On Food Destinations
The construction of desire.
This is the second lecture in my Culinary Tourism class at Boston University’s masters of gastronomy program. I will be sharing these and reading suggestions throughout the semester, interspersed with my regular missives. Here is the first.
Today's lecture is a bit split in scope, but I think it comes together—you can let me know if it doesn’t. I had intended today to be about the idea of tourism-as-colonialism and how culinary tourism specifically can both enforce and undermine that, but it becomes more about how a "food destination" is constructed through narrative and media. These narratives still enforce and uphold colonial power structures, though, and I hope we will see this connection in order to better interrogate how we conceive of a "food destination."
In her 1988 work A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid addresses a fictional tourist to her home of Antigua. She pointedly does so in the second person: No matter who you are, you are indicted as a person who does not wish to really see this Caribbean island haunted by slavery, British colonization, corruption, drought, and lack of food sovereignty.
"The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true," she writes. "A tourist is an ugly human being."
The tourist, or Kincaid's tourist, is interested solely in blue skies and fresh food. “When you sit down to eat your delicious meal,” she writes, “it’s better that you don’t know that most of what you are eating came off a plane from Miami. And before it got on a plane in Miami, who knows where it came from? A good guess is that it came from a place like Antigua first, where it was grown dirt-cheap, went to Miami, and came back. There is a world of something in this, but I can’t go into it right now.”
How is culinary tourism, specifically, both in service to and working against neo-colonialist notions that have for so long marred travel? How are food destinations constructed in colonialist ways, as well as ways that serve a nation's soft power interests? Which nations, too, get to enjoy an uncomplicated rise as a food destination?
Whose palate defines a "foodie destination"?
Bani Amor, a travel writer, has said: "...in travel writing, you know, you have this dominant narrator who is usually white, who is usually monied, who is usually Western and English speaking, and all these things, and, you know, that is such a delusion, a little bit of a delusion, you know, are we really getting the real story of this world when we're looking in the travel writing section of a bookstore? Absolutely not."
Just a few weeks ago, I read in the New York Times "Travel" section a line about Nevis: "With its unspoiled beaches, Alexander Hamilton’s birthplace is the less developed and serene Caribbean many visitors crave."
It's a line published in 2023 that would've felt at home in the 1953 video "Fiesta Island," produced to entice Americans to visit Puerto Rico. The narrator says of Ponce, a city in the south, "it retains much of the charm lost to progress in other parts of the world."
This goes back to last week's discussion on the demographics of travel: An assumed tourist is a very specific type of person, the type of person Amor describes here. This is the "visitor" who "craves" an idea of paradise in the Caribbean that is "serene." Who would a "more developed" Caribbean benefit, if development is understood as a "good"?
It is to escape the hustle and bustle of a "developed" country that requires those who are able to to become tourists. Thus, some places must remain—for the sake of this tourist—in their "undeveloped" condition, a pristine paradise.
Gustavo Esteva, an activist and "deprofessionalized intellectual" who founded a university in Oaxaca, wrote in The Development Dictionary, "The metaphor of development gave global hegemony to a purely Western genealogy of history, robbing peoples of different cultures of the opportunity to define the forms of their social life." He goes on to say that the word "defines a perception," not any quantifiable reality.
The concept of "development" relates to how a city or country becomes a "foodie destination." To do so, there must be the "right" mix of tradition with global influence. "New Nordic," as we'll discuss, was a wildly successful example of this.
Guides like Eater Travel's "Where to Eat in 2023" hone in on this specific mix. A cuisine develops into being destination-worthy by mixing the indigenous with approved outside influence.
Gastronomy and Soft Power
"[Food] is an essential soft power tool, and its correct application could result in both coercion and control in political and social circles. Food is an item of consumption and has cultural and historical symbolism. It is culturally symbolized and carries a symbolic meaning with it, which the actors of soft power know and understand. It is the symbolic value of the food (not the food itself) that enables the soft powers to be successful. Wherever food travels, it carries cultural or symbolic values and norms with it and conveys or communicates soft power messages to other actors." —"Gastronomy, Tourism, and the Soft Power of Malaysia" by Hanafi Hussin
Anecdotally speaking, I see "peoples of different cultures" robbed "of the opportunity to define the forms of their" own—to paraphrase Esteva—gastronomy in Puerto Rico. I have conversations with folks who are looking for, in San Juan, the same kinds of foods, restaurants, and ingredients they were able to find in places like San Francisco or New York. There is a desire to see San Juan "develop" into a city like those, rather than to set its own standards and pace of cultural and thus culinary change.
The understanding of what is "good food" or a "cool restaurant" are defined by traditional media and social media, as well as historical modes of power, as Amor notes.
A "foodie destination" can also be constructed as a means of building what's called "soft power," defined as "a persuasive approach to international relations, typically involving the use of economic or cultural influence."
What do you look for in a culinary destination?
What drives your interest in traveling to a place for its gastronomy? What media or lists? What types of cuisine?
Do you believe, as Kincaid writes, that a tourist is always "an ugly thing"? How does culinary-focused tourism specifically enforce and/or undermine the ways in which tourism is a means of neo-colonialism, considering food's use as a tool of soft power in international contexts? Does using food as a soft power tool undermine the "dominant narrator" of travel writing that Amor discusses?
One of the most successful campaigns for gastronomic tourism has been the construction of "New Nordic" cuisine. Chefs like Rene Redzepi of Noma and Magnus Nilsson of Faviken enjoyed elevated stature and incredible influence in cuisine—until very recently, when Redzepi announced he would be closing the Noma restaurant at the end of 2024.
By marrying very specific, often foraged ingredients of their locales in Denmark and Sweden with haute cuisine technique and fine-dining service, these chefs surprised the world by making their cities desirable destinations (or in the case of Faviken, a town of 1408 inhabitants).
These cuisines—never stars of global gastronomy like France, Italy, or Spain—"developed" into something that could be sold to monied culinary tourists. In this 2011 piece, writer Julia Moskin notes "the newly high status of cooking among the educated classes." This is the emergence of what Naccarato and Lebesco, using Bordieu's idea of cultural capital, call "culinary capital."
New Nordic cuisine was so successful because it offered a very "rustic" essence—people mention bark and sea moss repeatedly in pieces on the subject—in a recognizably exclusive fine-dining package. The bark would be served with the right wine pairing.
While the prior success of a restaurant like Spain's El Bulli, which focused on molecular gastronomy, offered an experience outside the realm of nature—and this was its charm—New Nordic was about somehow "getting back" to nature without the diner themselves actually doing so.
An interesting thing to note is that concerning the U.S. food press, the end of Noma marks the end of "New Nordic"—but according to Jonatan Leer, a food culture researcher based in Denmark, it had its fall in the early 2010s when younger chefs in Copenhagen wanted to get rid of the "dogma" of its principles in order to accept outside influence.
Christian Puglisi, of the restaurant Relae, noted that though Redzepi and his ilk challenged the dominance of French and Mediterranean gastronomy in terms of flavors and ingredients, he never dared to challenge fine-dining practices—and Puglisi, who was born in Italy, raised in Norway, and was cooking in Denmark, wanted to include not just non-Nordic ingredients like Spanish anchovies but also allow guests to find their own way to the bathroom and pour their own water.
This was a rejection of New Nordic in favor of a perhaps more realistic and modern conception of how it is to be, as Leer writes, a middle-class person today. Yet, he notes, Puglisi benefited greatly from the attention on Copenhagen as a food destination that was conferred by New Nordic cuisine's international acclaim.
It's useful to read about the making of a culinary destination from someone who's lived through its formation and perhaps demise, who can note that while Redzepi's Noma cookbook is all about marrying his dishes with the landscape, Puglisi's is about showing his food in the context of the modern city.
What's also fascinating is to look at the ravenous appetite and respect U.S. food and travel media have maintained for Redzepi and New Nordic cuisine over two decades versus how other cuisines and thus destinations are depicted.
The ever ebbing significance of local vs. global for the foodie traveler and thus food destination does little to challenge Western hegemony around what a "cool cuisine" is: Cues are still being taken by tastemakers who must fit massive cultural narratives into tight, readable suggestions.
For example, Filipino food has been noted in the U.S. for years as just on the verge of becoming "the next big thing," touted by travel host Andrew Zimmern in 2012 for Today and Vogue in 2017. This year, Manila is on the Eater list of "where to eat," citing its international acclaim as a reason for why the food in the capital of the Philippines is now worthy of a visit itself.
Ruby Tandoh, in a 2019 piece for Taste titled "When the Next Big Thing in Food Isn't Actually Next," questioned the way that media narratives—obsessions with, as the Today piece begins, types of cuisines that haven't yet become ubiquitous to the average American consumer—actually benefit the people making the food.
Whereas a meal at Noma would cost $500, according to the New York Times, cuisines from—as Tandoh writes—nonwhite immigrant populations and/or countries with less political and economic power are more subject to cost scrutiny.
Redzepi, the Noma chef, stayed in the media's good graces for over twenty years, despite much of his restaurant's success being built upon unpaid intern labor (it's paying those interns, or stages, that is now cited as a burden its accounting cannot bear). Which chefs are afforded such good will? Which cuisines? Which destinations?
Can culinary tourism be anti-colonial?
The issue, I think, with the construction of the "food destination" is that it is often created without Tandoh's nuanced perspective on systemic power. It has been easy for Copenhagen, in Denmark, a majority white, relatively affluent nation, to retain its identity and significance in global cuisine and as a destination. Though a relatively small country, its New Nordic cuisine was formed within its own culinary world and has faced backlash within that world, as well; New Nordic cuisine didn't form because people in the U.S. or elsewhere said they were ready for it. And Denmark's economic vitality, where tourism accounted for 2.3% of its GDP in 2018, is not solely determined by its appeal as a destination, unlike much of, say, the Caribbean, which is deeply dependent on tourism for employment and economic success.
The culinary and cultural capital of certain cuisines will go up and down, because their value has always been what they can provide to the imperial core nations, whether that's been sugar or coffee or chocolate or even human labor. Is there a way to break this cycle? Does culinary tourism provide any visions of a way out?
Next Week: Readings: Selections from John Urry’s The Tourist Gaze, Culinary Tourism edited by Lucy M. Long, and Exotic Appetites by Lisa Heldke (Chapter 9, library access); “Alison Roman, Bon Appétit, and the Global Pantry Problem” by Navneet Alang; When the Marginal Becomes the Exotic: The Politics of Culinary Tourism in Indigenous Communities in Rural Mexico (Jstor)
Assignment: What are the various ways in which a locale is “consumed” by a visitor? Engage with the readings in this response. 800 words.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch for paid subscribers will be a love letter to the colors I’ve come to let define my kitchenware—and how this gentle aesthetic cohesion keeps me engaged in daily cooking. See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
Nothing! It may seem like but certainly doesn’t feel like a slow start to the New Year. I have three assignments going, edits on my contributions to a forthcoming cookbook, had to go over my book’s page proofs, have a book blurb due, and got copyedits on a piece that’ll be coming out in print late this spring.
Kafka’s Diaries still; finally sat down to finish Brian Dillon’s lovely (to me) Suppose a Sentence (which interestingly went over a fascinating incident to me, which is Gary Indiana’s reaction to Janet Malcolm’s 1986 New Yorker profile of then–ArtForum editor Ingrid Sischy—raise your hand if you’re a magazine girly who also reads all the involved texts on an annual basis… as you may know, anything involving Rene Ricard is of peak fascination to me… and yes Indiana is constantly coming up here; he’s a favorite); and will likely be opening Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom.
I made my oven fry recipe again and was thrilled to hear other folks are digging it. I tried to use apio, which is like celery root (not to be confused with apio verde, as celery is called in Puerto Rico), to re-create a Jerusalem artichoke dish I had at Sacro in Buenos Aires in 2019. It didn’t work (I have to suspect a sous vide situation was involved in the original), but I ended up with some nice root veg chips. Can’t be mad about it!