February 19 2007

Be a traveler, not a tourist

There’s a motto I live by when I travel: Why should I eat at any restaurant I find in my own home town? It seems pointless to me. On my first trip to Japan in August 2000, one of the guys I met up with there ate Wendy’s almost every night we were there. It drove me nuts. I have a Wendy’s less than two miles from my house! If you’re going to go through the trouble of going some place new, then be adventurous and eat new foods! Expose yourself to what the world has to offer.

With that in mind, there is a show on the Travel Channel I love called Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. Anthony is a professional chef who has lived a “colorful life” and makes no bones about it. However, he has an acerbic wit, paints vibrant pictures with his words, and has a motto I love; “Be a traveler, not a tourist“.

And as if I didn’t have enough reasons to love him, two weeks ago he was a guest blogger on and the following to say of my girlfriend, Rachael Ray:

RACHAEL: Complain all you want. It’s like railing against the pounding surf. She only grows stronger and more powerful. Her ear-shattering tones louder and louder. We KNOW she can’t cook. She shrewdly tells us so. So…what is she selling us? Really? She’s selling us satisfaction, the smug reassurance that mediocrity is quite enough. She’s a friendly, familiar face who appears regularly on our screens to tell us that “Even your dumb, lazy ass can cook this!” Wallowing in your own crapulence on your Cheeto-littered couch you watch her and think, “Hell…I could do that. I ain’t gonna…but I could–if I wanted! Now where’s my damn jug a Diet Pepsi?” Where the saintly Julia Child sought to raise expectations, to enlighten us, make us better–teach us–and in fact, did, Rachael uses her strange and terrible powers to narcotize her public with her hypnotic mantra of Yummo and Evoo and Sammys. “You’re doing just fine. You don’t even have to chop an onion–you can buy it already chopped. Aspire to nothing…Just sit there. Have another Triscuit…Sleep….sleep….”

But I digress…

Back to what I was saying about trying new things (sleep…sleep…aspire to nothing), I think everyone has to remember something about “odd foods”. Just because they are odd to you, doesn’t mean they are odd to the locals of where you are. Even if you are traveling across country, try a local cuisine. If you travel to another country, I beg of you, try the local dishes! Sure, you’ll run in to some things you don’t like, but aren’t there things here in your own country you don’t like eating? Just because you don’t like one dish in another country’s cuisine, it doesn’t mean you write them all off.

So why did I mention the Rachael Ray thing? (beyond my hatred of the miserable little chipmunk cheeked harpie?) Just as he said she lulls you in to a sense of not aspiring to better cooking, I think the same can be said of Americans when we travel. We fear change, we want the safe and familiar. Watch an episode of Bourdain’s show, see how he’ll try an ostrich egg cooked in a dirt oven, or eat a dish made of rat, or the lower intestine of another animal. Some of it he likes, some of it he doesn’t, but doesn’t the old saying go “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”?

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  • Roy

    I understand what you are saying here but I have to point out the other side of the argument.

    Some people aren’t travelling because they like the particular country or culture but because they are working or whatever. In which case, maybe they don’t want to be eating anything unfamiliar that could make them sick and they’re in business mode not adventure mode. Also, some people just aren’t into food. If I go visit a country I will try different things but generally it’s not high on my priorities. I’m just not that interested in tasting. But I wouldn’t go to Mcdonalds or Wendy’s either. Give me a good turkey sandwich and I’m good.

    Also didn’t you say somewhere that everytime you came to Japan the first place you went was MOS Burger? Now, I know you don’t have them in the US but that’s hardly a step above Wendy’s IMO. Next time you come let me take you to eat Cow Penis. MMmmm..

  • I’m with Roy on this, particularly since I don’t care for Japanese food. I have sampled a wide variety of dishes but I don’t eat seafood, fish, beef, or pork. I also don’t care for the taste of soy sauce or deep-fried/high fat food.That leaves me in a pretty limited situation when it comes to Japanese food. About the only Japanese food I enjoy is yakitori and even then I have to be in the mood for.

    Different people travel for different reasons. I’m mainly interested in the cultural and psychological issues. I’m interested in why various dishes developed into a big part of a culture but I’m not interested in eating them.

    I think a lot of people who are travelling and can’t communicate about the food they want will go for familiar places because they know what they are getting and can point at what they want. It’s really intimidating being in a country where you can neither read nor write the language in a restaurant. It’s even worse to be in an expensive place, like Tokyo, and take a risk and find you’ve just paid for something gag-inducing (a rather high risk considering some of the food here).

    As for Anthony Bourdain, I like watching his travel shows but I think he’s incredibly self-centered, judgemental and myopic. His whole life is food and he can’t seem to tear himself away from his own worldview long enough to understand it’s not everyone’s life. I can’t imagine why anyone would judge people based on how they choose to eat. It just seems incredibly shallow.

    His views are also overtly anti-ethnocentric. He accepts food prepared in a pedestrian fashion abroad but judges American food harshly (though he feels his restaurant makes the best french fries in the world! – talk about prioritizing low-grade fare). I recall him talking about a crepe (or some piece of crap) he ate slathered with Nutella and how great it was despite the fact that it’s the sort of thing a 10-year old might toss together and watch in front of the tube. I’m guessing that a dish made with Cheerios in Norway would be the bee’s knees but in the U.S., it’s part of our crapulence. :-p

  • Roy – Yes, I eat MOS Burger, but it is no different than when I leave Kirksville, I eat Arbys since we don’t have one here. Or a Quiznos….or an Applebees. I just don’t like to see people get locked in to “Oh, well, I know that place so I’ll eat there.” I think that’s incredibly boring. I dohave the option of going to McDonalds for breakfast, but why would I? I have 2 of those in Kirksville, no thanks, I’ll pass.

    But this same idea can be applied to all sorts of aspect of life. Yes, I come to Japan on business, I get my work done, and then I go and explore when my work is done for the day. Sometimes it’s as small as I walk out of my hotel and think “Well…haven’t gone this direction yet.” and I just start walking.

    As for cow penis *shrug* I’d try it. The only thing I have no desire to try is fugu, but only because someone I trust implicitly told me it really isn’t that good for the amount of money you pay for it. I trust him 100% when it comes to food, so *shrug*.

  • Shari – But the point is, at least you tried the dishes before you made up your mind. Sure I’ve run in to dishes in Japan I didn’t like (Jellyfish has next to no taste, is tough to chew, and just isn’t worth it for example), but at least I tried them.

    Ok, you lost me, you’re interested in the history of the dish, but not actually tasting the dish?

    As for Anthony, yes, he is self-centered, judgmental and myopic. Would I want to sit down and have dinner with him? No. Do I like his message? Yes.

    Ok, you got me to laugh out-loud about the Cheerios:-p

  • Karree

    I agree with you. I’ve travelled to Europe a few times and feel it’s silly to hit McDonald’s when I could be out experiencing what each particular country has to offer. I was once in Berlin, Germany for a week and could speak only a few German phrases and we only went to little mom & pop restaurants where the workers knew little to no English – it was like an adventure because my friend and I would just pick things at random off the menu and order them. We ended up trying some really fantastic food that I never would have ordered had I been able to actually read and understand the menu.
    I’m all about the adventure aspect – trying things you’ve never had or never heard of – if you haven’t had it then how do you know you wouldn’t like it?

  • Karree – “I’m all about the adventure aspect – trying things you’ve never had or never heard of – if you haven’t had it then how do you know you wouldn’t like it?”

    Exactly. If you’ve tried something and you don’t like it, that’s a whole nother matter, but if you don’t try it just because it sounds bad…eh. I did the same as you did in Germany in Japan, and I loved the outcome. Yep, I’m all about the adventure when it comes to food:)

  • I have tried some dishes but I haven’t sampled everything by far. When I say I’m interested in the history but not in sampling all the dishes, it means I want to know why Japan developed so many pickled dishes relative to some other cultures but that doesn’t mean I want to taste every pickled dish. I think that isn’t so hard to understand as a concept.

    I think that everyone has their priorities when they travel. For some, it’s sightseeing. For others, it’s food. For more than a few, it’s simply getting business done. I can’t count the number of times people have asked me if I’ve been to Kyoto (I haven’t). I’m simply not all that into temples. I went to Nikko and saw more than my fill. It doesn’t hold interest for me to see every temple in Japan anymore than it would hold my interest to taste every disgusting dish there is on offer.

    For Bourdain, his priority is always the food so he harps about it but he doesn’t have a clue about how business is conducted, how the local dress evolved or what it may mean to the people, and he often doesn’t know about the religions, holidays, etc. How is it that he’s not a tourist in every sense of the word except in the case of food? Even then, he can afford to eat for entertainment rather than nourishment. Someone else is always footing his bill. If he has to buy another meal because the one he just ate came up a short time later, he doesn’t have to sweat the expense.

    Also, for an adventurer, he sometimes really pines for comfort food. After eating some sort of bird’s nest soup (1000 year old, I think) in China, he was lying on his bed rubbing his stomach and pining for a cheese sandwich. Some of us would rather skip the possibility of feeling queasiness that required several hours of lying down and get on with other things.

  • Roy

    Sean, yes I agree about the adventure part too. I walk a different way home everyday. OK that was a lie. But anyways, I know a cheap fugu place where the bits of raw fugu sashimi are still twitching (muscle spasms) as you put it in your mouth. Shall we go there?

    Shari, I’m not into temples either and I wasn’t into Kyoto when I went but some of the streets and narrow alleys were very cool. If I went to Kyoto again I doubt I would visit the temples.