Commentary by Sam Burnham, Curator
Photography by West Virginia's own Patrick Conrad
I finally sat down and watched Episode 1 of Season 11 of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. The subject? West Virginia.
One takeaway from this episode is the amount of attention they put on the people, the culture, on the place itself. Parts Unknown always did that everywhere they went. But it seemed they did more of that this time. Maybe it was just me.
Another takeaway is that, while you can’t do a feature on West Virginia and not mention poverty, they pointed out that West Virginians don’t want your pity. They’re not looking for handouts. These are proud, hardworking self-reliant people who want to take care of themselves and their neighbors. They spoke briefly of West Virginia’s entrepreneurship movement and gave a few specifics. They talked even more about a people exploited far too many times by big industry. Any move toward economic development would need to be done in a way that didn’t exploit the populace or destroy a beautiful culture.
They also spoke of one of our primary concepts: the overwhelming sense of place. They don’t want to move where there are more jobs or more lucrative jobs, in fact, they spoke to several residents who had left for college or the military and they had come right back to the town nestled in an Appalachian hollow but nestled even further in their hearts. They were born there, they’ve lived there, they’ll die there. They wouldn’t want it any other way.
I was particularly impressed with the scene of Bourdain sitting around a table with a group of farmers and chefs reviving not only the heirloom foods on the table but also the historic farm where they grew. While discussing the work the people were doing, Bourdain comes to the realization “nobody is talking about money at this table.” He was hearing them discuss community, family, history, culture, love of home, neighbors, friends. They spoke of values rather than prices. One particularly powerful response was “We are often talked about as being this impoverished state. We are rich as can be in food and the things that we make as a culture and as a community. When you’re living on the land and doing what your ancestors did, you feel a connection that you can’t get anywhere else.” These are people who have a firm grasp on the American Dream, before commercialism turned it into numbers and greed. These people understand contentment, gratitude, and value over price.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire