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Can travel magazines tell the truth of a place?
This is the fourth 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 are the first, second, and third.
For this class, we had a guest visitor in Layla Schlack, a writer and editor who’s most recently served as editorial director for Whetstone (in full disclosure, she’s also my friend). She talked with the students about the various approaches to travel media she’s experienced throughout her career, from in-flight magazines to food and wine magazines to a mission-driven independent publication.
This brief lecture served as setup, but it was one of my most discussion-driven classes, as well, because this is such a fraught topic: We want escape (through travel and reading about it); what does escape mean? In an unequal world, can we ever expect travel and travel media to tell complex stories about place?
As this is my first time teaching and building a syllabus, I’m learning a lot myself: It’s been great to watch each class and its readings build into more robust essays and discussion among the students. I don’t think we could’ve began with a class where we analyze the role of travel media in building culinary tourism destinations—and the way we imagine food destinations—without all the reading we’d done thus far. Indeed, I find myself in each lecture calling back to ideas from the prior classes. It’s an exciting way of thinking and engaging.
And as always, I understand the position of authority I am occupying in my role as a teacher, but I also am thinking through these topics and changing my mind on them as I talk with the students and read their work. In this lecture, specifically, I recognize how much frustration I’m bringing to the subject, because it is my industry—an industry I understand boxes writers and editors in, that gives too much power to advertisers, and that often doesn’t give its readers credit for their intelligence. Through my friend Angelina Ruíz’s newsletter, I came across Cailey Rizzo writing about the complicity involved in press trips. I don’t fault my colleagues; I fault the system. Lord knows I’ve been complicit, too.
What’s Hidden in Glossy Depictions?
I think “hidden” was the wrong word for the title of this class. The right word would be “obscured.”
The striking thing about any travel writing in a glossy magazine is that it simply cannot tell the whole truth. Someone mentioned in their essay that travel writers are journalists—but I and many others have been on press trips, paid for by tourism boards or companies with interests in the region, so how journalistic are these pieces? Travel magazines, while treading nearer some sort of truth telling, are simply not in the business of deep stories. They’re in the business of gloss.
What Makes a Depiction “Glossy”?
I think the two meanings of “gloss” as noun from the dictionary are significant here as it relates to culinary tourism.
As many of you noted in your first essays for the class, you came to an interest in food destinations through the smooth surfaces that are screens, whether that was social media, television and movies, or magazine lists and Yelp reviews.
Gloss means a smooth surface, but it also, as the second definition shows, suggests superficiality. As many of you wrote, there was excitement in your travel that also gave way to sickness, alienation, exhaustion, and disillusionment.
And so I’d suggest that when we talk about “glossy” depictions of culinary travel, we mean both of these things: They're coming at us through media—explicitly meaning they're constructed and mediated—and they give a superficial impression that side-steps any uncomfortable reality.
Gloss As Escape
Do magazines have a responsibility to depict political and economic conditions when endorsing tourism?
What glossy depictions do is provide routes to “escape”—but, as we've been asking ourselves for the last few weeks, when does the human desire to escape mundanity run into a responsibility to other people, the people who call the “escape” home?
As advertising-dependent enterprises, these magazines will often publish large packages paid for by travel boards or cruise companies that can be difficult for many to distinguish from editorial. Is there a responsibility to ensure advertising and editorial do not contradict each other?
The Language of Travel Media
The language of travel media is often used to position the reader as a traveler in the sense that Bani Amor described, which we discussed in class two: white, Western, affluent, educated. The gaze is purely that of the tourist, even as in recent times there has been a pursuit of “local” or “authentic” experience. There are keywords that connote what the editors want readers to believe about themselves—that they’re eco-savvy, interested in creative community, wanting “cutting-edge creative culture,” to go to destinations “ready” for an “international close-up.” A place becomes a “legitimate wine destination”—by whose measure?
Language is used in a way that flatters readers’ taste and desires.
Are there words that gave you pause or give you pause in consuming travel media? What are they and why do think you have a response to them?
From the April 2022 issue of Condé Nast Traveler, a piece on farm-to-table restaurants in Puerto Rico gave in to the tourist gaze that often believes Puerto Rican food is all fried, calling out “greasy tostones and sugary cocktails” as well as “forgettable rice-and-beans joints.”
In this piece, expensive hotels and restaurants are named as being signs that pushes for “food sovereignty” are somehow changing the dynamic for a population where, according to the most recent Census data, the median household income is $21,967 and 40.5% of the population lives in poverty.
Daily life for many in Puerto Rico focuses on survival in jobs that pay poorly and don’t keep up with the cost of living; avoiding displacement by gentrification, fueled by AirBnB; and the rising cost of food generally. To support these ideas of “food sovereignty” is total luxury—luxury I personally have—but without interventions incentivizing local agriculture to make it much more accessible and affordable—to make the local a more immediate and enticing option—it’s a moot point. (Since at least 2015, these types of stories have appeared in major outlets with regularity while economic conditions for folks in Puerto Rico worsen.)
To talk about these things in a travel magazine would be to acknowledge that spending one’s money locally as a tourist wouldn’t have the necessary huge impact—it wouldn’t change a dynamic that’s been formed over more than a century, as Caribbean economies moved away from agriculture toward tourism and finance.
We talk about the economic potential of tourism, yet Puerto Rico has been experiencing a “brain drain” of young people who cannot get work in their fields that pays sufficiently on the archipelago, and one in five residents is now over the age of 65. Unregulated AirBnBs are pushing residents out of their homes, turning, for example, one building in the Puerta de Tierra neighborhood from a $300 per month apartment building into a $150 per night hotel, per a report by NPR podcast Radio Ambulante. We will discuss it in more detail next week.
The Case of Perú
We talked a lot about how New Nordic cuisine was constructed within Denmark and received well internationally. The biggest comparison point would be the push for Peruvian gastronomy, which was a huge effort by their tourism agency, with chef Virgilio Martinez its ambassador via the Lima restaurant Central, which competed on the same scale as Rene Redzepi’s Noma for stars and lists.
Peru’s gastronomy, though, was positioned as a potential harbinger of social change. In a 2012 documentary called Perú sabe: la cocina, arma social, Spanish chef Ferran Adria “explores” Peru’s culinary scene with the architect of this gastronomic project, Gastón Acurio, a chef.
This push for “social change” and to unite the nation was a project undertaken in the wake of war in the 1980s and ’90s. Media portrayals and endorsements of this gastro-political project from abroad (Martinez was featured on Chef's Table) focused on the ways in which the new Peruvian gastronomy would unite the nation, somehow benefiting both elites and indigenous peasant communities.
The 2021 publication “Food for social change in Peru: Narrative and performance of the culinary nation” by Raúl Matta in The Sociological Review paints a different picture, showing: “Although awareness exists among chefs, restaurateurs and peasant farmers regarding the shared benefits to be gained through partnership (Fajardo, 2019; Kollenda, 2019), the government has not sufficiently supported measures to reduce the distance between producers and consumers, or guaranteed regulations through which to materialize the inclusive rhetoric. State’s efforts seek mainly to capitalize on the gastronomic boom in monetary and imagistic terms through nation branding campaigns depicting Peru as an entrepreneurial and economically viable nation.”
What Matta concludes is good is that the understanding of the significance of the rural foodways of Peru by elites has allowed the farmers to understand their power and stand up against simplifications of their cuisine: “On the front of food sovereignty and security, they denounce local foods commoditization and the global fashion of superfoods that made crops such as quinoa expensive in local markets and less accessible to communities that consumed them regularly. On the front of culture, they denounce the exclusion of indigenous voices and worldviews from national accounts of culinary greatness.’’
This has something in common with the notion of “imperialist nostalgia” articulated by Renato Rosaldo in 1989: “agents of colonialism...often display nostalgia for the colonized culture as it was 'traditionally' (that is, when they first encountered it).” The savvy tourist wants to encounter food sovereignty in an “authentic” manner on their trip, without asking why food sovereignty is so out of grasp in the first place.
These complex stories are not often told in glossy magazines, leaving a situation where the culinary tourist may believe the act of consumption in a fine-dining restaurant—as seen in the Puerto Rico piece—is an act of radical social justice.
To contrast: I have a soft spot for independent magazines and publishing, being the publisher of an indie newsletter myself. And so I love as contrast to glossy magazine travel writing something a bit more fun, voicey, and honest—as I said in our first class about Audre Lorde’s “Notes From a Trip to Russia,” the biggest change we can make as culinary tourists and as travel writers is to accept our role as a tourist and the difference that creates.
Jonathan Nunn, editor of Vittles, does that wonderfully here in the newsletter’s “London Review of Souvlaki,” chronicling his trip to Greece. He notes that the fact that this city has mainly traditional food is something an outsider can admire but that would be dull to someone who lives there. This is an interesting spin against the travel piece about Puerto Rico that poo-poos tostones and rice and beans, that suggests there’s something better and perhaps more authentic than that if only you can afford a $75 tasting menu. (Funnily enough, I found his most recent Vittles piece “Ten Things London's Restaurants Can Learn from Los Angeles” to be interesting in much different ways—we don’t have to always agree with our favorite publications and writers!)
It’s about positionality, defined as “how differences in social position and power shape identities and access in society.” Nunn recognizes his positionality in the piece on his trip to Greece, and that makes his depiction of the place immersive. We get the first names of his tour guides; we are told about a baker's son arriving with 40 leeks on a motorbike. For me, this is the kind of writing that makes me want to go somewhere and eat.
Can magazines tell a fuller story about destinations? And if they can, would we want to read them?
This Friday’s From the Kitchen will be about my Costco list. What do I buy in bulk that makes plant-based life easy-peasy? I’ll tell you all about it! See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
Nothing but once again… I promise I am working so hard!
An advance copy of Anya von Bremzen’s National Dish: Around the World in Search of Food, History, and the Meaning of Home! I am reading almost exclusively right now about food and the construction of national identity. I will obviously be writing about this, or maybe just publishing a syllabus.
Definitely something but I frankly can’t remember any of it. I think I’m going to write an update to “Notes on Tofu” soon in From the Kitchen, because I’ve radically changed how I’m cooking tofu. And another forthcoming From the Kitchen will be about my “fake meat” adventures with carrot dogs and mushroom ‘nduja.