminently quotable, never quite landing on the reveal. He talked about his sympathy for the plight of women and gay men, his formative years as a student at Vassar, his forceful resentment of the “bro food” movement with which he remained entwined, and his unwavering support for reproductive rights. “I don’t know if that makes me a feminist,” he said. “It makes me a New Yorker. Doesn’t it?”
— Helen Rosner

Honestly, Tony. What’s so hard about admitting to being a feminist? For all his “bad boy” stuff, he could sure avoid actually answering a question.

After chilling my mixing bowl and whisk attachment in the freezer for about 10 minutes, I took them out, loaded them into my stand mixer and poured in a whole bunch of heavy cream. I whisked that creamy stuff at a medium speed until it just started to thicken, at which point I threw in another healthy glug of rum, some powdered sugar, and some vanilla extract. I turned the stand mixer up to a medium-high speed and meant to whip the cream until it formed stiff peaks. I’m pretty sure I overmixed it a hair, but it still tasted amazing.

And then: construction.

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The day Anthony died, I read so many Twitter and Instagram tributes, and so many from Black folks and people of color and women. They talked about how he didn’t exoticize or appropriate their culture. How he turned the cameras on even the “ugly” things, like politics, race, culture. About how he never presumed to know more than the people who cooked for him. How he never said ‘no’ to any dish. How, when he visited our home countries, we felt seen and validated.

And so often, more than I was expecting, he was described as “kind.”

So I took my brightly colored 8x8 baking dish and poured in a generous layer of boozy pudding, then lay some graham crackers on top.

Then came a layer of caramelized bananas. Then a layer of pudding. Then graham crackers. Then bananas again.

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I should have stopped there because the dish was full to the top. But I went against my instincts. I poured more pudding on top. It began to spill out the sides a bit, but I carried on. I plopped my slightly-overmixed boozy whipped cream on top, and that’s when things started to get real messy. As the laws of displacement began to the place (that’s the official scientific name for it, right?), pudding started to dribble over the walls of the dish and all over my kitchen table.

Before putting saran wrap over the top, I set the baking dish precariously inside a slightly larger one, so that the pudding that oozed out would pool somewhere that wasn’t all over the top shelf of my refrigerator.

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On the morning that Tony died, I took out my copy of A Cook’s Tour. It’s an old edition, and it’s dog-eared and well-worn. I flipped to the passage where he wrote about coming to the devastating realization of the impact of the Vietnam War on the country that he was clearly falling in love with. He wrote about the loathing he felt for the U.S. and its mindless destruction, and the loathing he felt at himself for his complicity in the U.S.’s actions and his privilege as an American tourist in Vietnam. I remembered how I felt when I read that passage. How he had put words to all the anger and helplessness and rage I felt when I had traveled to Thailand. When I read A Cook’s Tour, I finally felt like I wasn’t alone. That I wasn’t asking too much by wanting to see everything and acknowledge everything when I traveled or read about travel or watched someone travel somewhere. It wasn’t too much to ask to see the whole damn picture. It was okay to have complicated feelings and still see the world, engage with it.

Tony wasn’t perfect. He has said several things over the years that I still cringe thinking about. But he was human, in the best possible way. Which means that in these past three or so years while I was busy giving up on him, he was evolving as a person. While I wasn’t paying attention, he became a person I could stand behind again, look up to.  

After 24 hours, the banana-rum icebox cake was ready. And good lord, is it boozy and incredibly delicious. I eat a piece and feel a warmth in my chest, like I’ve just done a shot of bourbon in a Wild West saloon. Sweet, but not too sweet. So much booze. It’s the perfect treat for these hot days.

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I love the end of Helen Rosner’s article. She wrote:

“The last time I saw Bourdain was a few months ago, at a party in New York, for one of the books released by his imprint at the publishing house Ecco—of his many projects, his late-career role as a media rainmaker was one he assumed with an almost boyish delight. At the bar, where I’d just picked up my drink, he came up and clapped me on the shoulder. “Remember when you asked me if I was a feminist, and I was afraid to say yes?” he said, in that growling, companionable voice. “Write this down: I’m a fuckin’ feminist.”
— Helen Rosner

The things that I have made in honor of Tony in the past week, whether inadvertently or purposefully, have been incredibly strange. The Annie’s boxed mac and cheese with lime sour cream. This banana-rum icebox cake. He’s not particularly known for being a desert kind of guy. I’d like to think that he’d appreciate all the booze in it. I know I do.

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In a way, Anthony ended up modeling my ideal of human behavior. He was imperfect, flawed in so many ways. But he was self-reflective. He looked inward without flinching and with nuance. He held himself accountable. He spoke out about things that matter. He was endlessly curious, asking questions and really listening to the answers.  He traveled just to travel, but he also traveled for the people. To let them tell their stories. To show his viewers that they shouldn’t be afraid of the world, to pay attention to people and their food. To always say ‘yes’ to whatever is put in front of you.

I should end there. I'll leave you with this interview that Anthony did with Fast Company. I'm 90% sure that the answers he gives them are not what they're looking for. Their questions want quick, superficial, easy responses that they can turn into sound-bytes. His answers are long, reflective, and incredibly deep. That is, I think, the essence of Anthony. To never give an easy answer, to always take in the bigger picture. To examine not only that we're here, but to look back with nuance at how we got here.

Rest well, Tony. Thank you for everything.

This Week's Recipe: