Anywhere you go, you will discover the importance of food in the local cultures. It gives a place a sense of identity: what is important locally, what is grown or raised locally, and what is favored locally.
Beyond that, food is a way of expressing love, affection, or respect for one another. When one hosts important guests, the host provides the best food that they can, even if it means personally sacrificing their own culinary comfort for a while. When having friends and family over for a celebration, the host prepares a feast appropriate to the celebration. And even when people mourn, how do those close to the mourners express themselves but by bringing food to ease the burdens of everyday tasks. We talk about emotional eating when our spirits are low, and we go out to eat and drink with our friends when we want to celebrate.
Think about some of the meals you have savored the most in your life – and how just thinking about them can bring you instantly back in time to a particular moment and memory. There’s a reason that #foodporn has become such a popular hashtag!
I’ll share two of my own favorite “traveling foodie” moments:
Swiss food is fantastic in general, but there is one meal in particular from my last trip to Switzerland that particularly stands out in my mind. My tour guide in Bellinzona took me to a restaurant called Ristorante Pedemonte, which is located quite close to the main train station in that city. Had I been looking for a restaurant on my own, I probably would have missed the place entirely, as I don’t recall seeing signage on the yellow building, and I thought at first that we were walking into somebody’s house! It was September – prime porcini season in the beautiful Ticino canton – and I selected strozzapreti ai funghi porcini for my meal. If you look up a recipe for this meal, it will seem ridiculously simple; but made with freshly made strozzapreti (“priest-choker”) pasta, excellent local olive oil, and porcini mushrooms from the local mountains, so fresh they were probably picked that morning, well – it was all I could do to not pick up the plate and lick it clean!
The other is in Finland. In Helsinki, there is a place called Vanha Kauppahalli (Old Market Hall) located next to Kauppatori, the market square on the waterfront in front of Helsinki City Hall. Vanha Kauppahalli is renowned for its food stalls, but there was one in particular my mother (who is from Finland) knew that I would love: the place that sold munkki – that is, doughnuts. I ended up eating the raspberry-filled munkki nearly every day we went to downtown Helsinki on that trip! I don’t know what made these particular munkki so amazing – perhaps it is because cardamom is a common flavor addition to doughnuts in Finland; perhaps it was simply how incredibly fresh they were – but I have had American jelly doughnuts spoiled for me ever since.
Taste and smell are two powerful senses that can transplant you immediately. A good food writer can not only make you wish you were beside them, sampling the food with them, but also make you want to leap onto a plane and visit a place simply to experience that place firsthand. Here are ten excellent books that will give you that experience.
American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields, by Rowan Jacobsen : Perhaps you think of “terroir” as a wine-related word; and it is true ― terroir, or “taste of place”, is a vital element of the wine industry. However, it is no less vital in the food industry in general. There’s a reason we why every region’s honey tastes different, what makes some wild mushrooms so elusive, how the same seafood ― such as oysters and salmon ― can taste vastly different when harvested in different parts of the world, and why the best chocolate beans come from close to where chocolate originated from. If you’re heading to Montréal any time soon, you’ll especially want to pay attention to his chapter related to Les Jardins Sauvages and foraging ― after reading this book, I definitely had to make a stop at the LJS stand in Jean-Talon Market while visiting the city. Jacobsen is one of the best food writers in the world, and if you enjoy reading American Terroir, you may also enjoy some of his other terroir-related books, such as Apples of Uncommon Character: Heirlooms, Modern Classics, and Little-Known Wonders, and The Essential Oyster: A Salty Appreciation of Taste and Temptation; or his culinary research books like Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis.
Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman : Like Jacobsen’s Terroir, Lohman takes the reader on a tour of American cuisine. As she outlines in the beginning of the book, her interest was piqued by her time spent working in a living history museum, and noticing how the antique recipes she made there differed greatly in taste than today’s modern versions of the same recipes. You might not think of flavors such as curry powder and Sriracha as being “as American” as chili powder, but Lohman shows how those three, along with five others, have influenced American tastes through the ages. You’ll learn as much about American history as you do about the American palate on this tour through our kitchens and our country’s background.
Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France, by Craig Carlson : Who hasn’t had the dream of running away to a city such as Paris and finding a way to live there long-term? Carlson had that dream, and more than that, he wanted to bring a little taste of good, proper, hearty American food ― specifically, breakfast food ― to the city he loved. As we learn from his misadventures, setting up shop in the City of Lights is no easy task for anyone, least of all an expatriate with ideals of creating a taste sensation among the food-snobby French. And while we see a bit of Parisian dirty laundry and cheer him on as he fights his way through French bureaucracy and red tape, the reader can also taste joy as he finds success ― and true love ― along the way.
The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, by Langdon Cook : Most of us don’t give much thought to the humble mushroom beyond brushing any last tendrils of dirt from our freshest purchase. It turns out that the secretive world of the wild mushroom pickers is pretty fascinating, and soon you’ll find yourself wondering how successful you could be tromping around the woods of the Pacific Northwest, hoping to spy an easy fortune in rare fungi. Many of the most-desired mushrooms, much in demand by chefs and home enthusiasts alike, cannot by commercially cultivated; they must be found in conditions that cannot be replicated on the kind of fungi farms that produce the bulk of supermarket mushrooms. Porcini (also known as King boletes), chanterrelles, morels ― even if you aren’t a mushroom enthusiast, this is the kind of writing that will get you to try out these exotic fungi next time you see them on a menu.
Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky : You might be thinking, What could possibly be fascinating about salt? As it turns out, quite a lot. From the origins of sayings such as “worth their weight in salt” and “salt of the earth”, to the story behind some of our most beloved condiments, salt ― the only rock we eat! ― has had a major influence over world history. Like Jacobsen, Kurlansky has a way of making complex food history absolutely fascinating, and you’ll find yourself constantly sharing tidbits you learn from this book. If you enjoy Salt, then look into Kurlansky’s other food and food-related writing, including The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell; Havana: A Subtropical Delirium; The Last Fish Tale: The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America’s Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original Town; and Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.
The Whole Fromage: Adventures in the Delectable World of French Cheese, by Kathe Lison : Why is French cheese often considered the best in the world? What makes specific cheeses like Beaufort, Mont d’Or, and Roquefort so unique and highly demanded? What is so magical about the French cheese caves that makes people crave stinky, moldy cheese? Can iconic French cheeses truly be accurately recreated elsewhere in the world? Like any other food, cheese is influenced by its terroir, and Lison explores France to discover what, and who, makes most of its memorable cheese products that are beloved the world over. You’ll find yourself exploring your local cheese counter a lot more closely after reading this book.
Napa: The Story of an American Eden, by James Conaway : If you’re an American wine enthusiast ― and especially if you’re fond of Napa Valley wines ― you’ll want to read Conaway’s Napa and its sequels, The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley and Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity. Conaway’s comprehensive history of California’s golden wine country begins with Napa, which chronicles the valley’s history through the late 20th century. The Far Side of Eden and Napa at Last Light tell the stories of what has happened to Napa now that availability has outpaced demand in this important agricultural area. You’ll find out how the valley’s farmers survived Prohibition, learn about how the 1976 Tasting of Paris really put Napa on the map, and how the wine world’s love affair with the valley has greatly changed the local scene over the past forty years. A trio of must-reads for any oenophile!
Around the World in Eighty Wines: Exploring Wine One Country at a Time, by Mike Veseth : The demand for wine, particularly by those in their twenties, is influencing world agriculture. There are few countries in the world where wine is not produced, and Veseth goes on a round-the-world journey to sample various wines and to tell the stories that define various wine regions. You might not find wines from China, Algeria, or Kenya in your local supermarket, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Is there truly a best wine or best wine-growing region in the world? Veseth, the editor-in-chief of The Wine Economist, is a superb guide to take your wine desires on a spin around the globe.
Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: or, The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History, by Giles Milton : Who would think that a tiny island barely one square mile in size in the South Seas would have such a huge influence on world history? Four hundred years ago, when there were still parts of the world that weren’t mapped and European powers were claiming lands around the globe, the Indonesian island of Run was at the center of a battle between the British Crown and the powerful Dutch East India Company. Run’s history is a spectacular story among the many stories that pepper the spice trade, and show how even a wee speck of an island ― and its exotic crop ― could, and did, spread its influence around the world. And if this book fascinates you, look for Jack Turner’s Spice: The History of a Temptation, and Marjorie Shaffer’s Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice. (Perhaps pair the latter one with Salt?)
Chopsticks: A Cultural and Culinary History, by Q. Edward Wang : You’ve probably never given much thought to chopsticks, beyond how to hold them properly and manage to eat with them. But there’s a long history for this basic eating utensil, and it’s more interesting than you might guess. If you find this book interesting, you may also enjoy Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson.
There you go ― ten interesting books to not only whet your appetite for food, but for travel as well. Do you have any favorite food-related books? If so, let me know it in the comment section below!