Let’s be honest: for many of us travel-junkies (my foodie self especially), the times of adventure we recall most readily and vividly are almost always directly tied to food.
Those late evenings during the semester abroad are memorable not only because of the heart-to-heart conversations with friends, or endless wanders throughout the night in a foreign city. They are also forever imprinted in our hearts (and appetites) because of the late-night visits to the döner kebab place, leisurely strolling down European cobblestone streets with a cone of rich gelato, or sipping strong espresso in a terrace café, feeling a little like Hemingway himself. Perhaps you’ve even experienced the shared joy of eating a traditional meal prepared with pride by a local friend, as I did with steaming dishes of Peruvian ají de gallina this past summer. These experiences are the ones we’ll fondly look back upon later—the ones that often serve as little bite-sized place markers for everywhere that we’ve been. Partaking in the same delicacies and cuisine again later on can bring us back to places where we’ve enjoyed ourselves, and allow us to reminisce on the circumstances and connections of our journey that brought us to.
When we think about why we travel, we often reflect upon our ability to experience adventure and our insatiable desires to better know ourselves through getting to know the world around us. For reasons such as this, trying unfamiliar foods is a priority for many curious and open-minded wayfarers. Whether it be dishes we prepare at home—just differently—or a food containing ingredients that we never even knew existed, just a bite can open us to expanses of knowledge about the places we visit. Food itself can reveal a great deal a place from cultural, historical, even geographical lenses. What we eat is influenced by what we can grow on the land which we inhabit, by what infrastructure is available to us, and the evolution of society from both indigenous and colonizing groups. Reflecting on food practices is absolutely fundamental to understanding not only new or exotic cultural identities, but our own as well. We’ve spent time with loved ones sharing everything from favorite (and probably dangerous, but surely always comforting) “junk” food (a Wawa hoagie comes close to the top of my list delicacies I rejoice over seeing during my infrequent visits home) to heirloom recipes passed down over generations. In our time, these dishes, new and old, take on such an importance.
Western society has for a long time grown more homogeneous in culture, and along with the aid of our acceleratingly new technologies, infected the rest of the world with this same trend. As our once-regional popular culture becomes not only nationwide, but also reaches across oceans, accents and regional ways of doing things are disappearing—food included. My rallying cry and the dinner bell are one and the same call to globetrotters and homebodies alike: let’s reflect upon our food and eat!
Don’t get me wrong: sometimes while traveling, dirty, exhausted, and starving, the idea of stopping into a worldwide corporate coffee or hamburger chain can be awfully tempting. However, while I can’t guarantee that your meal experience will be any tastier at a less standardized and systematic hole-in-the-wall or other mom-and-pop establishment across the street, it will almost certainly be more memorable and interesting. Besides, these small business owners deserve as much of a chance to serve customers as powerful and familiar corporations do—especially as they are the ones who make-up the local economy you are visiting. The choice to support these entrepreneurs allows us to speak not only to our gastronomic, but also our social and economic principles. An act as simple as eating a quick lunch on the road can have a considerable amount of significance for us and for the society of which we play a part—even if temporarily.
As we become increasingly intertwined within cultural groups across the globe, through the awareness of our shared traits and customs, we are not only obligated to respect and preserve tradition, but also take the opportunity to explore and celebrate what makes us different. There are sometimes much deeper truths to be found in these moments as well. For example, in Chile “fast” food is often fried empanadas, tiny half-moon pastries filled nearly always with a mild queso mantecoso and any combination of vegetables, seafood, and meat products. While their concept of “fast” certainly differs from ours here in the United States, watching the loving way a chef makes their dough (all empanadas are truly unique from others!) and hand-prepares each empanada before frying, has inspired me to reflect on my own relationship with food. While in Chile it is not uncommon to wait an upwards of 15 minutes for something you might spend less than one minute eating, the results are infinitely more delicious—besides, we all need opportunities to practice and develop our patience. Gratification is deeper when not instant.
When we’re traveling, searching for awareness and authenticity, it’s frequently our own and not just that of the places we encounter. This is why we travel: interactions with people and the lifestyles that they lead are our greatest opportunity to break down our prejudices and destroy ignorance. Traveling allows us to deepen our understanding of the planet and of a single human race. Experiencing new places prepares us for our personal and professional endeavors by exposing us to wider array of situations than we would encounter if we stayed in one place and one group of people.
Through our journeys we gain new perspectives and eyes to see some of the problems we may all universally face—heartaches, worries, fears—and in doing so, continue breaking down barriers and working towards a to global progress. While exploring our differences is the principal component of this culinary and cultural process, our abundant commonalities serve us as well. They give us ground on which to build the start of cross-cultural friendships and collaborations. So, open yourself to others’ kitchens and cuisine, and be prepared to potentially experience an awakening; arms and plates open and accepting. Likewise, when you’re back from your time on the road, take a turn to open your experiences to a fellow rambler. Share a meal, a drink, or whatever strikes your fancy and exemplifies your identity with those you meet. In this way, you can offer the same experience you sought on your own voyage, all while reflecting on your own values and past experiences.
Bon appétit, buen provecho, smakelijk, en Guete…dig in!
Cailey Oehler is about to enter her fourth year at Bowdoin College, where she is studying Spanish (including a semester in Salamanca, Spain) and Teaching. She has seven years of professional culinary experience and has spent her Bowdoin summers furthering her gastronomic and intellectual endeavors: twice in Canada at Bowdoin’s Scientific Station in the Bay of Fundy and in 2014 at the Cultural Center for Sustainability Pio Pio Chile. There, in addition to teaching workshops on healthy eating and undertaking a study of sourdough fermentation, she studied fine finishing and waterproofing techniques in raw earth construction and renovated the organization’s web presence.