Anthony Bourdain has traveled all over the world but the season 11 premiere of “Parts Unknown” will see the host explore an unknown destination a bit closer to home: West Virginia.
When asked “Why West Virginia?” Bourdain said that it was a test of sorts. He’s filmed in a conflict zone in Libya, talked across the table in Iran, and ate vegetarian in Punjab. After venturing to international destinations “where the culture is very different than mine,” Bourdain said he was able to embrace places “with an open mind as long as they hug me back. And sometimes, even if they don’t,” he said in an interview with Travel + Leisure.
His task for this premiere was to bring the same open mind to culturally foreign places in America. It was a task that he said left him “pleasantly surprised.”
With the 2016 presidential election in mind, Bourdain ventured into “the heart of coal country; the heart of god, guns, Trump and football — all of which I really don’t relate to in any way”
“As I had hoped and suspected, it was, in fact, incredibly moving and inspiring,” he told T+L. “I was treated with incredible kindness. My expectations for what the people were like were very, very different.”
In West Virginia, Bourdain said he found “a practical people,” with a “contrarian” culture that was simultaneously resolute and open-minded.
“We do ourselves a real disservice — those of us on the left, those of us who see Trump as an anathema — to look at everybody who voted for him as an ideologue, a true believer, as a hick or a rube or somehow beneath us,” Bourdain said.
After climbing through a mine shaft with workers and eating bear meat alongside generations of coal-mining families, Bourdain said he began to think with more nuance about fossil fuels. While Bourdain doesn’t contest the environmental impact of coal mines, “what I understand is that there’s a powerful and important human dimension here that should be taken seriously into consideration,” he said.
The entire West Virginia episode brings a human dimension to hot-button American political topics and cultural stereotypes: There’s a reason West Virginians staunchly defend the Second Amendment, there’s a reason coal culture still persists, and there’s a reason squirrel meat is on the table. Although Bourdain might not agree with those reasons, none of them is that the area is incapable of thought.
In regards to the 2016 presidential election, Bourdain said he didn’t believe the people of West Virginia were emotionally invested in either outcome, nor were they “duped” by any politician. (The episode cues footage of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump at West Virginia media events.) They voted as they saw practical.
“A lot of politicians have gone through West Virginia and said various things and gotten on a plane and never come back,” Bourdain explained. “I think they understand that. It’s not like they’re being suckered. They are practical people. They voted as they saw — as most people do — as being in their self-interest.”
The episode humanizes West Virginians in a manner different from historical precedent. National ideas of West Virginia were shaped by films from President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 trip to declare a war on poverty. The images of “shoeless hillbillies, living in squalor and ignorance” of West Virginia still linger in the nation’s collective conscious.
“While there may have been some immediate benefits as far as money and attention, I think a lot of people are on the fence whether it [the war on poverty] ended up being a good thing in the long run,” Bourdain said.
“I mean, there’s still no cell service out there,” he said. “It’s still a 45-minute drive to a grocery store in West Virginia. You call the cops, you’re lucky if they find you in a half-hour — that’s if you can call them.”
“I want people of my political stripe to rethink, or accept the possibility that there’s another way of thinking,” Bourdain said.
Perhaps even in regards to squirrel gravy.
The West Virginia episode of “Parts Unknown” will air as a 75-minute special at 9 p.m. ET on Sunday, April 29.