Armchair Traveler

book collageThroughout this blog, I have tried to help bring diversity to my own (and hopefully others’) reading practices, to show new ways reading diversely can enrich your life, and teach how readers can do their part to try to influence publishing to stimulate diversity in the industry. Studies show that reading literary fiction helps to hone empathy and compassion by seeing the world from the point of view of people unlike ourselves. However, there is another side to this in addition to honing empathy. Many books set in different countries or even different communities within our own country offer a unique perspective of the world and can give readers the sense of having traveled to a new place from the comfort of our own chair. Enter: book tourism, or armchair traveling.

One of my favorite forms of armchair traveling is through food writing or food tourism. My very favorite food tourism writer is the late, greatly-missed Anthony Bourdain. He summed it up wonderfully in his book Medium Raw when he said, “Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them – wherever you go” (Bourdain 56). Food writing encompasses the best of both worlds, showing readers a new part of the world geographically as well as introducing them to new foods and the cultures that cook them. In addition to the canon of Bourdain’s writing, which is elegant, witty, and achingly poignant, the works of Bill Buford, Fuchsia Dunlop, and Fergus Henderson are also well worth a read. One of the best I have read is Climbing the Mango Tree by Madhur Jaffrey, which introduces readers to the influences of spice, dining al fresco under the mango trees, and learning to cook surrounded by your family matriarchs while growing up in the Indian Himalayan foothills. Who wouldn’t want to grow up climbing mango trees?

Fiction that prominently features food in some way also inspires wanderlust. A vivid scene over a meal or in a kitchen evokes the sights and aromas that truly bring a setting to life. The kitchen is the heart of the home for a reason, and it is over a meal where we can learn the most about people and cultures. Breaking bread is a traditional way to meet new friends and to make peace with enemies. When reading a book like Chocolat by Joanne Harris, you can taste the chocolate as well as feel the cool air of the small French village, smell the bakery up the road, see the cobblestones of the ancient streets. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel gives readers a taste – pun intended – of life in turn of the century Mexico along with characters who can imbue their food with their emotions. One of my favorite novels of recent years is Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King, a historical fiction set in ancient Rome about Marcus Gavius Apicius, the author of the oldest cookbook in the world. This not only makes readers want to travel to Rome and see all the places referred to in the novel, but many passages from Apicius’s cookbook are included in the text as well. Ancient Roman cooking at its finest!

Below are some books, fiction and nonfiction alike, which have inspired wanderlust and food cravings in one way or another. What books would you recommend to instill wanderlust?

Julia Child (My Life in France)

Michael W. Twitty (The Cooking Gene: A Journey through the African American Culinary History in the Old South)

Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate)

William Bostwick (The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer)

Frances Mayes (Under the Tuscan Sun)

Bill Buford (Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany)

Fuchsia Dunlop (Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China)

Fergus Henderson (The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating)

Marcus Samuelsson (Yes, Chef)

References:

Bourdain, Anthony. Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. London, Bloomsbury Publishing Group, 2010.

Stillman, Jessica. “New Study: Reading Fiction Really Will Make You Nicer and More Empathetic.” The Inc. Life, 2019.

Catch-Up Round: A Cook’s Tour and The Deep

A Cook's TourA Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain

Genre: food memoir

Setting: global

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 274 pp

Published by: ecco (30 July 2001)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Just like his various TV shows, this book takes readers on a global tour with Anthony Bourdain. He travels, eats, gets drunk with the locals, and writes about it, which is basically my dream job. He covered regions from Russia to Mexico, the UK to Asia, and many places in between in search of the perfect meal. 

This will be a super short review. I loved this book. I gave it 4 stars instead of 5 just because I thought the Russia section was overly long, and there were a few places where he seemed to have run out of words and kept using the same one over and over. That is bad editing, not really Tony’s fault, though. One of my favorite parts was in the Russia section, though, where he went into the frozen pool. LOL! 

I read this to complete a Read Harder task (read a food memoir about a cuisine you’ve never had before). I have had many of the cuisines in this book, but not all of them. I can honestly say I’ve never had any kind of Russian food, and some of the UK food. Though last time I was there, I did try black pudding and thought it was delicious. Anthony Bourdain is the reason I tried it. I wanted to read this book again now because I still miss him. 

The DeepThe Deep by Rivers Solomon (Website)

Genre: fantasy

Setting: the ocean deep

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 166 pp

Published by: Saga Press (5 Nov 2019)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This was a super original fantasy set in the Caribbean. The Wajinru are basically mermaids, the water-breathing descendants of pregnant slaves who were thrown overboard through the Middle Passage. They live almost entirely in the present, with all their culture’s collective memories housed in one Historian. Once a year, all the Wajinru gather inside a huge room built specially for the gathering and the Historian, Yetu, passes all the memories to the other Wajinru. Yetu, though, is highly sensitive and being the receptacle of all the horrible memories of her ancestors is a burden that is killing her. She has to decide whether to leave her group and let the memories remain in the others or if she is willing to sacrifice her life for the wellbeing of her whole community. 

I did like this novella a great deal, though I found it kind of confusing in some parts. Once I got the Wajinru culture figured out, it got easier, though some of it was pretty nonlinear and threw me off a little bit. Overall, this story was complex and well-crafted, especially considering how short it is. The world-building was awesome.

French Women Don’t Get Fat

1320781French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 304 pp

Publisher: Vintage

Year: 2007

This book is about the French culture and how they manage to eat the foods they eat – lots of rich sauces and breads and wine and chocolate – without becoming obese the way so many Americans are. It’s the French Paradox, although I think that specific term was only used once in the whole book. I think that some people – a lot of people, actually, based on some of the criticism this book has received – might get defensive about what they view as an attack on American culture, or see it as fat shaming. But let’s face it: she’s right about a lot of things, like it or not. The main premise is simply to eat fresh, seasonal foods in moderation, get up off your lazy ass, eat with purpose and at an actual table off of actual plates with actual silverware, and drink a shitload of water. This isn’t a difficult concept to grasp, but I think American ideas of what is a portion are so overinflated that a correct portion seems like starvation rations. The entire framework requires a shift in mindset. It really struck me when Mireille wrote that French women are always thinking about good things to eat and American women are worrying about bad things to eat. I think that is true for many people, even those who are thin.

Throughout the book, Mireille tried to highlight the idea that food and eating should bring pleasure, not stress, anxiety, or shame. At the same time, she also stressed that there is no reason that pleasure from food implies it shouldn’t also be healthy. The concepts she claims are cultural to the French are very much common sense things that my own mother taught me. If you overindulge one day or one week, cut back a little until you feel back in balance. Don’t starve yourself. Have a good variety of foods that are in season. Eat lots of fruits and veggies. Walk or ride your bike to as many places as you can. I have a hard time with this one simply because it’s too hot to do that all the time where I live, and I also live in the suburbs. But when it isn’t over 90 (more often over 100), I do walk several times a week to the grocery store to buy what I need for a couple days. I make up for the lack of walking, which I love doing when it isn’t so hot it triggers a migraine, by going to my all-women’s studio gym, which I also love. I know Mireille hates the gym but I love beating the shit out of the mannequin Bob. I’m nicer after boxing. I take the stairs when I can, and I don’t park as close as I possibly can. I park where there is shade, no matter how far it is from where I need to go. When it gets cooler, I plan to get a bike and start riding it to the weekly farmer’s market. It should be fun, and buying fresh, local food items is a thing I support anyway. I’m rather looking forward to it!

There is also a huge component to eating at home and preparing your own meals. I think people now view cooking and food preparation as a tedious chore that has to be done, or else they don’t bother at all and just go out all the time or buy garbage you can throw in a microwave. And then kids have behavior problems because diet is absolutely linked to behavior. When my own kid eats healthy, she minds a lot better. She also has a healthier appetite when I don’t let her snack. She gets breakfast, lunch, a small afternoon snack, and dinner. She whines about it sometimes, especially if she’s been at my mom’s a lot because my stepdad eats constantly and she sees that bad example. When she gets back on a proper eating schedule, she eats well, and she is a lot more willing to try new foods. She also likes to  help me fix the meals on occasion, though I’m still trying to get her to understand that she has to follow a recipe until she learns what actually goes well together. But I try to make it fun and when she is able to make something well, she feels proud of herself. Cooking with my daughter is a lot of fun and is something I look forward to. It is my job to teach her how to be well and I see no reason why it should be a chore to do. There are a lot of recipes that were included in this book that we can try together that she would like. I also have a large collection of cookbooks that I use all the time, and I like to teach her how I plan a menu. She likes to pick out recipes so when I let her do that, it adds to her enjoyment of food and learning that it is a pleasurable thing to cook.

I liked that Mireille was careful to note that of course not every single French woman is thin. Being overweight or obese is a universal issue and not confined to American culture. It is, however, a lot more rare in France, where it is culturally ingrained to eat smaller portions, eat fresh and seasonal fruits and vegetables, walk everywhere as much as possible, linger over meals rather than cramming them down like you’re starving, drink tons of water, and any number of other things that Americans in general simply don’t do. Like it or not, the observations made in the book about American culture are pretty accurate. Some things may be a little out of touch, but overall, I thought this was a great intro to changing one’s mindset and relationship to food. Regardless of one’s social class or income, I think these basic rules are things most people can follow in their everyday life. It is just a matter of whether you want to or not.