$18.95A Taste of the Road
ISBN 1-885211-77-5 448 pages
by Margo True
One warm, moon-bright evening about ten years ago, I was standing in a square beneath the majestic bulk of the Red Fort in New Delhi, transfixed by what I was eating. The shy street-vendor behind one of the dozens of carts parked there had just handed me, fresh and hot from a pot of bubbling oil and carefully stacked inside a newspaper cone, several tiny, golden puffs. I put one between my teeth and bit down. Instantly the frail crust gave way, flooding my mouth with cool, cilantro-flavored water spiked with chili. It was great fun, like popping edible balloons. I remember what a surprise it was—and how well it characterized my experience of traveling in India: Practically everything about India surprised me, most of those surprises were either wonderful or amusing, and my senses felt flooded nearly all the time. In the witty little pani poori I ate that night—for it surely seemed to me they’d been created by a cook with a subtle sense of humor—I found an expression of all three.
For me, and for the other contributors to this book, a memorable meal—or even a snack—on the road has to do with more than just the taste or the sight or the smell of the food. It has to do with the way food can carry you into the heart of an experience, how it can become the means of the journey. In “A World Without Latkes,” for instance, the narrator gradually warms to his chatty middle-aged seatmate on a flight to Chicago and discovers, as she gives him a lesson in making latkes, an unexpected and profound empathy with her. Over a plate of spicy dumplings in a restaurant in Northeast India, the lonely writer of “Momos at Tashi’s” has a laughter-filled exchange with a little girl that becomes, she says, “a connecting thread thrown across borders of culture and language.” Sometimes food makes you realize the nature of the road you’re taking—as in “Liberation Day,” when the narrator sees that the farther she and her lover drift apart, the more they eat to fill the void.
Giving food away, depending on the needs of the giver and the receiver, can be an emotionally charged act. In “Give unto Others,” a student at the Ritz Hotel’s cooking school in Paris distributes her class’s creations—rich tarts and sables, croissants and eclairs—to the poor, with poignant results. The young man in “Night of the Oranges,” set in impoverished Romania, stands in line for hours to buy his little brother a bag of oranges, a deed that so thrills him he feels it will be the best Christmas of his life. In “Si, Simpatica,” an American tourist dines by happenstance with a burly, hirsute, transsexual prostitute in Florence—and accepts a bite of what turns out to be transcendentally good salad.
All of these stories evoke far more than gustatory anticipation, relish, and post-prandial satisfaction. Here are tales of maternal love, guilt, sensuality, spiritual comfort, generosity, brutality, and camaraderie, and of food that can stave off death, addiction, and loneliness. In “Etiquette Soup,” food becomes a cultural challenge that, once crossed, leads to a most pleasant discovery; in the aptly titled “Pass on the Primate” it forms an unbreachable barrier.
The destinations included in the book span the points of the compass. You’ll read stories set in Kenya, India, Spain, Romania, Mexico, Japan, Costa Rica, Italy, Morocco, Texas, Micronesia, France, Tibet, Alaska, Egypt, and China. Most of the contributors are American, but not all; and while many are professional food or travel writers, others have very different backgrounds—a plant conservation biologist, a couple of musicians, a filmmaker, a sociology professor, a retired telephone engineer, an 18-year-old exchange student. One writer was, until recently, homeless. (His wise, articulate, and thoughtfully written story about scavenging for food makes it clear why he’s been dubbed the “Thoreau of Dumpsters.”) And, as you would expect with such a diverse group, their voices are hardly uniform. One of the pleasures of reading these pages is the journey, if you will, of moving from prose that is spare and straightforward to that which is densely poetic, or from a contemplative, peaceful story to one that makes you laugh out loud.
Stories written about food in this way, especially if the writer has been afforded total freedom of expression, are—like life—not always appetizing. Some are downright nauseating, such as Brett Allen King’s account of his companions sucking down offal in Madrid, or shocking, as in Zhang Xianliang’s vivid description of food-collection strategies in a Maoist labor camp in the late 1950s. M. F. K. Fisher, the grand dame of American food writing, tells a heartbreaking, beautiful story about traveling with her dying lover by train through Italy on the eve of World War II; their safe haven is the dining car—for a while.
A word on the chapter headings: They are meant to correspond to different facets of gastronomic travel. Hence, “Essence” contains stories that introduce the idea of food as journey, of a window to some sort of discovery and transformation of self. “Some Things to Do” tells of events that the reader, should he or she visit the place the writer describes, might feasibly be able to recreate for him or herself: An Indian train trip with friendly, food-giving fellow passengers, or a meal at Mexico City’s Cafe Tacuba, or an aromatic, memory-triggering trip through your own kitchen cupboards (stocked, ideally, with spices you picked up while traveling). The stories in “Going Your Own Way” could only have happened to that writer in that particular time and place: Here you’ll encounter a young American woman who made a mint selling brownies to the Scots (it comes, as do several of the stories in this book, with a recipe) and of a crew of U.S. Navy river men in Vietnam who go duck hunting with machine guns and fishing with grenades—anything to get an alternative to the infamous C-rations. “In the Shadows,” describes the darker side of travel food—from offensive edibles to downright dangerous ones—and of times when eating fails to bring pleasure. Only one story falls under the book’s final heading, “The Last Word,” and it sums up what every traveler hopes to find when dining in a foreign land.
As I crunched my pani poori that night in New Delhi, smiling at each delicious little explosion, I realized something else through my haze of bliss. The Indians eating with me were smiling too, and together we enjoyed our snack. It is moments like these, when a bite of food turns into a larger, richer event, that the writers in this book bring to us.
Currently an editor at Gourmet magazine, Margo True grew up traveling around the world as the daughter of a foreign service officer. Her earliest memories are of eating (rice, beans, and bananas in Brazil).
Introduction by Margo True
PART ONE: ESSENCE OF FOOD
Apron Strings — Pamela Michael
Feast of the Pig — Theodore H. White
A Language for Food — Edmund White
A Tibetan Picnic — Barbara Banks
A Man and His Chile — Dick Beeson
Breakfast Without Toast — Terrell Vermont
Hungry Ghosts — Patrick Pfister
Goan Feast — Ginu Kamani
Burnt Offerings — Bob Shacochis
Salmon Head — Sandy Polishuk
Food for Thought — Rajendra S. Khadka
All Guns, No Butter — P.J. O’Rourke
A World Without Latkes — Robert Golling Jr.
Breaking Bread — Mark Gruber, O.S.B.
Bananas — David Yeadon
Slaying the Dragon — Richard Sterling
South China Sea
PART TWO: SOME THINGS TO DO
Tomatoes — Richard Goodman
Etiquette Soup — Bob Sehlinger
The Way of Iced Coffee — Donald W. George
India on an Empty Stomach — Christopher P. Baker
Cafe Tacuba — Elizabeth Roper Marcus
One Woman’s Spice Route — Julia Duffy Ward
The Monsoon Cocktail — Gina Comaich Southeast Asia
Kenyan Barbeque — Danny Carnahan
Crustacean of Love — Joann Milivojevic
That Gnawing Feeling — Christi Phillips
Give unto Others — Claudia J. Martin
Camaraderie — Ronald E. Kotzsch
Germany and Russia
Bush Tucker — Larry Habegger
Drinking an 1806 Château Lafite — Robert Daley
PART THREE: GOING YOUR OWN WAY
Night of Oranges — Flavius Stan
Baking Under the Table — Kelly Spencer
The Huntress — Lois Maclean
Then I Slept — Colin Thubron
Caller of Dolphins — Cleo Paskal
Spanish Guts — Brett Allen King
Momos at Tashi’s — Marianne Dresser
Backstage at Cafe Annie — Margo True
Si, Simpatica — Tanya Monier
Eating up the Mekong — Sherdyl (Charlie) Motz
Morocco Blue — Jim Leff
Fried Eggs and Chapatis — Simon Loftus
India and Pakistan
Gastronome’s Dream — Lawrence Osborne Paris
Waltz at the End of Earth — Paula McDonald
Hainan Island, China
PART FOUR: IN THE SHADOWS
Pass on the Primate — Carla King
Even Their Eyes Are Hungry — Zhang Xianliang
The Laughter of Rul — Garrett Culhane
There Was a Train — M.F.K. Fisher
To Serve Man — Harry Rolnick
Liberation Day — Kelly Simon
Dumpster Diving — Lars Eighner
PART FIVE: THE LAST WORD
Pilgrims All — Gary Paul Nabhan
Books for Further Reading
Index of Contributors
Waltz at the End of Earth
by Paula McDonald
Getting to Hainan Island from Guangzhou isn’t easy. Eighteen-hour village-bus rides through the mountains with the inevitable breakdowns in the middle of the night are followed by tedious ferries, incomprehensible transfers, and more tedious ferries. To even attempt Hainan Island without speaking fluent Cantonese requires a strong belief in personal luck, guardian angels, and good fairies. To this day, I can vividly remember every moment of that journey; for the life of me I can’t figure out how we arranged it or what compelled us so completely at the time.
But, the journey itself is another tale. Suffice it to say that we found our way to “End of Earth” eventually, a peaceful, serene place with an aura of great continuity. Beyond, with quiet waves lapping at our feet, the sea seemed to stretch forever. Like the ancient Chinese, who could know what was out there? Or what would come next? What came next was one of the most important gifts of my life.
In a tiny village nearby, we stopped for lunch at a small roadside house, a hovel actually, one of those one-room shacks that serve as home, restaurant, and mini-zoo, a combination so common in rural China.
Joanne Turner, my fellow traveler, and I had eaten in many similar places in the few weeks since we’d met and completed a stint together as volunteers on a scientific project meant to catalog China’s southern rainforests. We’d camped on remote mountaintops, sea kayaked the uninhabited Outer Islands, trekked through leech-filled jungles, and eaten, standing up, in every street market in Southern China it seemed.
Along the way, we’d become expert pantomimists, ready smilers, and absolute gourmands on the street-food scene. The shabbiness of the shack didn’t bother us. The luxury of eating from an actual table instead of a rock seemed rather civilized, in fact.
This particular shack was poor even by Chinese standards though. It held only the bare wooden table, a rope bed, and several cages full of eight- and ten-foot snakes. The dirt floor was swept clean, and an old bicycle hung on the wall. Nothing more adorned the place. Cooking, as is customary in the countryside, was done out back on an empty oil drum with a wood fire below.
The 80-year-old owner and her granddaughter immediately began to display their snakes. Out they came from their cages and were handed to us, one by one. Which did we want for lunch? We tried to pantomime that it was very hot, that we weren’t very hungry after all, and that the snakes were very large. There would be so much waste.
Perhaps rabbit would be better, suggested our hosts. Or so we assumed as they took us to a shed in back where three rabbits were caged. Unable to look any bunny in the eye and then eat it, we politely tried to say that the rabbits were also too big. The only other choice seemed to be an old chicken pecking at the edge of the dirt lane, so we opted for him. Least of all possible sins, or so we thought.
Twenty minutes later, the food began arriving: the usual Chinese mystery soup, followed by several courses of vegetables, rice, and endless pots of steaming tea in the 100-degree heat. Finally the meat arrived.
It was unmistakably rabbit! Oh, lordy, where had we gone wrong? Perhaps we should have drawn pictures instead of doing charades. We ate it, of course. With grace and a good deal of hard swallowing. Not to would have caused a loss of face for the two gracious women whose humble hospitality we shared.
The heat was oppressive that day, as it is all over southern China in May, and even to sit still was to sit and drip. During lunch, the old woman kept smiling at me as if to say, “I forgive you for sweating in my house. There is no loss of face in this,” and fanning me with a marvelously ingenious fan made completely of feathers. I had never seen anything like it.
Since there was literally nothing else in the one-room house, not even a change of clothes, and the fan seemed to be her only possession besides an old watch, I was careful not to admire it openly. Chinese custom demands the giving to guests of whatever they admire. But despite my intentional disregard of the fan, I was immensely grateful for the momentary illusion of coolness each whoosh brought.
Perhaps because I was trying so hard to ignore the feather fan, what happened next caught me completely by surprise.
Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the old woman broke into a great grin, hugged me hard, handed me the fan, and then hugged me again. I was stunned. It was obviously a gift, but her generosity, under the circumstances, was astonishing. What had prompted the act? What could I, a lanky, perspiring stranger with a sunburned nose, in her life for so short a time, have possibly done to deserve the gift of one of her few possessions? Nothing that I could conceive of, but something had changed dramatically in the little room. The old woman now sat smiling beatifically as though I had pleased her more than I could ever imagine. But I couldn’t, for the life of me figure out how.
Despite the baking heat inside the house, we lingered awhile after lunch and drank more tea just to stay and not seem to rush away. And then, to our amazement, when her granddaughter finally left to take care of other chores, the old woman began to speak in halting English, obviously a language she had not used for decades. Bit by bit, straining to understand the stumbling words, we learned her story.
Her husband had been imprisoned under Mao for being a follower of Chiang Kai-Shek and had died a prisoner. She had watched as he was led away. She never saw him again.
Before the Cultural Revolution the woman had been a teacher, the daughter of educated diplomats, one of the new regime’s despised intellectuals. After the Communist victory in China, she had been exiled from Shanghai to the remote island village for the double sins of being educated and being the wife of a political enemy. She had lived in the isolated village for more than 30 years, surviving as best she could by cooking and selling the snakes and rabbits she and her granddaughter were able to trap.
Her story, told with no rancor, captured our hearts, and despite the need to get on, we stayed. The long-forgotten English words seemed to get easier for her as we asked questions about her life and encouraged her to reminisce. She told us of her childhood, of traveling and learning English at embassies as a youngster. Memories of another, so very different life. Yet, for all her losses, she truly seemed to have no bitterness. With one strange exception. When I asked her directly if she had regrets, she could think of only one: that she had never learned to waltz.
One of her most vivid childhood memories was of being taken, as a young girl, to a grand ball in Hong Kong where there were many English guests in attendance. The music was international that night, the first time she had heard anything besides the harsh, sharp cacophony of China’s music, and suddenly the ballroom was filled with swirling skirts and the sweetest sounds she had ever heard. Couples were waltzing, and, to the young Chinese girl, it was the most beautiful sight in the world. Someday she would grow up to become one of those graceful waltzing women.
She grew up, but China changed. There were no more waltzes. And now there were no more illusions in her life.
In the silence that followed the story, I took her hand across the table. Then I quietly asked if she would still like to learn to waltz. Here. Now.
The slow smile that spread across her face was my answer. We stood and moved together toward our ballroom floor, an open space of five feet of hard-packed dirt between the table and the bed. “Please, God,” I prayed, “let me remember a waltz. Any waltz. And let me remember how to lead.”
We started shakily, me humming Strauss, stepping on her toes. But soon we got smoother, bolder, louder. “The Blue Danube” swelled and filled the room. Her baggy Mao pajama pants became a swirling skirt, she became young and beautiful again, and I became a handsome foreigner, tall, sure, strong…perhaps a prince who carried her away. Away from her destiny at “End of Earth.”
The feather fan hangs on my office wall today, next to her picture. Next to our picture. The two of us, hands clasped, smiling strangers from such different worlds, waltzing around a steaming hut in a forsaken spot I visited by chance that day. That day I met strength and courage at “End of Earth.”
Paula McDonald lives on the beach in Rosarito, Mexico. On the clearest of days, if she squints, she can almost see China’s “End of Earth.” When the waves are quiet, she can certainly hear Strauss.
Richard Sterling is a writer, editor, lecturer, and insatiable traveler. Earlier in life he was a Silicon Valley engineer, but stability and respectability lost out over wanderlust. Since taking up the pen he has been honored by the James Beard Foundation for his food writing, and by the Lowell Thomas Awards for his travel literature. He is based in Berkeley, California, where he is often politically incorrect.
Other Books by Richard Sterling
The Fire Never Dies: One Man’s Raucous Romp Down the Road of Food, Passion, and Adventure
The Adventure of Food: True Stories of Eating Everything
The Ultimate Journey: Inspiring Stories of Living and Dying
The Fearless Diner: Travel Tips and Wisdom for Eating Around the World
World Food: Vietnam
World Food: Spain
World Food: Hong Kong
World Food: Greece
Unofficial Guide to San Francisco
The Eclectic Gourmet Guide to San Francisco and the Bay Area