The Essence of Culinary Travel: Q&A with Food Historian Betty Fussell

Journalist, food historian, and travel writer Betty Fussell gives us her thoughts on the world's delicious (and occasionally dire) culinary melting pot. She sheds light on how varying textures, tastes, and types of food underpin our appreciation of customs and cultures around the world, from the narrative of a culinary odyssey to the anarchy needed to halt the world's industrial food apparatus.
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Your books trace the history of food and its role in shaping cultures, from the ancient Aztecs to Hopi Indians to modern America. What does a country or culture's food tell you about the place?
The best way to savor a country or culture is to head straight for its food. Food tells all because food is at once the most intimate and most communal of human experiences. If you're on the Second Mesa and want to know about the Hopi, ask anyone you meet about Hopi corn, how they grow it, how they grind it and cook it and eat it, and you're instantly thrust into a couple thousand years of history in their particular place in Arizona.

Food capitals like Paris or Rome have a habit of disappointing tourists in search of the iconic food fix. What advice do you have about eating your way to the soul of a place?
In Paris, Rome, Moscow, or any other big city you have to work harder, sometimes a lot harder, to search out the locals in order to discover what is special to a place and where you can find it. I remember a squid terrine in a tiny café in Rome that I would never have known to ask for had I not chatted with the man behind me in the gelato line to find out where I might go for supper. Which is another clue: Wherever people are lined up to eat, it's worth finding out why.

Your book, The Story of Corn, traces the myths and spirituality surrounding this crunchy vegetable among indigenous peoples including the Plains and Pueblo Indians. Do you think we take our food for granted these days, or do cultures around the world still put their food on a pedestal?
Some cultures have always known that food is the heart and soul of a people, and so they accept that eating is not only their destiny but an integral part of their being. It helps define their particularities as a culture. The French, Chinese, Japanese, or Native Americans, for example, have been especially good at articulating their cultures' relation to food. Other cultures, usually ones with a puritan heritage, have seen food as demeaning, trivial, a reminder of our animal selves, and therefore disgusting, or at least unmentionable. British Victorians—though not the blue bloods—come to mind. Americans have taken this dualism (mind over body) to an extreme and all too often see food as the enemy of health and longevity (see the medicine con men of the 19th century like Dr. Kellogg), whether they count calories or fat particles or sugar or salt. More than most countries, and maybe because they're more media-blitzed than most, Americans are hopelessly saturated with the mumbo-jumbo of pseudo-science in the service of super-salesmen. Native Americans saw corn as sacred, the life-giving seed. We see corn as a commodity useful for animal fodder, ethanol, industrial starches and sugars, or as a snack like popcorn or a sweet like corn on the cob.

Published: 8 Sep 2006 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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