I'm lucky enough to visit lots of places in the world. This year alone, Senegal, Rwanda, Cambodia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania, Lebanon, Lithuania, Turkey, and Mexico have all been stamped in my passport. I've discovered that there may be two fundamental approaches to exploring the world.
When I tell people where I'm going, one kind of person says, "Isn't that dangerous?" And that danger might mean everything from sectarian violence to food poisoning.
But there's another kind of person--and fundamentally, I'm the second. This is the person who asks me, when I say I'm going to one of these places, "I bet the food is great! Tell me what it's like!" That's the way I hope all of us would approach the world--with an openness to difference, to traditions, and to what represents comfort and hope to all kinds of people.
What have I learned from food?
Migration and Meals
I've had the chance to see long trails of migration and changing borders. I learned about the work of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink in Istanbul over meals with colleagues from the Hrant Dink Foundation. In Lebanon, I ate wonderful Armenian food with two Germans now living there, and learnt about how many Armenians made Lebanon their home after the Armenian genocide of 1915. But in Puebla Mexico, on a food walk with Eat Mexico, I learned about Tacos arabes, a speciality of the city, created by Lebanese immigrants. Those trails of food connect us.
In Saint-Louis, Senegal, I watched bakers creating fresh baguettes, a legacy of French colonialization. In Sarajevo, my hotel served me special Bosnian coffee, which owed much to Turkish coffee. Dinner in a Romanian cafe had echoes of the Austria-Hungarian empire in its food, and at the same time, mama liga (usually called banosh in Ukrainian) reminded me how much interchange happened in this part of the world. No matter where you are, the newest residents bring their own food traditions, which are mixed, adapted and embraced by others and old traditions hang on.
Local still Matters
Despite the fact that there sometimes seem to be a Starbucks or KFC on every corner, everywhere, local still matters. Whenever I can, I seek out local markets, the best place to see that local still matters. Along the road in Senegal you can see mango season ending and melon beginning. In Mexico, mamey sapote had just arrived at the market when I was there. In Cambodia, there's a riot of fresh fruits and vegetables in the crowded market--diving into the crowds is a feast for all the senses.
When I persuaded a friend to pull over for a village market in Romania, it was hard to resist the large handmade copper still for sale. I love when any waiter is happy to explain a meal--at one restaurant in Puebla, a waiter didn't feel his English was up to the task, so he went and pulled the owner into the conversation. In Newfoundland, Canada, a new movement towards local food means not just partridgeberry jam but also house-made charcuterie including moose sausage. Local food still mattering is just another way of saying local stories--everyone's stories--still matter.
Fried dough matters everywhere
Goes without saying--try it when you see it!
Meals are about talking, not just eating
Whether it's talking with African colleagues over a meal in Kigali, or eating seafood with a museum colleague in Antwerp, or laughing as we attempt to buy fruit from a street vendor in Phnom Penh with Sites of Conscience members from all over Asia, or drinking beer on the steps of the art museum in Lithuania (as above) meals have brought me together with so many amazing people around the world.
This week, of course, like most Americans, I got to celebrate Thanksgiving with my own extended family (large and growing). As we head into the holiday season, do remember how many people don't get the opportunity to gather around the table with family and friends. Remember them.
We're too big a family group to fit into a single photo, so I'll end with one from this summer--my Italian friend Martina, from Rome, and her family visited Drew and me at the very beginning of their cross-country adventure. We talked, we laughed, we ate--the best!