One of the perks of academia is being able to travel for research, study, and conferences. The odd side-effect of this is that academics become unwitting experts in the quality of travel food – by which I mean the meals available in airports and railway stations and on planes and trains.
I’ve never really understood the griping about airline meals: they’re certainly not the most inspired dinners and, particularly, breakfasts I’ve ever eaten – and I’ve probably drunk the worst coffee in the world while on long-haul flights between Cape Town and London – but I haven’t ever had anything that was actively offensive.
In fact, I rather liked the lamb biryani with cashew nuts and caramelised bits of onion I ate on a flight from Qatar to Joburg, and the macadamia and honey ice cream I had while flying from Perth to Melbourne. I’ve had considerably worse food on trains. On a nine-hour journey between Montrose in northern Scotland and London, the dining car was closed because the tea urn was broken. Which, although an interesting commentary on the centrality of tea to the British diet, was nevertheless unpleasant. A woman can subsist on crisps for only so long.
I wonder why there’s so much complaining about airline food. I think it has something to do with the overall unpleasantness of economy-class flying – the cramped seats, the mucky loos, and the dismaying misfortune of being stuck beside fellow passengers with strange personal habits – but it’s also connected, to some extent, with the ways in which we understand travel.
I’ve just returned from a month in Australia – it was amazing – and became particularly aware of how much I spend on food when I travel because it’s probably the most expensive country I’ve ever visited. But I still went out of my way to eat friands and Anzac cookies and to drink fantastic coffee to try to understand the cities I visited in Australia.
There are few non-fiction genres which blur so easily into each other as food and travel writing – as attested by the continuing popularity of magazines like the Australian Gourmet Traveller, and the legion of food-and-travel cookery books and blogs. The best food writing is a kind of inadvertent travel writing. Claudia Roden’s writing on the Middle East and North Africa, Fuchsia Dunlop on China, Madhur Jaffrey on India, and, to a lesser extent, Elizabeth David’s writing on France, are as much introductions to these countries and regions at particular moments in time, as they are recipe books.
And it’s striking how much travel writing focusses on food. One of the most memorable sections of Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana (1937) – by far my favourite travel narrative ever – features a blue porcelain bowl of chicken mayonnaise.
It was in Isfahan I decided sandwiches were insupportable, and bought a blue bowl, which Ali Asgar 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 have run out of wine.
Later, stranded in the middle of the night and in the freezing cold on the road between Herat and Murghab, Byron and his travelling companions take refuge in a makeshift tent after their car breaks down:
Quilts and sheep-skins replaced our mud-soaked clothes. The hurricane lantern, suspended from a strut in the hood, cast an appropriate glow on our dinner of cold lamb and tomato ketchup out of the blue bowl, eggs, bread, cake, and hot tea. Afterwards we settled into our corners with two Charlie Chan detective stories.
Byron uses food to suggest his and his companions’ feelings at particular moments of the journey. Relieved to have reached Maimana – now on the Afghan border with Turkmenistan – he and Christopher Sykes are treated to a feast:
The Governor of Maimena was away at Andkhoi, but his deputy, after refreshing us with tea, Russian sweets, pistachios, and almonds, led us to a caravanserai off the main bazaar, a Tuscan-looking old place surrounded by wooden arches, where we have a room each, as many carpets as we want, copper basins to wash in, and a bearded factotum in high-heeled top-boots who laid down his rifle to help with the cooking.
It will be a special dinner. A sense of well-being has come over us in this land of plenty. Basins of milk, pilau with raisins, skewered kabob well salted and peppered, plum jam, and some new bread have already arrived from the bazaar; to which we have added treats of our own, patent soup, tomato ketchup, prunes in gin, chocolate, and Ovaltine. The whisky is lasting out well.
Byron is less interested in what the people around him are eating, than in how food reflects his experiences of his journey through the Middle East and Central Asia. Writing in 1980, in an essay included in the collection What am I doing here, Bruce Chatwin uses food to emphasise his sense of what was lost – culturally, socially – during the communist revolution in Afghanistan:
And we shall lose the tastes – the hot, coarse, bitter bread; the green tea flavoured with cardamoms; the grapes we cooled in the snow-melt; and the nuts and dried mulberries we munched for altitude sickness.
His elegy for Afghanistan is problematic on so many levels – his deliberate misunderstanding of Afghan politics, his romanticising of pre-1960s Afghanistan, and Chatwin’s own dubious reputation for factual accuracy – but it’s an evocative piece of writing which conjures up what feels like a realistic and layered portrayal of the regions of Afghanistan which Chatwin visited.
Describing food is absolutely integral to this: unlike foreign religious ceremonies or social customs, we can all sample – or imagine sampling – the cuisines of other societies. Food allows us some purchase on ways of living which are unfamiliar to us: we can use food to try to understand a different society, and also to judge it.
In her account of a journey through parts of West Africa in the mid-1890s, Mary Kingsley used food – this time cannibalism – to explain the what she perceived to be the ‘backwardness’ of Fang society:
It is always highly interesting to observe the germ of any of our own institutions existing in the culture of a lower race. Nevertheless it is trying to be hauled out of one’s sleep in the middle of the night, and plunged into this study. Evidently this was a trace of an early form of the Bankruptcy Court; the court which clears a man of his debt, being here represented by the knife and the cooking pot; the whitewashing, as I believe it is termed with us, also shows, only it is not the debtor who is whitewashed, but the creditors doing themselves over with white clay to celebrate the removal of their enemy from his sphere of meretricious activity. This inversion may arise from the fact that whitewashing a creditor who was about to be cooked would be unwise, as the stuff would boil off the bits and spoil the gravy. There is always some fragment of sound sense underlying African institutions.
Uncivilised – in this case, taboo-breaking – food and eating habits suggest an uncivilised society.
When I was in Perth, I dropped into the fantastic New Edition bookshop in William Street. Having taken photographs of the incredible mural which covers the shop’s back wall, I was afflicted with guilt – and also the same desperate desire that I feel in most independent bookshops for it to survive and flourish (which makes visiting independent bookshops needlessly stressful) – so I bought a book: a small, light collection of Italo Calvino’s essays, Under the Jaguar Sun (1983).
The three essays which comprise the collection are the germ of a longer book which Calvino had planned to write on the five senses. He completed only these three before his death, and the titular essay, happily, focuses on the sensation of taste. It’s about a couple who visit Oaxaca in Mexico. Their interest in the country’s cuisine becomes, gradually, the purpose of the holiday itself:
From one locality to the next the gastronomic lexicon varied, always offering new terms to be recorded and new sensations to be defined. …we found guacamole, to be scooped up with crisp tortillas that snap into many shards and dip like spoons into the thick cream (the fat softness of the aguacate – the Mexican national fruit, known to the rest of the world under the distorted name of ‘avocado’ – is accompanied and underlined by the angular dryness of the tortilla, which, for its part, can have many flavours, pretending to have none); then guajote con mole pablano – that is, turkey with Puebla-style mole sauce, one of the noblest among the many moles, and most laborious (the preparation never takes less than two days), and most complicated, because it requires several different varieties of chile, as well as garlic, onion, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, cumin, coriander, and sesame, almonds, raisins, and peanuts, with a touch of chocolate; and finally quesadillas (another kind of tortilla, really, for which cheese is incorporated in the dough, garnished with ground meat and refried beans).
This obsession with the country’s food coincides, unexpectedly, with their shared enthusiasm for Mexico’s Pre-Columbian past. After a visit to a ‘complex of ruins’ in Monte Albán, where their guide implies that the losers of a ballgame played at one of the ruined temples were not only ritually slaughtered, but also eaten by the temple’s priests and the victorious team, Olivia, the narrator’s partner, becomes preoccupied with discovering how these human remains were prepared. The story implies that her desire to eat ever-more exotic Mexican dishes stems from her belief – never articulated – that some remnant of these cannibalistic feasts must exist within contemporary Mexican cooking.
The narrator reflects:
the true journey, as the introjection of an ‘outside’ different from our normal one, implies a complete change of nutrition, a digesting of the visited country – its fauna and flora and its culture (not only the different culinary practices and condiments but the different implements used to grind the flour or stir the pot) – making it pass between the lips and down the oesophagus. This is the only kind of travel that has a meaning nowadays, when everything visible you can see on television without rising from your easy chair.
For Olivia, eating becomes a way, literally, to imbibe the culture, politics, and history of Mexico. If she can’t be Mexican, then she can, physically, become closer to Mexico – its land and people – itself.
I don’t, obviously, advocate cannibalism as part of the average tourist itinerary – it’s illegal in most countries, for one thing – but I think that this idea of ‘eating’ a country is a useful way of exploring how we use food to construct national identities.
In some ways, food stands in for a society: we eat piles of pancakes with bacon and maple syrup in the United States as a way of engaging with what many believe to be an excessive, consumerist society. Travellers who think of themselves as being in pursuit of the ‘real’ – unpredictable, utterly unfamiliar, occasionally dangerous – India eat the delicious, yet potentially diarrhoea-inducing, street food of country: eating the more familiar offerings at hotels signifies a failure to leave the tourist bubble. Since the 1940s and 1950s, France has promoted its cuisine as a symbol of its national culture. (Something which Charles de Gaulle may have been thinking about when he wondered how he would govern nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese.) French food is sophisticated, so French society is sophisticated.
There are grains of truth in all these stereotypes, but they remain that – simplified and often clichéd understandings of complex societies. They are also, largely, not a real reflection of how most people eat: they exclude the ingredients bought at supermarkets, and the meals eaten at fast food joints. So if we want, truly, to understand countries and societies through their food, we have to be willing to eat that which is, potentially, less interesting and, perhaps, less enticing, than the exotic meals described in travel books.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.