Collected and Edited by Richard Sterling
437 pp; $17.95
© 1996, Travelers' Tales, Inc.
Review by Kate Heyhoe
Nine years in Spain will put hair on the chest of any vegetarian. In a land where dusty pig legs hang in bars and carrion means window decor, my stomach and I were forced into manhood." —from "Spanish Guts" to Brett Allan King
"We fall onto the food as if it were the first we have seen in days, or the last we will see for days more to come—and in truth, you never know up here. Between bites of tsampa—the roasted barley flour dough, we reach into the pile of meat, dipping our pieces into the red pepper either on just one side or two, depending on how hot you like it. As the meat pile diminishes, the leg of mutton is passed around and we take turns cutting off more and throwing it into the pile, usually while we are both chewing and talking. Manners do count out here, but they are a different set of manners, and you get to break every rule that was drummed into you as a child. (This may be the real reason why people fall in love with Tibet.)" —from "A Tibetan Picnic," by Barbara Banks
I have always found that the people most passionate about food tend to be creative, artistic types. In this collection of short stories and essays, a wide range of writers conjure up imagery so vivid that the foods, people and lands of their tales are concretely imprinted in your memory. After reading these stories, I find myself asking "Was I really there.. or was it something I read?" It is the epitome of the virtual experience: living vicariously through another person's personal account. At what point does their experience end and mine begin?
Which is exactly what makes Travelers' Tales: Food such an outstanding read. I will likely never scale a Tibetan mountain and picnic on mutton cooked in yak butter, but now I have strong memories of such an event. I can picture it and almost taste it. As one reviewer said: "Some of the images make you want to clear your mouth out to get rid of the dust."
In over fifty stories, we travel from the "civilized" societies of Paris to the "primitive" cultures of Fiji. And through these tales we see just how meaningless such labels are. The wonderful thing about food is that is the great equalizer. We all eat. We all have our own customs and social mores. And when we travel, it's like looking at life with crystal clarity—breaking bread with locals, supping on indigenous foods, speaking different languages except for one: the language of common humanity, the language of food and eating.
The tales are masterfully collected and edited by Richard Sterling, a frequent contributor himself to other books in the Travelers' Tales series. The contributors themselves range from the patron saint of food writers, MFK Fisher, to an assortment of journalists, authors and writers whose connections directly to the profession of food writing may be indirect or even nonexistent, but whose prose reveals their true nature as dedicated foodies—and as skilled observers of the human condition. They take us where no recipe or meal alone can take us. I was particularly enchanted by Pamela Michael's "Apron Strings" in which an American mother's desperate drive to find food for her fading diabetic son takes them through dark, remote Mexican jungles with "muddy ditches, holes big enough to swallow a cat, tethered goats, the crunch of a mouse-sized dead beetle underfoot." Ultimately, after being miserably lost and alone, they find the village they are seeking. Despite having closed for the night, the restaurant's owners embrace them like family, feasting them on a mole with over thirty ingredients, a flan for the mother and "thoughtfully, a fresh fruit compote of mango, papaya, coconut and bananas" for the diabetic son. It is tales like this that remind us of just how sacred food can be and that true "hospitality" is much more than a hotel and restaurant industry. These tales are as humbling as they are exotic.
I keep this book by my bed and read a story here and there. They transport me to other lands instantly, as if I had stepped onto the holodeck in Star Trek. Sometimes, I get so immersed in these tales that a sudden phone call or other interruption shocks my system—like boarding the plane in Bangkok then facing customs in New York. Ouch! I want to go back!
If you are yearning to travel this summer or any time of year, this is your ticket to far away lands, filled with food, people and adventure. And at only $17.97 round trip, it's the best bargain airfare around. (Besides, it beats airplane food any day—even the yak.)
This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.
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