Armchair Traveler, pt 2

still-life-379858_1920As I had mentioned in my earlier post on this topic, literature is a fantastic way to get to know a new culture and get to travel a bit without leaving the comfort of your own home. If you can’t travel for whatever reason – health, safety concerns, finances, etc. – literature can provide a means of escape without actually going anywhere. Through literature, we can learn about new cultures through food and cuisine and then make an adventure for ourselves by trying to track down those cuisines in our own locations. Because of my own armchair tourism, I have discovered restaurants (ranging in definition from actual sit-down establishments to hole-in-the-wall joints that barely have room for a folding table and a couple plastic chairs to sit at while waiting for our food to be prepared in a mysterious and highly suspicious back room) which serve traditional Hawaiian, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Szechuan, and Middle Eastern dishes. I had to do a bit of research and driving to get to some of them, but the experience was worth it, and helped bring to life some of the books I’ve read which referenced specific dishes.

Continuing with my armchair tourism for physical locations is, I find, easier even than with food. Living in Arizona, there are only so many places I can go physically that are nearby that even remotely resemble the locations I read about in books. We don’t have jungles in Arizona. It doesn’t look like England (woe!) or Africa, and certainly not anywhere Arctic. The culture, such as it is, is entirely different from any of those places. Giving up on physically taking myself to experience some of the places I read about, rather than stymying me, frees me to read liberally from around the world. I know it is unlikely I will ever get to go to Beirut, Jerusalem, Dubai, Tehran, Istanbul (maybe I’ll get to go there one day), Petra, Morocco, Egypt, the Congo, the Amazon, so I take it as a challenge to read as much as I can about the places and cultures there now. Oh, the places I’ve gone…

I’ve traveled to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and witnessed how one person learns to handle being simultaneously young, female, and live in a place where there are religious police. Such is the story of Zarin Wadia in A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena. Zarin moves from her home in Mumbai to Jeddah after the death of her parents. She deals with bullying at school, an abusive aunt at home, and an uncle who won’t defend her. Until I read this book, I had never known where Jeddah was exactly, though I knew it was a major stop on the route to Mecca for devout Muslims making their hajj. I had never heard of the languages of Gujarati or Avestan. I had never known about the minority of Zoroastrians living in Saudi. This book helped me see those places, feel the coastal breeze coming off the Red Sea, and feel the hot, spice-laden air. Not that I ever need an excuse to eat Middle Eastern food, but while I was reading this book, I’m pretty sure I ate my weight in take-away dolmas, manakeesh, and shawarma from my favorite local hummus spot. Also, I cried my eyes out because of this book as well. It was an utterly, beautifully devastating book.

All This I Will Give to You by Dolores Redondo took me to Spain. In this book, author Manuel Ortigosa’s husband Alvaro dies in a car crash, and Manuel learns that Alvaro has kept secret the fact that he is Spanish aristocracy. This novel, set in the Galicia region of Spain, is redolent with the scent of gardenias, vineyards, and lush greenery. The rolling hills tumbling down to the sea, the air carrying the sound of the bells from the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, all mingle into a miasma of history and intrigue throughout this novel, carefully crafted by Redondo and faithfully translated by Michael Meigs. The cathedral at Compostela has long been a destination for pilgrimages and remains a source of interest for medieval scholars for its importance during the Crusades in particular. When reading this book, I sampled a few local Spanish restaurants, discovering in the process that I love tomato jam but, surprisingly, do not love paella, even though it looks an awful lot like risotto.

Small Country by Gaël Faye took me to 1992, Burundi, and showed me the genocide from the perspective of a child. Gabriel, living with his friends in a wealthy neighborhood for ex-pats, is sheltered by his French father from politics and is entirely ignorant of the instability and poverty the rest of the country is subject to. He never understood that he was more protected than many others around him, including their own household staff, some of whom disappeared and were never seen again. Throughout this novel, amid the bougainvillea and plantain, the damp air hangs heavy with blood, sharp with gunpowder. The traditional foods of red kidney beans, onion, chili powder, and plantains cooked in palm oil waft across the page, ubiquitous and soothing amidst the turmoil of a lost childhood. I tried this recipe for kidney beans and plantains from Global Table Adventure and it was delicious.

I’ve also been to Saigon and Hanoi, Vietnam, with Mai, a girl of Vietnamese heritage from California in the middle grade novel Listen, Slowly. Her Vietnamese grandmother is going back to her home village after receiving word that her husband, long thought to have been killed when they had escaped the country during the Vietnam War, may still be alive. Mai does not want to go, doesn’t care about her heritage, and doesn’t want to play caretaker to her grandmother for the summer, and yet she gradually falls in love with the culture, people, and location. As with many other kinds of cuisine, I really don’t need an excuse to eat Vietnamese food, yet while I was reading this charming little book, I am certain I ate my weight in pho, which is just about as perfect a comfort food as I can imagine.

Pairing food with literature is certainly nothing new. As mentioned earlier, food and travel writing remain popular genres in publishing. My love for these kinds of literature stems entirely from their ability to teach me about new kinds of food to try, because it is through food and shared meals that so many people learn to become friends, sometimes even against their own desires. We learn about new places, values, and cultures and, through them, we learn greater empathy. After all, “The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from the mere animal biology to an act of culture” (Pollan 192). Whether the meal is shared literally, with people at the same table as you, or metaphorically in the pages of a book while you eat the same food the characters are eating, food is a unifying force the world over.

Have you been inspired to try new foods based on books you have read? Please share the experiences (and the recipes, if you have them!)!

Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Penguin, New York, 2008.

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.