Wilson was born and raised in Pittsburgh and won two Pulitzer Prizes just three years apart for “Fences” (1987) and “The Piano Lesson” (1990). He died of liver cancer at age 60 in Seattle.
Bourdain was born in New York City and grew up in an affluent New Jersey suburb. He was the executive chef at a prestigious Manhattan restaurant, then became a best-selling author, and later the world-traveling host of two television programs centered on his culinary adventures. He died of suicide last year.
But as different as these two men were, they are likely to be linked in my mind for time eternal.
Why? Because I read their literary works back-to-back during the recent winter break from school. That alone wouldn’t be enough to seal them together in my memory. But the fact that I purchased Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” and Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” at the same time. thanks to a gift card from a friend, is what did it. (Thank you, Lydia Ramos!)
Both were enjoyable reads, for very different reasons, and I only regret that I didn’t get to them sooner.
I had wanted to read Wilson’s work ever since seeing the big-screen version of “Fences” (2016) with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the leading roles as Troy and Rose Maxson. The feeling intensified after having gained some familiarity with Wilson’s hometown as a result of three visits to Pittsburgh in recent years, including a brief stop at the August Wilson Cultural Center.
“The Piano Lesson” did not disappoint. The play centers on the fate of an ornately carved upright piano that has been gathering dust in the Pittsburgh home of a woman named Berniece Charles.
Her brother, Boy Willie, comes up from the South bursting with restless energy and a plan to sell the antique piano that has been in the family for generations, dating back to when his and Berniece’s grandparents were slaves. The way he sees it, his share of the cash from selling the piano will give him the money he needs to stake his future.
But his sister refuses to sell, seeing the piano as a tangible link to the history of their family. In her mind, the piano is priceless, a stark reminder of what their ancestors endured.
The dialogue crackles. Boy Willie declares that as a black man, he has got to make this mark.
“That’s all I’m trying to do with that piano. Trying to put my mark on the road. Like my daddy done. My heart say for me to sell that piano and get me some land so I can make a life for myself to live in my own way.”
Likewise, I had been meaning to read “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” for some time.
Like millions of others, I was a big fan of Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” series on CNN. To me, it seemed that Bourdain had the coolest job on the planet, traveling all over the globe to sample the native cuisine while dining with local residents and chatting it up with the chefs.
Bourdain was insatiably curious about food — its origins and textures and tastes — and, in his weekly travelogue, he conveyed his sense of adventure, generous spirit, and appreciation for the men and women who prepared what he ate.
It was in 1997 that The New Yorker published an article by Bourdain that provided “a scathingly honest look at the inner workings of restaurants, specifically their kitchens.” The article led to the book “Kitchen Confidential” (2000) and sent his career on a different path focused on writing and television.
He found great success with both. One thing I enjoyed most about “Kitchen Confidential” is that Bourdain writes just as he sounds on TV — well, absent the frequent F-bombs and other crass terms found throughout the book. In other words, he tells stories in a fluid style that captures his unique voice, alternating between the elegant and the profane, and with descriptive detail that puts you there on scene.
For example, recalling his early days as a line cook in NBC’s famed Rainbow Room, he said he made an interesting discovery one day as he moved through the halls, back stairways, offices, dining and storage areas of the building.
“There was, in an unused area, a narrow passage through stacked tables, where employees could actually crawl out an open window. On my union-mandated fifteen-minute breaks, I would sit out on a narrow precipice, sixty-four flights up, my legs dangling over the edge, one arm wrapped around a hash, smoking weed with the dishwashers. Central Park and upper Manhattan splayed out before me. The observation deck on the roof was open as well, for a little mid-shift sunbathing.”
I had two “family” reasons for wanting to read the book, as well:
— Our oldest son is a line cook at a Northwest Portland restaurant. From listening to his stories over the years, I knew there was a special camaraderie among the cooks and kitchen staff he’s worked with, and I figured (correctly) Bourdain’s book would shed some light on that. though with nowhere near the level of shenanigans as described in the places where Bourdain worked his way up from dishwasher and fry cook to esteemed French chef.
— Our daughter attended Vassar College in New York, and Lori and I took her to the nearby Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park for a fancy graduation dinner. Bourdain had attended Vassar, too, though he flunked out in his freshman year in a haze of drugs. Years later, after he discovered the cooking life, he gained a foundation for his skills at the internationally-known C.I.A.
So, two authors, two books. One fiction, one non-fiction. One by a biracial, working-class playwright. One by a debonair media celebrity of French-American heritage. Both books a delight to read.