One of the reasons my wife and I travel is because we choose never to stop learning about the world around us. While the distance between the small suburban neighbourhood we call home and the exotic locales described by magazine articles or showcased in a major movie production may be large, the world is made smaller by increasingly affordable methods of transportation (taking us to the places we want to visit) and increasingly rich methods of communication (connecting us with people from the places we want to visit).
The wonders of the online world aside (social media in particular), we have found that travel better informs us about our more familiar surroundings, Canada’s capital city, Ottawa. Whether it be a weekend visit to a more metropolitan city just a five-hour drive away or weeks-long visit to a more exotic destination requiring an overnight flight across an ocean, travel provides a contrasting perspective. You experience first-hand how people in other places live and interact with one another and their surroundings. You can establish relationships with peoples and places. You can learn locals’ stories and understand the context in which they are told. Of course, you also create your own stories, temporarily immersing yourself in other cultures.
In many ways, travel contributes to your sense of identity, diversifying your frames of reference.
From experience, well-traveled people we’ve met tended to be patient, resourceful, and thoughtful. They were self-confident without seeming arrogant. The were multi-lingual. They were generous of their expertise, sharing tips for where to go next, how to get there, and what to see upon arrival.
Jenn and I are sadly poorly-traveled, having left North America, but once. We have made several sojourns westwards to British Columbia and southerly into the United States, but there are entire continents we haven’t visited.
Valuable as it may be, travel is oftentimes cost-prohibitive and sometimes inconvenient. Flying across Canada alone can easily cost as much as flying to Europe. Then, there is finding the opportunity, just making the time. Careers start with small salaries and little vacation. One easily loses oneself in the daily minutia of trying to make a living. Do we save towards a down payment on a home or a travel package to somewhere tropical?
[Even if you’re “born” genetically pre-disposed to travel the world, sooner or later you’re going to have to consider how feeding your wanderlust affects your employability.]
Still, we can travel through the food we eat. An enormous benefit of being Canadian-born is our country’s pluralistic society. The peoples we welcome to our country contribute to its cultural diversity. We love to explore their traditional foods.
And, we love destination food shows, particularly older English-content like miniseries produced by the BBC and Channel 4. There is something about watching from the lens of a camera as it follows the adventures of chef Rick Stein as he wanders the Mediterranean. Save for the incredible travel programming put out by writer and former chef Anthony Bourdain, which began with A Cook’s Tour for the Food Network a decade ago, I question the destination food format today. There is little insight to be shared with standard three-stop episodes of catch-phrases and carnival-eats. When it comes to travel and destination food programming, Bourdain set a very high standard for sharing quality socioeconomic commentary on the peoples and places he and his production team visit. No Reservations, Parts Unknown, and even the Layover are series of documentaries that demonstrate significant journalistic integrity.
Food is a cultural expression. One can trace a peoples’ shared cultural heritage from food and its stories.
This is why when Food Bloggers of Canada’s Ethan Adeland asked us to participate in a campaign, linking a 10-part travelogue “Girl Eat World” with TVO’s “The Food Chain” multi-platform content initiative, we leapt at the opportunity. According to the media release, The Food Chain looks at food from a “political, societal, and economic context” and encourages discussion. It is both documentary (original programming like “Imaginary Feasts” and “The Truth About Calories”) and “current affairs.”
From its editor,
Welcome to the Food Chain — TVO.org’s landing page for stories about the food that we eat, where it comes from and how it ends up on our plates. TVO’s team of journalists will look at current affairs through the lens of food, writing up-to-the-minute analysis of events at the intersection of culture and policy in Ontario. Guest experts will contribute pieces rooted in perspective, shedding light on elements of the food chain that normally remain hidden to the public.
Recent pieces filed involve food waste (“How Ontario can fight $12 billion in annual food waste” and “How a little creativity takes food waste off the menu“), processed meat’s status as a carcinogen (“How the WHO meat advisory affects farmers and food processors“), food security (“Can policy-makers reconcile food security issues with reality?“) and, most recently, a bit of a survey of the latest news headlines (“Trudeau chops Harper’s chef and grocery stores fudge sell-by dates“).
[Visit The Food Chain to join the discussion]
Girl Eat World follows 2013’s MasterChef South Africa winner Kamini (“like ‘harmony’ with a K”) Pather as she travels to “discover how food is changing the way people think about themselves and their city.” She visits Tokyo, Lima, Sydney, Bangkok, Johannesburg (“Jo’burg”), Copenhagen, Berlin, Philadelphia, Milan and Dubai, relying on local food bloggers to be her guides. Writer and radio personality, episodes employ a familiar approach: follow along as Pather explores a city in 24 minutes of footage. Pather’s episode intros begin with “I travel, I eat, I blog”, which mirrors Bourdain’s “I write, I travel, I eat… and I’m hungry… for more,” which begin No Reservations.
So where’s the connection? Perspective.
Girl Eat World: Tokyo
In her Tokyo episode, Pather spends her time trying to reconcile the technological and urban sprawl that make up the city. She touches peripherally on Japanese culture and its preoccupation with cleanliness, presentation, and packaging. She doesn’t quite connect a waste issue with respect to how heavily packaged Japanese goods tend to be. She mentions the discipline with which many Japanese foods, both classic and modern, are crafted. After a guided tour with Las Vegas-expat and lifestyle blogger Tamiko Suzuki-Sakuma, Pather generalizes that the Japanese are still connected with the “natural world,” even re-discovering from where food comes from. Visiting a producer-oriented farmers’ market and urban honey farm were epiphanies.
Suzuki mentions Japan has a “self-sufficiency” rate of “40%.” The takeaway, Japan imports most of its food.
When we travel, Jenn and I try to find accommodations that include kitchen facilities. When we arrive in a new city, after collecting our luggage, purchasing the required SIM card to get back online, and checking into our accommodations, we look for a grocery store. Shortly thereafter, we look for an open-air market. We want to know how the city eats. Moreover, we try to prepare at least one meal “like the locals.”
In Nice, France that meal was breakfast. The market we visited was located in Vieux Nice.
French culture includes a healthy reverence (and pride) for food, stemming from centuries of tradition. It is something North American culture is developing somewhat slowly. While farmers are celebrated in France, back home, there are initiatives to reconnect Canadians with how food is produced. Jenn, herself, participated in a program this past summer to teach how to grow vegetables. And, The Food Chain includes pieces about labeling sustainable ingredients and Ontario’s corn yield.
Girl Eat World: Jo’burg
Her Johannesburg episode is a little more superficial. Pather describes the city as the “city of gold,” the “New York” of Africa, and a “gangster’s paradise.” For a Durban-native, I was a little surprised she would address Jo’burg’s reputation of being “a cesspool of crime” and “inner city decay,” without explaining why. The “a”-word (apartheid) isn’t mentioned in the episode whether for brevity’s sake or unwillingness to complicate the episode’s message. That said, with TV advertising director, blogger, and pop-up organizer Jono Hall as guide, she takes a tour of the influx of “foreign” food cultures into the city with immigrants serving everything from more northern African, Italian, Indian, and even Mexican cuisines.
Canada’s own pluralism was put to test this past election with the markedly different immigration and refugee policies built into the various political platforms. Cultural expression in the form of head-wear even became a campaign issue, both confusing and enraging the electorate.
Closer to home, Ottawa’s food scene owes some of its characteristics, omnipresent Vietnamese noodle soup (pho) and Lebanese chicken shawarma, to waves of immigration that stem from global instabilities. More recently, wonderful Afghan restaurants have opened.
The Food Chain has yet to address the subject of immigration and local food trends.
All-in-all, we enjoyed the episodes of Girl Eat World even though they are painfully short. Pather’s visits to cities’ “hidden gems, bustling markets, swinging night spots, breweries, pop-up diners, cocktail bars and street stalls” are entertaining. She draws more youthful conclusions than does Bourdain in his shows, which are twice as long. His shows also benefit from a much larger budget and more staff. As a gifted writer, he has a lifetime of experience serving as foundation for his insight.
To Pather, we hope she is able to chart a path for herself to make a living in food media. We happen to be fans of Thomasina Miers who is 2005’s MasterChef United Kingdom champion. After stints hosting destination food shows for Channel 4 (“Wild Gourmet” and “A Cook’s Tour of Spain”) and a cooking show for Channel 5 (“Mexican Food Made Simple”), Miers’ passion for Latin food, both Spanish and Mexican, lead her to co-open a successful chain of restaurants in 2007. Called “Wahaca” (pronounced as per the city called Oaxaca), there are now 19 locations in the UK, serving her brand of Mexican street food.
To everyone else, happy travels! Happy eating!