On Travel

which is a performance.

Have you ever walked into a very fancy hotel, been handed a glass of Champagne by a porter wearing white gloves, and believed you deserved it? I have not, probably because I’ve never paid for the pleasure with my own money—it’s always been brands or media comps that get me into these situations, which I always immediately regret because of the strange performance they require.

In a five-star hotel with nonetheless terrible food and worse wi-fi in the Cognac region of France last September, I kept having to go to the front desk inquiring after an extra iPhone charger. In trying to be myself—i.e., a person far closer to working behind the desk than ever affording a night here on my own, a person whose presence at this place was an accident, a person who felt more like a spy than a guest—I was bumbling, stupid, incapable of bridging the significant gap. It was like when I was working at the wine bar just a few months prior and, while sweeping up to close, a drunk woman asked me if Greenpoint is nice. “I’m thinking of buying a duplex,” she said. It’s nice, I told her, as I kept cleaning the floor, a person for whom the idea of buying property is not only politically fraught but utterly financially unattainable, unimaginable.

I’m thinking about these things because our current Global Moment has people reconsidering what travel means, and thus what travel writing means. I don’t consider myself a travel writer in the slightest—I write about food and culture, so when I go on these trips that I usually have not paid for, I’m going to bars and restaurants and cafés and independent shops, and I’m more concerned with how they fit into the broader conversation around food and drink and art than I am with the concept of travel. It’s more important that I know the various kinds of vegan food being served in Buenos Aires and Mexico City and Chicago than it is that I tell people why they should go there—most people will not go there, but most people who are interested in food will likely be interested in any connections I can draw in cuisine from around the world. (I also don’t believe the narrative of being an outsider in some new place is interesting unless the writing itself is really fucking good. I need to see the blood.)

Nonetheless, it’s a silly life. I’m lucky to have gone anywhere. It took me from the year 2000, when I made my first trip to Europe on a high school orchestra trip to France, to 2017 for my second, paid for by a wine brand. When I’m around other writers whom I know do not actually have a lot of money but they are high on the travels they’ve done as though they mean something, I cannot relate. It’s more significant to my life story that until the last couple of years, I hardly spent any time outside of New York.

Now I live in a highly trafficked tourist zone, where their needs rather than locals define almost the entirety of what’s available. Before the pandemic and its attendant lockdown, there were increasing numbers of tourists walking around in extravagant outfits for photo shoots. They weren’t doing anything, seeing anything—just existing for the sake of documentation. This is why I take issue with the world travel writers see or think they’re promoting, because I don’t think most people want to travel, in the Bourdain-ian sense; they want to be tourists, they want to escape something, they want to be the boss somewhere. What does escape mean to the person who has to walk around the escapees to go about their daily life? Who has to serve them, without receiving a tip? (The place of escape in the imagination and how this becomes tangible through bars and cocktails was the point of this tiki piece I did for Eater.)

This New York Times piece about a couple stuck on their honeymoon with an entire resort’s worth of staff waiting on them because they’re not allowed to go home and are the only guests left enacts this nightmare on an extended stage. The illusions all crack when the vacation, the escape, cannot end. It’s ripe for a horror movie. And the writer didn’t bother to interview any of the staff.

None of these thoughts are new. There have long been brilliant criticisms of the inherent colonial, imperialist, white gaze of travel writing and tourism, but after this pandemic, they have to sink in. They have to change something. But I’m not hopeful. A couple of times, I’ve been told by white editors that they’d rather have me cover something in Puerto Rico than the Puerto Rican who pitched them. (I do not write for these people.) This has to shift, and translation has to become part of travel publishing. Accessibility of experiences needs to be considered, from all angles. Basically, I could write a version of my New Republic piece on food media for travel but I don’t care about travel writing enough to do so; it’s not my place.

For better thinking on this, I cannot recommend Bani Amor highly enough, as well as this great panel on which they appeared with a few other writers covering this space (thank you for the tip, Molly Stollmeyer!). I’m also looking forward to finally reading A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid. There’s always, of course, Soleil Ho’s classic scouring of a resort in Hawaii in GQ. I want to see these ideas break out of academic arenas, to become more commonplace. That’s the opportunity this moment gives us in media: to change the gaze.

I’m far more qualified to talk about how luxury concepts manifest in food, and how stupid and boring fine dining is—lol—which perhaps I’ll do next week, depending on how the news goes. What is the point of a restaurant?

My only very recent work that’s been published has been at Tenderly, where I talked to vegan business owners about the pandemic’s effects on their businesses, gathered some ecological thought to contextualize the pandemic, and also wrote about why arepas are the perfect food. The three genders, or something.

The new issue of The Believer is excellent, per usual. What I’ve really dove into thus far are this interview with Brooks Headley (shocker) and this one with writer and herbalist Harrod Buhner, who I don’t know if I agree with all that much but enjoyed nonetheless.

I keep trying to start The Gringa by Andrew Altschul but never getting to it. Last night, we did an Almodóvar double feature of Women on the Verge and All About My Mother, which I prefaced with an introduction about Manuel Puig and the constellation of womanhood, doing the girlfriend version of all those memes about why men are such assholes because sometimes they talk about things they like. (Yes, an oversimplification!!! Of patriarchy!)

I’ve been making PATATAS BRAVAS over and over, and I have the recipe nearly perfected. I’ve been doing them according to a recipe I skimmed once and then did in my own way, which is how I cook. I’ll write the recipe I do down for Tenderly this month, because it’s a really excellent, pantry-friendly dish that you can make an entree or serve as a side. The way things are going, I think it’ll be more likely to be an entree as our emotional reserves falter.

That’s also how, yesterday, I made homemade ketchup and 101 Cookbooks’ crispy oven fries. The ketchup was the first thing I made in my brand-new Staub dutch oven (gotten on intense sale), which I found a fitting christening: I’ve always been into the idea of homemade or house-made ketchup, in a kind of contrarian position because so many food writers will tell you that nothing is better than Heinz, why even bother with something that actually tastes like tomatoes? Well, bitches, because, I like to at least make an attempt to free myself from corporate shackles. (Not to be a parody of myself, but to be a parody of myself.) It’s nice to be in control of the flavor, and I used pretty much the same profile I use in the patatas bravas—onion, fresh garlic, lots of paprika, black urfa chile, cumin, salt, pepper—with the addition, of course, of brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, and warmer spices late in the game, such as a touch of cacao and a dose of spicy cinnamon. I’m into it!!!