“Treachery in the Kitchen”: Traveling Foreign, Eating Familiar – Dr. Traci Kelly and Dr. Marielle Risse; College English Association Annual Conference; March 28th, 2008

People who move out of their home sphere are usually desperate to shed the sobriquet tourist and assume the mantel of traveler. “I saw the real country,” is the victory cry. “I saw places tourists never see!” is the boast and a central part of that boast is food.

Eating what and where the locals eat is essential for the traveler to experience the “real” Province or Venice or Kiev or the Tuv province in Mongolia. We want to explore here a few selections of travel writing that span the years, exploring the ways in which culinary experiences  frame the travel experience for the writer and and how those experiences then are  related to the reading public.  Beyond the kindly breaking-of-bread sentiment read so often in travel writing, we noticed some problematic ways in which food was used as a marker for the traveler.  So we wanted to explore.

To set the stage here, let’s begin by thinking about American “local” foodways. Do travelers to America, questing for authenticity, eat frozen dinners? What about macaroni and cheese? How many intrepid visitors to American get a chance to try it? Mashed potatoes with a slice of cranberry jelly from the can, with the rings from the can still visible on the quivering sides? Freshly made rice krispie bars? Green bean casserole? Colored Easter eggs? Peanut butter and jelly sandwichs? Tuna casserole?  Raw cookie dough?  S’mores? We could do this forever.  The point is this:  when travelers come to the United States, are they looking for the “true” American food experience?  Or do they end up at Charle Trotters?  Or Famous Dave’s BBQ?  Or Pizza Hut?  How often do you think that travelers to see Minneapolis’ Mall of America hunt down regional variations of booya?  Probably few.  How does a traveler hunt down real regional food?  How can the traveler tell when she has hit pay dirt?  And, should it happen, how is that food contextualized and delivered to the reader?

We would assert that food has to be put in context of the culture, which is not a terribly new assertion.  But the power of the meal as a benchmark for tagging an “authentic” experience vs. a tourist experience can be a viable way to examine these works.  If, indeed, food is culture when it is produced and when it is prepared, then it stands, too, that food is culture when it is served and eaten (Montanari, xi). There is the extreme of only eating “terroir,” when one will only partake of foods within a specific microclimate or region.  There are the larger considerations of cultural dishes, which may include ingredients from all over the world, but prepared in a specific way within some cultural confines (we can think of Jell-O salad as a fun example here).

There is an interesting intersection here of travelers, eaters, and writers. As one and the same person, what do these authors want to give us by portraying their meals?  Why is the meal given as a flashpoint of meaning rather than some other event?  Indeed, food is one of the primal drives that all humans have.  To break bread with another is to (hopefully) cross some boundaries—cultural, language, religious, other.  Often, this table-bound exchange is romanticized (“you can break bread with strangers and leave the table as friends,” as one recent food-and-travel anthology asserts). Yet, sometimes, the exhange can be fraught with challenge and even resentment.

When the meal is framed within travel writing, we must unpack what that meal’s description reveals to us about the greater context of that travel moment.  Herein, we have drafted some categorizations have been our way to begin our own theoretical frameworks so that we can discuss our work together.


Ethnovorism, as we would like to define it, is the idea that we can love the people in our far-away exotic land, but we dislike or are challenged by their foodways.  It’s an interesting move…to say that the people are fine but their food is not. So much of any culture’s food practices are outgrowths of local history, religions, invasions, revolutions, immigrations, and the like. When a culture is disappearing, the last item to go is the food—not the language, but the food.  To pass judgement on the food practices is to pass judgement on the locals and yourself.

Steve Rinella in the October 2007 issue of Outside writes an article (“Down Boy”) about traveling to Vietnam to try eating dog. He admits the journey is as much as an attempt to leave American culinary taboos as an attempt to understand Vietnamese culture.  He, as usual for traveling food writers, starts strong with an obligatory reference to some chest-thumping concoction that he drinks: “rice wine from a bottle that contains the pickled remains of a lizard, a cobra, and two seahorses.” Then there is the obligatory reference to Conrad for a character who gives the obligatory introductory warning and sets the tone for the dark passage: “the heat [of eating dog] hits you in your chest. They say it’s very powerful. That’s why it can be lucky.” This is followed by more chest-thumping” “I’ve eaten just about everything that you can legally hunt or purchase in a supermarket – from maggots to antelope bladders to a crown roast of kangaroo.”

Gearing up for the big bite, Rinella waxes lyrical about how “Most Americans observe the flexible and arbitrary traditions of ‘gross’ and ‘cruel,’ which leads us into a mind-boggling array of hypocrisies and insensitivities… Our disdain extends to many other varieties of food enjoyed around the world: turtles, frogs, snakes, lizards, monkey brains, horses, guinea pigs, house cats, rats, mice and any kind of egg that didn’t happen to come out of a chicken.”

Now that the stage has been adequately set, he goes with his new-found friends to a restaurant during the celebration of the Lunar New Year, as “one can also clear up past cases of bad luck by eating certain foods before the New Year, most notably dog.”

At the restaurant he finds a varied menu including “dog spicy…dog stomach…dog boiled…dog sour…head dog…feet dog…crispy dog.” He takes one bite of “crispy dog” and one nibble of “feet dog” and stops, a “strange heat rising” in his chest.

Later he realizes, “I’ve been feeling like the culinary equivalent of a trophy hunter who goes to Africa and shoots the first zebra he’s ever laid eyes on. I came to Vietnam thinking that I could overcome my own culture’s culinary prejudices, but I’ve managed only to turn tail and run.” So he visits the dog market, talks to a dog wholesaler, then returns, solo, to another dog restaurant having intellectualized the strange “heat” that comes after eating dog; “I start to think of dog meat as a kind of electricity. Electricity is powerful and helpful, but it can burn and kill, so we use it with incredible caution, and for many purposes.”

In the restaurant, chewing his strips of grilled dog with sesame seeds, he muses, “at this point, I’ve answered for myself the question I wanted answered: if your culture and your culinary curiosities go head to head, culture’s going to win. It’ll win even if you’re rooting against it. The only thing left is the heat. It has risen in my chest just like I knew it would…equal parts adrenaline, fear, and shame. It’s centered right on my heart.”

Another interesting manifestation of this is seen in Mary Seacole’s Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, published in 1857 by a free black woman who was born in Jamaica.  She was an enterprising soul who found her way to travel by bringing aid and comfort to soldiers of distant wars.  While in Escribanos, New Granada (Central America), she tells of the local fare, which includes the basics of salt, meat, rice, and corn.  But it was the delicasies that set her off—roasted monkey, which she notes is like eating baby.  She describes them on a stick, in stews, in soup.  She also never got used to other local favorites, like iguana, but she did take to a well cooked squirrel now and then.

On the other side of the food culture gap is Katherine Govier in her article “In Fez Without a Guide.” She and her husband are determined to see the “real” Morocco, determined to have an authentic experience, unmediated by the omni-present tourist guides. Of course, this search for the genuine article leads them in Rabat to “tiny perfect Café Maure, with its blue-painted tables and chairs, on what had been the semaphore terrace, a dizzy-making perch over the Atlantic. The Coke, served in old-fashioned Coke bottle with Arabic script, tasted absolutely marvelous” (92).

This last example overlaps with another category we have begun to notice…one we call “Resisting Culinary Displacement.”

Resisting Culinary Displacement

In search for an  authentic “something,” travelers cannot experience the local without familiar cooking constantly getting in the way.  There is no way to experience authenticity without it being tainted by home cooking or imported culinary preferences. 

Robert Byron cuts the knot of “authenticity” by being supremely uninterested in being “authentic.” In his classic The Road to Oxiana (1937) he makes it clear he is traveling through Southern Persia and Afghanistan in the early 1930s, to see the Sasanian and Timurid architecture. The locals, and what they are eating, are simply something he has to put up with in order to get close to his precious arches and towers.

Lost in a canyon outside Herat, he loses neither his nerve or his English sensibilities, as he “dined off some egg, sausage, cheese and whiskey, read a little Boswell, and fell fast asleep among the aromatic herbs with my money-bags between my feet and my big hunting knife unclasped in my fist” (118).

“It was in Isfahan [Iran], he notes, “I decided sandwiches were insupportable, and bought a blue bowl, which Ali Asgar [Bryon’s butler, valet, cook, chief servant and bottle washer] used to fill with chicken mayonnaise before starting on a journey. Today there had been treachery in the Gastrell’s kitchen, and it was filled with mutton. Worse than that, we had run out of wine” (213).

He does make note of local food, but instead of taking them as they are – genuine culinary experiences – insists on making them British: in Mazar-i-Sherif “Fruit has begun: delicious apricots, and now some cherries, but these are of the Morello kind, so bitter that we have had them made into jam” (257). Towards the end of the book, he writes “Here, in this caravanserai, we have dined off a table and sat on chairs, and have remembered suddenly, that our journey is nearly over” (274).

Doris Friedensohn in her book Eating as I Go  (2006), provides a particularly self-aware and enticing example of culinary displacement.  An American teaching in Tunisia, she is cognizant that couscous is the national dish.  Her local friends frame the importance of couscous for her, explaining that poor mothers fed their children day after day on couscous, simple vegetables, and some spices. She learns that “the memory of privation, interpreted in the context of [French] colonial exploitation, has made couscous into a battle cry and a badge of politically correct cuisine.  The rituals of couscous are acts of Tunisian self-affirmation…Couscous is a stance as well as a diet” (124+).

But that stance is for locals, not for her (at the time).  She admits to only eating the french-inspired ris de veau, civet de lapin, and so forth.  It is not until years later that she embraces the meaning of couscous and claims to have, now, begun eating it…years away from the event and thousands of miles away in New York City.

Gustatory Immersion

We have seen Steven Rinella use food as a way to escape his own culture – to cross boundaries. Vietnam simply happened to be the place that had an “exotic” delicacy that he could use to test himself with. Katherine Govier was also empathically trying to get to new, unmediated territory, but ended up drinking Coke and buying a rug from a place her tour guide suggested. Byron and Freidensohn admit to resisting the local fare.

So how can you cross from dabbler to traveler? Is it possible? Can food transport you to a new culture? Yes, but the trick to it is time and dedication to place.

Consider Gaston Lachaille, in Colette’s Gigi asking his “Mamita,” Madame Alvarez, for a cup of her camomile tea. The fantastically rich sugar baron could eat anywhere in Paris on any delicacy he could choose but he retires to the small, lower middle-class apartment for simple tea. Asked about her secret, Madame Alvarez replies, “often I have picked my best camomile flowers in Paris, on waster ground, insignificant little flowers you would hardly notice. But they have a taste that is unestemmable [sic]” (7).

To get that unestemmable taste of authenticity, one must venture off the road and venture into the kitchens. Some may argue that Anthony Bourdain is doing just this with his show A Cook’s Tour.  Maybe he is.  He goes to exotic locales, he finds locals who will talk to him (with or without interpretation), and he partakes of their food.  However, we wonder how much the experience is distorted by the cameras, the crew, and so forth.  Is this authentic?  Is it as close as we can get?

To touch authenticity in dining, first you have to watch, learn the new rules, understand the game and then participate slowly. It is time, and only time, that differentiates travelers from tourists; you can no more understand cassoulet by a week in France than you can understand—really understand—lefse from North Dakota by spending a week in Fargo.  We may come to understand how to make the cassoulet, but plunging the depths of regional or even household differences in the making and serving is next to impossible for even the most earnest of travelers.

We can, however, turn to some great models of culinary immersion.  Some immersion is sustained; some is not.  The consummant example, is, of course, Wilfred Thesiger. On his journeys through the deserts and mountains of Oman and the Emirates, he gave himself over to the food practices of his guides; food for his journeys was “rice, flour, dates, sugar, tea, coffee, liquid butter” (49). Once they were on their way, he writes “If we were not in a hurry we would bake bread for breakfast, otherwise we would eat scraps set aside from our meal the night before. We would drink tea, sweet and black, and then coffee, which was bitter, black, and very strong” (55).

Writing about the group’s cook, he says, “when we had enough water he would cook rice, but generally he made bread for our evening meal. He would scoop out three or four pounds of flour from one of the goatskin bags in which we carried our supplies, and would then damp this, add a little salt and mix it into a thick paste. He would divide the dough into six equal-sized lumps, pat each lump between his hands until it became a disc about half an inch thick…[he] would rake some embers out of the fire to make a glowing bed, and then drop the cakes on to it… I would watch bubble breaking through this layer of sand and ashes as the bread cooked… The bread was brick hard or soggy, according to how long it had been cooked, and always tasted as if it had been made out of sawdust. (61-62).

For his second journey he “had provided two thousand pounds of flour, five hundred pounds of rice, and also clarified butter, butter, coffee, tea, sugar” and dates (78-79). “The water tastes and smells of goat, but in the desert untainted water is tasted only in dreams… Butter is usually carried in lizard-skins, about eighteen inches long (85). Later he notes, “Musallim made porridge for our evening meal, the only meal of the day. From now on we should be eating gritty lumps of unleavened bread, smeared with a little butter” (123)

Most people categorize M.F.K Fisher as a food writer, but often she can cross genres.  I want to talk about her wonderful essay entitled “I Really Was Very Hungry” wherein a worn-out Mary Frances finds her way to a rural French restaurant, to be unexpectedly treated to one of the best meals of her life.  For hours, she is cajoled into eating and eating and eating the best of the local chef’s fare.  She is totally immersed in the experience, if not drained by it.  She walks away with a better understanding of what locals think is their best fare, how to serve it, and what is good food.  Fisher was immersed, indeed, in that restaurant moment, and she was entirely thankful for it.  It was real, it was heartfelt on both sides, and it was illuminating.  But we are left wondering, “What do they eat at home?”  Is an authentic restaurant experience an authentic experience at all?

Ending thoughts:

We are left wondering why meals are described for readerships.  Do the writers somehow mean to transform the readers’ kitchens?  Do the travelers use the meals as indicators of authenticity, lending and I-was-there bit of verisimilitude to the telling of the tale?

I return to our earlier query:  when the meal is framed within travel writing, we must unpack what that meal’s description reveals to us about the greater context of that moment.  If food is a marker of social identity, and if these authors want to mark themselves as travelers, then they necessarily need to document their food experiences for the reader. Is food seen as a chance for cross-cultural exchange…or contamination (like Rinella’s dog)? Social membership, whether embraced or eschewed by the traveler, can be traced through the culinary experiences of the traveler.

It is clear to us that people describe meals within the context of the three catagories we have outlined.  Certainly, there are other categorizations may be necessary to frame the dining-in-travel-writing moments. To start at the end, if a person is fully immeresed in the culture – then describing the food is necessary, as important as describing the local dress or weather or architecture. For travelers like Thesiger and Fisher, you can’t have the experience without the food enveloping the moment.

On the other hand, for traveling writers resisting culinary displacement, writing (or even not writing) about food is a way to illustrate boundaries between the traveler and the locals, for better or worse. Robert Byron whines about the lack of chicken salad in Iran/ Perisa, a civilization which had a highly developed food culture incorporating elaboratly spiced dishes served in elegant surroundings (all at a time when Byron’s British ancestors were eating with their hands in hovels). But at least he eats the cherries. Doris Friedensohn, as gracious as she is, resists until time and distance allows her to partake of the authentic from a safe NY city kitchen, years later.

Last, Ethnovorism shows the places where culture shows it strengh. No matter how much a tourist might, like the Velveteen Rabbit, want to be “real” – food will show chasm. No dog for Steve Rinella and no monkey for Mrs. Seacole.

Questions remain… do the writers who manage culinary immerision want to transform their readers’ kitchen? As food is a marker of social identity – if you make a “real” French meal in Boise, does the ghost of Maurice Chevalier descend to bless you?


Works Cited

Byron, Robert. The Road to Oxiana. 1937. New York: Oxford UP, 1982.

Colette. Gigi. Trans. Roger Senhouse. (1944, trans. 1953). New York: Penguin, 1995.

Harley, Jonathan. Lost in Transmission. Bantam: Sydney, 1994.

Govier, Katherine. “In Fez Without a Guide.” 1994.  Without a Guide: Contemporary Women’s Travel Adventures. Ed. Katherine Govier. HarperCollins: London, 1994. 89-104.

Rinella, Steven. “Down Boy” Outside. October, 2007. http://outside.away.com/outside/culture/200710/steven-rinella-1.html

Seacole, Mary. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. 1857.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Thesiger, Wilfred. Arabian Sands. 1959. New York: Penguin, 1991.