Untravel Essential #2: Food
Food is culture. I started to understand this early in my life thanks to my dad's 3 week study tour of China in 1983.
He returned with stunning photos of thousands of people riding bicycles wearing essentially a grey uniform tooling around Beijing. He also brought back a few pieces of Pao Pao gum. I was fascinated by the colors of the wrapper, the shape of the gum, the smell, the taste, and the consistency. It was familiar as gum but very different than any piece I had ever chewed before. As a 8 year old, I realized that this piece of gum meant kids in China were like me but experiencing the world differently.
I was hardwired to be fascinated by culture, but my upbringing also stoked it. I was raised in Leavenworth, Washington which is a small Bavarian themed town, I went to the world's fair in Vancouver, BC in 1986 and we hosted a Parisian exchange student when I was in Kindergarten. By the time I started college I knew what I wanted to study and I declared my major of cultural anthropology on day one.
But I would not fully appreciate the cultural importance of food until I worked as an assistant cook in a summer camp after my first year of college. The goal of Concordia Language Villages is to create the most immersive language experience as possible while in the North Woods of Minnesota. The counselors only spoke French to campers and the kitchen produced an array of culturally appropriate foods. For 3 months, I toiled away shredding 100 pound wheels of Gruyere for potatoes Dauphinoise, stirring vats of Belgian beef stew, perfecting the spiciness of our Senegalese Jollof rice, and trying to convince the head cook to skip the coq au vin based on our campers disdain for it. Some recipes worked in bulk, others not so much. The food was really good and also an essential part of the immersion experience. I fully understood that food was indeed culture.
Reading Sweetness and Power by Sidney Mintz opened my eyes to the academic study of food as he traced the historical, cultural, and economic impact that sugar has had on society.
I dove deeper into food studies and ultimately did field study interviews of BBQ pit cooks across the South to write my senior thesis on the social significance of Southern pork BBQ. In truth, it may not have been the most academically rigorous field study, and may have looked more like Spring Break with 3 of my closest friends eating BBQ everyday but it was still an education.
In 1999, I landed a job at a small school in Puebla, Mexico teaching English with an opportunity to create my own elective. I saw this as an opportunity to bring food studies to middle schoolers and I created an international cooking class. We cooked a different dish each week and learned about corresponding cooking techniques, ingredients, geography and culture. We made bagels, crepes, fufu, bulgogi, sushi, ratatouille, samosas, curry chicken, and falafel along with other dishes that my students had never heard of before. These lessons and dishes were steeped in cultural traditions but on my weekly shopping trips I became fascinated by the snack aisles of the various markets I visited and how junk food was also steeped in culture.
One of my favorite snacks to eat turned out to be Kranky. It was a hilarious name to an English speaker but as I thought about it more, I found it interesting that it was made of chocolate covered corn flakes. These are the two main foodstuffs that Mexico gave the world. It was a modern snack that, perhaps unintentionally, was the embodiment of Mexican culinary history. An important tenet to cultural anthropology is that culture is dynamic. Oftentimes we like to think of timeless culture that results in tourists seeking out traditional foods, clothing and experiences in order to find the "real Mexico." But Kranky is just as "real" as a hand crafted mole sauce. Snack foods need to be embraced as authentic aspects of a country and a legitimate way to experience culture.
My fascination with snack foods grew to become a ritual of visiting the junk food aisles of grocery stores wherever I traveled. I amassed a collection of interesting and, in my opinion, hilarious snacks that filled a bookshelf in my home. The picture at the beginning of this blog is a sampling of this collection. I had three criteria for making it into the collection (which are chronicled by other bloggers as well): translation fails, funny generic rip-offs, and foods and flavors I had never seen before. The benefit to this cultural experience at the corner store is that these snacks can make affordable gifts for friends when returning home from a trip!
Streetview Vagabond is an "untravel" project where I explore areas of the world virtually. It may seem off-brand to write a blog claiming that food is an essential element of this project. Food is steeped in geography, history and culture and part of the fun of traveling. And it can be experienced at home.
You can cook.
Most ingredients for most dishes can be found in a general supermarket. I've cooked many recipes of foods from all over the world and I am astounded at how a majority of them consist of merely a different combination of ingredients I already know, executed with a different technique.
But for ingredients that are very specific to a culture that can't be found in the international aisle of Safeway, there are ethnic grocery stores or sometimes full scale mega-marts like H-mart. One of my favorite small corner stores in DC is Hana Japanese market. Dipping into one of these markets can transport you across the globe and fill your snack shelf at home.
You can order food.
If you live in an area where international markets are hard to come by, you can also take advantage of online shopping at places that specialize in core ingredients like International Food Shop and iGlobal Food. There are also ways to source global snacks with subscription boxes like Snack Crate, Universal Yums, or Try the World.
In my first recorded interview for Streetview Vagabond I asked Farid Monti what were two dishes I should eat if I visited him in Tierra del Fuego. He recommended grilled lamb on an open fire as well as Spider Crab. Both of these dishes would be best experienced there which is why traveling is so awesome. Untravel will never replace it. But as this project evolves I will incorporate trying more recipes at home and trying snacks if I can get a hold of them. Traveling is a mindset that is rooted in curiosity and risk-taking which can be practiced one bite at a time.