Seeing somewhere as home versus destination.
This is the sixth 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, third, fourth, and fifth. Next week will be the final lecture, on using cookbooks as a means of travel.
“The traveller cannot love, since love is stasis and travel is motion. If he returns to what he loved in a landscape and stays there, he is no longer a traveler but in stasis and concentration, the lover of that particular part of earth, a native.”
This quote from Derek Walcott's "The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory" is a fantastic distillation of what it means to write about travel versus to write about place.
In so many of your essays, and in so much of my own thinking, we tend to regard the familiar as nondescript, as "nowhere." How many of us from the U.S. suburbs, especially, believe we've come from a place with nothing to offer, no character? This is the source of that impulse named by bell hooks, to go elsewhere and toward others in order to find adventure, to find the spice provided by difference.
But I think there is so much richness in looking at one's own surroundings, one's own familiar space with fresh eyes, with the eyes of the tourist: What do you see? What romance lies in the familiar? What potential new understandings can be gleaned in the everyday? How could you present your home to someone else as a place worthy of consideration? If, as Walcott writes, the traveller cannot love but someone in "stasis and concentration" can, what is it you see from the vantage point of stasis?
In "Meet Me In Brixton McD's," Yvonne Maxwell writes about the centrality of this one McDonald's to the life of Black Brixton as well as her personal life. It was her mother's place of work, and for her a place of refuge as well as education.
This is place writing, bringing life to the workaday: A McDonald's, unless it's your McDonald's, can be so nondescript. Maxwell brings to life a space no one may have thought worthy of writing about, unless they knew its history, its people, and its relevance to its community.
This is what is offered by place writing: the ability to illuminate the everyday.
Perhaps the king of place writing is Jonathan Gold, who wrote for L.A. Weekly, Gourmet Magazine, and the L.A. Times for years. In 2007, he was the first food critic to win the Pulitzer Prize. He championed an approach to food writing that focused on small restaurants serving non–European food, normalizing the role of the restaurant critic as one who does not just go to fine-dining spots.
The introduction to Counter Intelligence, a collection of his work, published in 2000, lays out his philosophy. His language choices leave something to be desired: he uses the word "discovered" and "ethnic" is also bandied about.
But the desire to define his city on its own terms marked a shift, though one does wonder if writers located in traditionally considered "travel" destinations would be given similar leeway to define their local foodways. Here, Gold notes Cambodian food, Central American food, and everything in between—but are we still talking about someone like Bourdain, a white man making other cultures and cuisines his playground while ostensibly chronicling a city?
Gold and Los Angeles, he with his white male positionality and L.A. being a major city in the U.S., are ripe for establishing the terms of their own discussion in culture. Not all people or all places are allowed the luxury of self-definition, as we've discussed. This has parallels to our conversations of New Nordic cuisine.
What determines whether a city is a place or a destination?
I find the complication of place and destination to be especially fascinating through the lens of Ana Karina Zatarain's Texas Monthly piece "Why You Should See Mexico City As a Tourist."
As the Mexican capital has experienced a boom of tourism (as well as digital nomadism, which we'll discuss), there has been more and more desire to have an "authentic" experience, with AirBnB even doing a campaign akin to Discover Puerto Rico's "Live Boricua" titled "Live There."
When Zatarain offers a visiting friend a list of must-see places in her city, the friend says they seem "too tourist-y," even when the suggestion is "go to the National Museum of Anthropology." Zatarain compares this to saying someone visiting D.C. shouldn't bother with the monuments and museums. Would someone visit New York City and reject a visit to The Met as touristic?
As Zatarain notes, she herself goes to this museum with regularity, as most people living in cities go to their museums for various reasons or new exhibitions. But to view Mexico City through that lens would require seeing it as a place, not a destination.
“What I can’t bring myself to accept is that anyone, especially a visitor to this city, should feel that they’re too cool to experience the extraordinary.”
—Ana Karina Zatarain
I also love this part in Zatarain's piece, the acknowledgment that experiences will differ and a tourist will likely have the most enjoyment out of accepting one's foreignness and experiencing what there is to experience. At Contramar, a restaurant famous with locals and tourists alike, Zatarain experiences sobremesa—lingering after the meal—but realizes this wouldn't be as fun for a visitor, who wouldn't be able to understand the gossip.
“I have, though, stopped insisting to foreign friends who visit that they leave an entire afternoon open for post-meal leisure to unfold there. I still think they should go, but the experience isn’t quite the same if you’re not running into friends. Even if you tag along with a local, the gossip they’ll be doling out and savoring can be interesting only to those at least tangentially involved. Your time, I believe, would be better spent rushing, however inelegantly, to one of the many encounters with the sublime that the city offers.”
—Ana Karina Zatarain
This piece considers Mexico City as both place and destination, and in that tension excavates some truth of these experiences—one is not necessarily better than the other; they are simply different.
The combination of AirBnB inviting people to "live like a local" as well as the rise of remote work and what's been termed "digital nomadism" draw new distinctions between being grounded in place and travel. As Portugal has seen, increases in tourism can make public transport unusable and bring only service jobs to locals. This is the consistent problem of tourism: While sold as a way to strengthen the economy, it doesn't actually support local people having the same opportunities and leisure time as the tourists.
AirBnB also displaces locals—this happens quite a bit in Puerto Rico, is noted in the Wired piece on digital nomads in Portugal, and also Mexico City—while mimicking a "local" feel. The displacement of local people leads to the displacement of local culture and knowledge—and then what is left? A facsimile of what was desired in the first place: the all-important and ever out of reach "authenticity."
Indeed, to go back to Zatarain's point, to dismiss the tourist experience often means changing precisely what is a local experience.
Here in the book Tourism and Development in the Third World, author John Lea uses a political-economy approach that gets beyond ideas that "tourism helps economies"—it does not help economies without resolving historical inequities from nation to nation.
In this way, tourism; the pursuit of "local experiences" through AirBnB despite its poor impact on local folks; and increases in digital nomadism that change culture enact neo-colonialism, where wealthy nations use capital rather than political force (though that too) to exert control on poorer nations.
Place and travel are confused when the pursuit is an impossible immersion in an ever-shifting idea of "authenticity."
As well, continued economic dependence upon tourism leads inevitably to brain drain, when a labor force no longer wishes to work only service jobs. How does a continued emphasis on tourism serve a population when it usurps all other possibility? What does "local" as an experience mean when it's not in service to those who are literally local?
In the article "Tourism for Whom? Different Paths to Development and Alternative Experiments in Brazil" by Roberto Bartholo, Mauricio Delamaro, Ivan Bursztyn, and Laurence Hallewell from a 2008 issue of Latin American Perspectives, the necessity of "the right of sites to define themselves and their surroundings" in order to "break with the monopoly of interpretation that the universalism of homo oeconomicus seeks to impose."
AirBnB and the idea that a tourist can have a local experience interrupt the significance and possibility of people to talk about and control their surroundings or define their cuisines.
It seems that to reverse-course on the idea of "living like a local" while traveling would be a major challenge.
Someone like Bourdain had championed the idea that one could parachute into a place and no longer be, to use his words, "a fanny-packing gringo" while Zatarain says it's important to know your role in a city, to see its significant sites.
Do you see a distinction between tourism in Zatarain's sense and the approach of, say, Bourdain?
"As food access shifts and there continue to be difficulties in accessing culturally appropriate foods, Cubans face a form of culinary discontent."
I wanted us to read Hanna Garth's Food in Cuba: In Pursuit of a Decent Meal (as well as Eating Puerto Rico by Cruz Miguel Ortíz Cuadra) to understand the way foodways have formed and changed in the Caribbean, shaped by ecology, colonialism, and political economies. Cuba, as a socialist state, is a very different place from Puerto Rico, a U.S. colony, yet are understood to each other as "wings of the same bird," per the Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodríguez de Tió's 1983 poem "To Cuba."
The concepts of a "decent meal" as one that nourishes on nutritional as well as cultural and emotional levels is a significant one to consider when pursuing culinary tourism: Because if, as Zatarain contends, we should not pursue to live as a local when we travel (because it's impossible), we can understand the dynamics of local foodways as a means of contextualizing the culinary tourist experience.
I also love Garth's notion here of "culinary discontent," which is the opposite, one can suppose, of culinary tourism. The culinary tourist seeks to have all appetites met—what does that mean if local folks are experiencing not nutritional inadequacy but food ennui, of sorts?
What we want and expect from meals changes based on context. How does your meaning of a decent meal shift based on where you are?
What does a decent meal mean to you? Does the meaning change from home to abroad?
Garth's "politics of adequacy provides a framework for understanding the ways in which the politics of distribution permeate the everyday lives of households across the globe."
This is true whether one is living in a rich or poor nation, a capitalist or socialist state, and the politics of adequacy also allows for understanding the role of a culinary tourist experiencing a place both as traveler or resident: What is the impact of large-scale systemic forces on how people eat? How are economics, race, gender, and sexuality at play in terms of food access? Where is food coming from and how is it getting to people's plates?
Garth, as an anthropologist, has unprecedented access to people's lives and uses it to address these large-scale issues, using a "decent meal" as the analytical tool for assessment.
These are the questions that we can also ask about food at home and abroad, and I would argue they create a bridge from everyday mundane experience to culinary tourism. These are the questions that can connect and deepen these experiences.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch for paid subscribers will be about how I’ve been cooking mushrooms lately—which has implications for how I’ve also been cooking tofu, but I will spread out these conversations. See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
Let’s put the announcement here that I’m now represented by HONE, a talent agency from Whetstone Media. Would you like me to speak or lecture or moderate a panel? Call (or email, of course) HONE!
Nigel Slater’s A Cook’s Book, which arrived at my house unannounced but greatly anticipated and desired! His work always brings me back into the kitchen.
Mushrooms, tofu, avocado oil flour tortillas, local broccoli seared and steamed.