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Another note of admiration: For Anthony Bourdain and CNN (yeah, CNN)

CNN’s latest offering, Anthony Boudain Parts Unknown, is an hour-long travel, food and commentary show. It’s a break-through for CNN. For a full hour, once a week (plus reruns, of course) we get to see something new, something not based on Anderson Cooper’s hard-chiseled face or Wolfie reporting on the latest “breaking news” on the missing Malaysian Flight 370!

Most reviewers are calling this show a travel and food show. It is but calling it that is like saying that Moby Dick is a novel about a sea captain and a whale. The seductive element in the show is that Bourdain goes to places that few do that are within places that many do and he layers each setting with his own personal vision which, depending on local politics, history, current affairs and cultural attitudes can be acerbic, embracing or distanced.

The search is always for the food and the culture — the food that marks the place and its connection to the culture. For Bourdain these cannot be separated, nor can one (or, better perhaps, “should one”) distance them from history. In Sicily it is pig and cheese and farming and the Mafia. So we have a pig shot, shaved, bled, butchered and cooked — every last muscle, organ and tissue-shred because that’s what they do with pig there. We also have Bourdain getting snookered into “catching” his own invertebrates for a meal only to discover that while in the water looking for a tasty, fresh cuttlefish the bay is suddenly full of dead octopuses and equally deceased relatives which are being tossed from a boat for the tourists to snag as their catch for dinner. The experience depresses him and we hear about it! We also get an earful about the continued role of the Mafia and the way in which Sicilian tour-guides drum the legend of the Corleone family into every visitor.

In  South Africa it is, again, the food (unusual and, apparently, delicious) but the show vibrates with social commentary, extended looks back at the Boer War, Apartheid, Mandela’s role and the modern struggle to overcome a horrific past and a difficult present. The food, the scenes from villages and cities is all interleaved with commentary. In the Mississippi Delta the food is inextricably woven with slavery, cotton and Jim Crow. Some may not like this. They would like to eat their grits in funky joints drenched in southern charm, but not Bourdain — and not me.

In the Punjab, India we get the Partition with Pakistan, the residue of British rule, Gandhi, the Sikh culture, vegetarians, democracy today, food from the streets, the corner restaurants, the homes of people Bourdain meets. In all this he manages to convey the hopes of a crazy-quilt land overrun with people, cars, tiny winding streets, brilliantly colored fabrics, traffic rules that few know or obey if they do. How does a land so chaotic function as well as it does? Perhaps it is the rich culture with its social system and, of course, the food.

And so it goes … in Vegas Strip Five Star food is balanced with off-road surprises in various ethnic restaurants. In Mexico corruption and drug wars blend with astonishing dishes; in Detroit scenes of inner city decay flicker with the glory days of the American automobile interspersed with barbeques and papusa; in Tokyo we get the lurid and exotic melded with sublime sushi. Perhaps only in Lyon is Bourdain so captivated by the nouvelle cuisine tradition that grew up around chef Paul Bocuse that politics and social commentary are left behind.

Any bitching? Yeah, a bit. Bourdain occasionally gets tiresome in a relentless focus on some narrow aspect of a city or country. He gets caught up sometimes in trying to be cooler than he is — please, AB, stop calling people “dude.” He can, I am sure, piss people with a more individualistic political philosophy (read, “conservatives”) off. It’s only been on the air for a bit over one year (first episode aired in April, 2013) and its already garnered a Peabody and two Emmys and maybe, just maybe, CNN is ready to overcome its current and embarrassing obsession with that damned, doomed plane and give us some serious TV.

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