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.

Getting Stoned with Savages

getting stoned with savagesGetting Stoned with Savages by J. Maarten Troost 

Genre: memoir/ travel writing

Setting: Vanuatu and Fiji

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Simon Vance

Source: public library 

Length: 07:25:00

Published by: Blackstone 

Her Grace’s rating: 2 out of 5 stars

This memoir/ travel writing narrative is the follow-up to Troost’s debut, The Sex Lives of Cannibals. I didn’t read that one, though I know several people who did and enjoyed it. I love travel writing in general. This one focused on Troost’s experiences in Vanuatu and Fiji, where he and his wife lived when she got a job of some kind there. I don’t think I paid attention to it as well as I should have. 

There were some undeniably funny parts. Troost has a dry wit that I generally appreciate. I found that I didn’t really care much about him or his adventures here, though, and I’m not really sure why. It wasn’t the best travel narrative I’ve ever read, but it didn’t suck or anything. It just didn’t light my fire like I had hoped. 

I saw several reviews saying that it is very racist. I didn’t think it was; it was discussing the racism in other groups that he noticed while traveling, but he himself didn’t strike me as a racist at all. I think a lot of people objected to the title of the book. But helloooo, it’s supposed to be a play on words and pique readers’ interest. You can’t judge another time period (irrelevant in this book) or another culture (super relevant in this book) by our own. 

Something that I did find to be a major turn-off was Troost’s description of his first night in Fiji. He was wandering around looking for just a basic bar or pub to sit in and have a drink and relax after a long day of travel. I get that. Instead, he encountered some male prostitutes who kept trying to take him into the jungle. At least, according to his recollection. He remembered thinking that he was nervous and that getting sodomized wasn’t something high on his list of things to do. OH, IS THAT SO? And getting raped and/or sodomized is something that IS high on the list of every woman who’s had to endure it? Or even the worry that you could get raped? I don’t think I know ANY woman who hasn’t been worried or scared about being assaulted in some form or another. Soooo… now you know how it feels, my dude? I’m sorry he had that scary experience but there was a tone deafness to that whole section that put me off. It seemed never to occur to him that such experiences are commonplace among women. Fucking derp. 

After listening to this, the main takeaway I have is that neither Vanuatu or Fiji are places I want to go. Like, ever. Nor do I understand why anyone would want to visit, let alone LIVE there. Which is too bad because they are probably both cool places to visit. But between the earthquakes, mudslides, volcanoes, and foot-long centipedes, I’m inclined to call the entire region a hard pass. Maybe I’ll stumble across a different narrative that will change my mind, but for now, I think I’ll keep my vacations outside the Ring of Fire, unless I’m going to Australia or New Zealand. I don’t think this was the best book to read for boosting tourism to the South Pacific.

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.

Anthony Bourdain Remembered

43884234Anthony Bourdain Remembered* by CNN

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Edelweiss

Length: 208 pp

Publisher: CNN

Year: 2019

Sometimes when I cook, I have the voice of chef Anne Burrell in my head, telling me I’m using my knife wrong or I need to do something differently. Over the years, though, another voice has been added to hers, overwriting it to tell me that it doesn’t matter if I do it perfectly so long as I’m trying something new, and “screwups are good. Screwups – and bouncing back from screwups – help you conquer fear. … Do not be afraid” (Les Halles). As long as my mise en place is in order (and it had better be or he will yell at me), then everything will be fine. That distinctive voice belongs to Anthony Bourdain.

Probably it’s not normal to have the voices of anyone in your head, but I’ve always been one to have conversations with people I only meet in books, or on TV, or from studying history. I’m not ashamed to admit that some of the best life lessons were ones I’ve received from people I’ve never met in person, some of them fictional. This is far more a tribute to him than is it a book review, so I am going to talk about the late, greatly missed Tony Bourdain. From Tony, watching his shows and reading his books, I’ve learned so many things. Now I know that you should always try a dish twice in case it wasn’t prepared well the first time. Borders don’t matter because we have far more similarities than differences. You’ll never know what you like until you try it. The one truly universal connection between people is food and breaking bread together over a meal, prepared with love and served in a spirit of generosity and openness, is something that transcends religion and politics and language. Traveling to new places and seeing how people in different cultures live is something everyone should do; there is no education in any hallowed institution on earth that can compare with this.

Most of us never got to meet Tony in real life; nevertheless, he had a tremendous impact on our lives all the same. I never met him, but that doesn’t change the fact that I look up to him as a mentor, or that his death left a wound that will always be tender. I know this isn’t how depression works, but I can’t help but wonder if he knew how very many people would be affected by his death, if it would have made a difference. Probably not. I’ll save my rant about the need for better mental health care for a more appropriate place.

As I said, I never got the chance to meet Tony in person. The closest I ever got was a random encounter in London, on opposite sides of a busy street in Soho. That sardonic smile was plainly visible through traffic and crowds and will be a sight I’ll cherish dearly. Nevertheless, I can say that I feel lucky that I was alive and shared the earth at the same time he did. I think the best way to remember him will be to try to approach life like he did – with curiosity and openness and a hunger that can only be satiated by going and seeing and experiencing it for myself.

This book is a collection of memories, left by people who feel as I do. This is not great literature. It isn’t going to move mountains or bring about world peace. It is simply the heartfelt notes of people given in their grief to express a love for a deeply flawed, deeply compassionate, curious, creative, soulful man, someone who touched us all profoundly in some way, and whose loss we feel acutely. People who also learned from Tony that “there is less to fear about the world than we think” or that we should “listen, rather than speak.” We know, because of him, that “it is a privilege to sit at someone’s table” and that we should “go to the place. Eat the thing. Talk to the person.” When we travel, he taught us how to be “less of an observer and more of a participant…”, that we should “offend no one, appreciate the simplest things, and absorb it all”, that “food was a tool through which to understand a place, to broaden your own understanding of the world…”, and that there is “beauty in the sad, and the poignant, and even in the mundane, every day.” He taught us new ways to see, how to be better listeners, and how to find the interesting experiences. I think he’d get a kick out of one comment in particular, written by Amy P, who said, “Tripe. I didn’t enjoy it, but Tony was 100 percent the reason I tried it.” Yes, girl! I have tried things, culinary and otherwise, that I never would have thought to do because of something I learned from Tony. Just try the food. If you don’t like it, then try it again somewhere else, in case the first time wasn’t the best. If you don’t like it after that, well, at least you tried it. But then again, you may discover your new favorite food. You might learn about your new favorite activity. I learned about black pudding in London’s old east end butcher district, and the next time I am there, I’m absolutely going to try some, because that’s what Tony would do. Because the real lesson he left us with is not to be afraid. Go out and try things and see where they take you.

“Travel isn’t often pretty. It isn’t often comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind” (No Reservations). Anthony Bourdain left something good behind, and his presence will continue to be missed. Let’s all go out, have an adventure, and make our own mark on the world. 

RIP, Anthony Bourdain. We still miss you.

Bourdain twitter BW
Image retrieved from Anthony Bourdain’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/Bourdain/status/993005310611619840

Bourdain, Anthony. Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Technique of Classic Bistro Cooking. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004.

—-. No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.

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