The Essence of Culinary Travel: Q&A with Food Historian Betty Fussell - Page 2

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When you travel, is it all about the food for you, or what other things make your itinerary?
Food travel is the best way to travel because you get into the center of things fast. Everyone you meet in a place will open up to you if you ask them about food. The subject seems harmless and relatively impersonal, unlike politics or religion, but you can find out everything you want to know about those subjects if you start asking in-depth questions about their eating and cooking habits. They'll start talking about their families, their home life, domestic details, sex, death, God, the works, without any alarm bells going off.

For me, great food experiences usually come through gradually discovering a whole narrative rather than a single moment of epiphany. A food trip through Portugal a few years ago took us along the coast for five days and then inland for another five. Immediately the contours of land and sea explained a Portuguese dish like pork and clams. Visiting Oporto and Jerez suddenly makes sense of all the ports and sherries you'd ever tasted. Nothing beats on-the-ground research. A trip through Morocco from Casablanca over the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara and back to the sea was another even more extreme story, making sense of the slaughtered lambs we found in the streets of Fez to be roasted for a Holy Day Feast celebrating Abraham's sacrifice of lamb instead of Isaac.

Time for some finger pointing: What about run-ins with dire cuisine?
Bad food experiences: These happen only when there is no food at all or fake food trying to pass for food. I recall a terrible so-called banquet in Beijing maybe 20 years ago with a greedy family that was setting me up to pay the bill, which would have been okay except course after course tasted like any mass-market, fast-food Chinese eatery in Chinatown NYC. Everything had come out of the same can. It was like Leningrad meals, in the days when the city was called that 30 years ago, when you had to go with an Intourist guide and eat at the specified hotel at specified times and were fed prison fare—grey food on grey plates served by grey people who didn't like you. We survived on caviar, purchasable at outrageous prices in official Tourist Stores, and vodka—purchasable anywhere.

What's your take on the cult of the celebrity chef? Do you think this is a recipe for mediocrity?
The celebrity chef is simply the branded chef, and the bigger the branding the worse the food. It's just a game of Follow the Money. After all the celebrities secured their outposts in NYC they went on to Las Vegas and Tokyo and Hong Kong and now they're clustering in Miami and Atlantic City. Ducasse in NYC was an expensive joke. But that's what it's about—cashflow, not the flow of exquisite wines or unparalleled foods.

American food seems pretty enigmatic: a literal boiling pot of international influences, yet somewhat bland when you cut it down to stereotypical fare like hamburgers, hot dogs, meat and two veggies… Is it possible to define American food given the country's diversity?
Americans eat constantly, but is there such a thing as American food? The one thing that defines it is constant change. Perhaps a sign of America's obsession with mobility? There are two food bins: one is the mass-market, fast-food bin (lowest common denominator in a pretend democracy), and the other is the richest-country-in-the-world food bin, where any of the world's goodies can be bought if you want to pay for it. The first bin is huge, the second one tiny but enormously influential, because we are a society ruled by caste. And in the United States, caste is money.

What are the strangest ingredients you've tasted in one dish? Did the combination work?
The strangest meal I've ever had was in the heart of NYC at the posh Explorers' Club dinner celebrating the world's insects. Each table was set with a live tarantula enclosed in a glass cube. Each course was some variety of insect, like delicious honey ants from Mexico or crisp crickets from Vietnam. I did fine with all the salty and crispy stuff, but when we got to the witchetty grubs from Australia, I discovered the oozy texture and taste of rotten liver. I noticed that the etymologists at my table ate everything with relish; it was the journalists who grew pale and left their post.

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