Pure Provincetown – Dishwasher Bourdain to Partying Hairy Bears

I finally caught up with Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. It came out in America last summer and now you can hire it here on Amazon Prime. One review of Morgan Neville’s documentary said of the revered chef/writer/traveller: “He lived his life unabashedly”. Spot on. Essentially shy and lonely, Bourdain navigated heroin addiction, dispiriting decades as a jobbing chef, instant fame after the publication of his 2000 memoir Kitchen Confidential and the increasingly restless circling of the globe that came with his reinvention as an intrepid TV food explorer. It all ended with his suicide at the age of 61 in an Alsace hotel in 2018, from which the film draws harrowing conclusions.

I came late to his exhaustive series No Reservations and Parts Unknown, but during the claustrophobic lockdowns they became for me an obsessive beacon, putting into perspective my own wan travel and food excursions. They were always about far more than glossy travelogue and exotic cuisines. Take Season 4, Episode 8, where for once he went no further than Massachusetts. In it he relates the opiate shitstorm engulfing Middle America today to the substance abuse that first gripped him on Seventies Cape Cod.

As detailed in Kitchen Confidential, it all began for Bourdain – as a reluctant dishwasher – in Provincetown at the tip of the Cape. Before the decidedly heterosexual writer’s time there it had long been a refuge for every maverick under the Atlantic seaboard sun and contender for Gay Capital of America. That vibe has survived the desperate ravages of the AIDs era and the recent party-pooping of two pandemic years, which has shut or shrunk all of its extravagant celebrations. We just caught the tail-end of the last annual ‘Bear Week’ proper… 

After nine days of pink high jinks and endless bouts of cocktails and comedy the pool parties are winding down. Still there’s a raucous rendition of Mamma Mia from the super troupers in fishnets at the Crown and Anchor, while the Commercial Street main drag pulls in gays and straights alike with its trademark high season madness. 

Many of these visitors have driven up from Boston via the U6 W, 120 miles of creeping nose-to-tail, exaust-fest. We sensibly have taken the 90 minute fast ferry from Boston to Provincetown with IPAs on the poop deck and Minke whales across the starboard bow. $92 the round trip but definitely worth it.

What to expect on docking? If you’re not one of that gay crowd here to celebrate the hirsuteness of being a ‘Bear’? Certainly you’ll find a whole, different world from Boston’s combination of gleaming high rises and the brownstone historic haunts of leafy Beacon Hill.

First encounter is with a colourful replica galleon at MacMillan Pier. Then look across at the neighbouring Cabral’s Pier, where an old fish-packing displays an outdoor art installation of five large portraits of local Portuguese-American women. The Portuguese influence dates back to the mid-19th century when increasing numbers of fishermen from that seafaring nation settled where the shoals were, their families following.

But the first significant ‘invasion’ came in November 1620 as the Pilgrim Fathers on the Mayflower made their first landfall in the New World, prior to docking more famously at Plymouth down the coast. An understated park plaque marks the exact spot, but on High Pole Hill above Provincetown there’s a much larger tribute, the 252ft high Pilgrim Monument, hewn from solid granite. You can’t miss it. 

What would those hard-praying Puritan have made of the fishing town’s most recent claim to fame? It was back in the Sixties that Provincetown first saw the influx of a substantial (and increasingly affluent) gay community that colours its vibe to this day. The summer population is over 60,000 taking advantage of its abundant, clap-boarded boutique lodgings; in winter it shrinks to just 3,000 and reverts to feeling like the end of the Earth.

 Not quite like that in July. Still Commercial Street, however exuberantly awash with leather, drag, and Speedos, avoids the vulgar mayhem of, say, Beale Street in Memphis or Bourbon Street in New Orleans. That’s thanks to its strong feel of community both across Bear Week and the Carnival in  August and Family Week, the world’s largest gathering of families in the LGBTQ+ community (all going ahead in 2022, fingers crossed. Check here).

Let’s admit it, there’s only so much al fresco Mamma Mia you can take. With time to spare before lunch we take a shuttle out to Herring Cove Beach and the tranquil outer reaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore – a 40 mile stretch of park preserving 44,000 acres of forest, marsh, bog, and ponds, lighthouses, windmills and shacks… from Chatham in the mid-Cape to the scorpion tail spit that slides into the Atlantic above Provincetown. Back in 1961 it was created by President John Kennedy, no stranger to this neck of Massachusetts.

We walk back through the dunes to take further refuge in The Canteen, a fabulously laidback seafood snack and craft beer haven, recommended by a Boston acquaintance. Clam chowder, shrimp bahn-mi and the obligatory lobster rolls wolfed in a ramshackle garden terrace overlooking the ocean. What’s not to swoon over?

Its owner Rob Anderson recommends a raft of other Provincetown diversions… Tim’s Used Books, army-navy-surplus emporium Marine Specialties, the nautical-rock star outfitter Map, pleasure-and-safe sex shop Full Kit Gear, and the bohemian marine utopia Loveland, the Albert Merola Gallery, the quirky and eclectic John Derian shop, Four Eleven Gallery, hippy-dippy Shop Therapy, and Julie Heller Gallery.

This hedonistic party town also pays its dues to to its rich cultural heritage, most notably at the lovely Provincetown Art Association and Museum. It has been around over 100 years. In its early years Eugene O’Neill frequented its bar, along with many other mavericks (check out the Old Colony Tap). He premiered the play that won him the first of his four Pulitzers, Anna Christie, in 1916 at Provincetown Players’ East End theatre, converted from a Lewis Wharf fish shack. Arguably this was the wellspring of modern American drama.

At 577 Commercial Street you’ll find a round blue plaque that reads, “Eugene O’Neill 1888-1953 Dramatist Lived Here.” When the town got too hot for him he also dwelt for a time in a lifesaving station deep in the dunes.

Cut to 35 years later and another great dramatist, the young Tennessee Williams, spent four summer seasons in the town, falling in love and having his heart broken. He stayed at Captain Jack’s Wharf in the West End, where he wrote The Glass Menagerie on a borrowed typewriter. Amazingly at a theatre on that wharf he debuted A Street Car Named Desire with Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski before the play appeared on Broadway

Alas, both these theatres are long gone, but Captain Jack’s Wharf remains, a colourful magnet, where you can rent out condominium cabins, and the town is again hosting its annual Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival this September (22-25) across various venues.

Truth is that all the resident literary heroes who found congenial refuge in the town are now ghosts – the most recent Norman Mailer, who died in 2007 after spending 45 of his last 60 summers and writing most of his books there in his large brick seafront house. He once called it “the last democratic town in America – everybody is absolutely equal here”. 

Anthony Bourdain was, of course, only passing through, but his Provincetown rite of passage (with pan scrubbers) yielded extraordinary fruit…

Anthony Bourdain in Provincetown

Bourdain spoke at length about his time in Provincetown during that 2014 Massachusetts episode of his CNN show, Parts Unknown.

“It was here, all the way out at the tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the pilgrims first landed,” Bourdain said. “And it was where I first landed. 1972, washed into a town with a headful of orange sunshine and a few friends. Provincetown, a wonderland of tolerance, longtime tradition of accepting artists, writers, the badly behaved, the gay, the different. It was paradise.

“The joy that can only come with an absolute certainty that you’re invincible, that none of the choices that you make will have any repercussions or any effect on your later life,…Because we didn’t think about those things. I don’t even know what I thought I was going to be. At that point, I certainly didn’t think I was going to be a cook. I don’t know what I thought I was going to be. I was just, you know, hanging out in a beautiful place.

“The Flagship, it’s where my cooking career started. Where I started washing dishes, where I started to have pretensions of culinary grandeur. It would seem like a good gig for anybody. Who else got to live like that during that time?”

The Flagship, aka the Dreadnaught, is long shut and converted into apartments, but one of Bourdain’s few remaining locals remains. It’s my regret I never got to Atlantic House Bar in Masonic Place (above). Dating back to 1798 and in the same family hands for more than 75 years, it is ‘America’s oldest operating gay bar’, according to Bourdain. In the episode current owner April Cabral tells how her dad invited Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nina Simone to perform at the bar. Tennessee Williams was also a frequent guest, once frolicking in the nude there. So Provincetown.

For full tourism information on Provincetown visit https://ptowntourism.com; for Massachusetts try http://www.massholiday.co.uk and for specific tips on how to enjoy Cape Cod go to https://www.capecodchamber.org.