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The Bourdainification of Food Travel
Words by Joanna Fuertes; Illustration by Natasha Phang-Lee
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In my previous article on Sohofication, I described a process, one that is not unique to Soho in London but which is exemplified by it, of world cuisines being sanitised, homogenised and then sold back as something new and exciting. Today’s newsletter by Joanna Fuertes is the reverse coin side of Sohofication: Bourdainification. Bored by the lack of authenticity in our own homes, our city centres curated by landlords, developers and ersatz street food conglomerates, some of us travel to experience a different mode of eating as championed by the late Anthony Bourdain, seemingly untainted by the vast and unrestricted flow of capital. But what do we discover? In an increasingly globalised world, we may find new, uncanny Sohos, with the same food but with a different currency sign on the menu (or perhaps, just like Soho, no currency sign at all). We may find that there is an insurmountable gap between the image in our head and the reality of how people actually eat; some traditional foodways may have been discarded for the convenience of those who have to live them everyday, others perhaps only ever existed as convenient shorthand for travel guides.
If one problem is that it’s not authentic enough for us, another problem is too much authenticity. In one anecdote Fuertes described to me by email, she recalls an overheard conversation in Mexico City of someone indignantly complaining that they couldn’t find good sushi. I think too of the many Americans who come to London infuriated at the lack of good tacos. Both are oblivious that immigration patterns and the unique ways imperialism has manifested has also brought a very particularly set of cuisines to those cities, that if we are travelling for food, as with anything else, we cannot bring our own fixed ideas and prejudices of what an experience of a city or of place should look like, even if we feel that experience is ‘more authentic’. Often we want ‘different’ but have to soften it: ‘but not too different’.
I wonder what the post-pandemic era of food travel will have in store for us? In today’s newsletter, Fuertes describes how her pre-pandemic expectations have collided with the lived reality of simply existing in a place, not for tourism but as an everyday negotiation of survival. Is it more or less authentic than the alternative? I’m not sure you need to put that label on it, but it is certainly unexpected ─ isn’t that the reason why we travel? Sometimes, embrace Paris syndrome: every corner doesn’t need to have an artisan boulangerie on it. Eat a French Taco instead.
The Bourdainification of Food Travel, by Joanna Fuertes
The water was turquoise, and the vomit was sort of beige. As the tide came in, the sea delivered blobs of bile back onto the sand to the original owners, re-horrifying us all. I had been living in Costa Rica for two months, before rumbles of a globally crippling virus became shockwaves, and this was the unplanned culmination of a ‘food and cooking adventure’ to which I had been invited on an island off the country’s Gulf of Nicoya.
The crowd was as I had expected. Thirty-something travellers and sixty-something retirees, largely from Europe, Australia and the States. Liberal, upwardly-mobile, the sort with a monthly direct debit to the WWF. When we arrived on the island, a slab of fresh shark meat was trotted out and the guide slapped it proudly before laying it out on a piece of bleached driftwood flanked with citrus fruits and edible orchids. An elderly Tica lady appeared and gestured her way through the preparation of an authentic ceviche. Emphasis on the ‘authentic’. Members of the audience surreptitiously angled their phones to capture her expert slicing and dicing. As the ceviche marinated, we were ushered to a makeshift beach bar where someone was playing a ukulele. I rolled my eyes with a smile. Internally, I was loving it. Fresh baby coconuts were served, the tops macheted off with a flourish and the option of a generous glug of local rum. Each coconut had a biodegradable straw pointedly added, as well as some sweetened condensed coconut milk fresh from a tin, not so pointedly splashed in. I respected the showmanship.
Later, I’m not sure what did it – the rum, the sun, the bellies being introduced to new food or the being dragged round the island’s bay on an inflatable banana by speedboat – but some of the group started to run out into the waves to be sick, and the sea lapped their vomit back onto their shins as the sun started to set and the speaker that had replaced the ukulele blasted bachata. The day had become a casualty of attempting an ‘authentic food experience’ within patently inauthentic confines.
In our era of immersive travel, digital nomadism and social media, food has become an intrinsic part of tourism. The stereotype of holidaymakers shouting for the nearest burger and chips is less of a truth now that what you eat abroad is just as important, if not more, than the sights you see. To eat ‘like the locals’ is to get the truly transformative experience you hope from travel. Cities in Latin America and South and Southeast Asia in particular offer both an abundance of ‘cheap’ eats and exotic and fresh produce.
Like every shift in a billion-dollar industry, food tourism has been carefully commodified. In 2018, Tripadvisor reported that demand for cooking classes and culinary tours had grown by 57% from the previous year, moving food from something that enhances your travel into the reason you travel in the first place. Last year, Airbnb launched local cooking experiences after seeing an 160% increase in bookings of its food and drink experiences. With options such as ‘In home’, ‘On a farm’, ‘In nature’ and ‘Slow sustainable food’, the voice is very much in keeping with the nature of other excursions on Airbnb. That promise that you, the discerning traveller, will not be lumped with sunburnt tourists in cargo shorts from all-inclusive resorts but, instead, be rewarded with experiential travel, a taste of the ‘real’ [insert country here.]
Our newfound desire to blend food with travel and a sense of adventure is the unmistakable legacy of Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain captured something that we like to think lives in all of us: an intrepid traveller adventuring to far-flung corners of the world, bounding into the grittiest eateries and demanding the freakiest thing on the menu. To Bourdain, the world and its banquet of food happened to us rather than existed despite us. Bourdain’s gonzo-style knack for linking a country’s tragic war-torn past to him eating, like, a dumpling in the present day has often been imitated but rarely duplicated. But his approach wasn’t without criticism. As food writer George Reynolds suggests, in what I think it a fairer analysis of the show’s format than Bourdain himself, “it’s pretty rich for a white American to come to an underdeveloped country and strip-mine it for delicacies; to bring with him promise of untold tourist food-dollars, but only on the condition that the country swears not to get too developed in the meantime, or too expensive.” Reynolds describes Anthony Bourdain as a “transitive verb. He happens to places and people and things, and then leaves once he has what he came for.”
Perhaps this is more a reflection on his many imitators. Last week I struck up a conversation with a fellow traveller whose social media username was literally a riff on Bourdain’s ‘No Reservations’. Wanting to take advantage of the tentative re-introduction of socially distanced dining and under the pretence of ‘supporting local business’, I suggested lunch at a well-loved taqueria. It had, in a past life, been a small family restaurant until one US blog review had produced a domino effect of rave reviews. Now it is a bustling chain. I felt like a fraud espousing it as a struggling mom-and-pop operation but I was hungry, and he marvelled like it was an uncut gem all the same. However, I was shocked – so shocked I almost jumped out my seat at the volume – when he started yelling, in English, and clicking his fingers at the staff, asking for the real, off-menu delicacies we should be trying and hammering at isolated words on the menu like that would convey meaning. Mortified, I looked around to see if there was a tortilla big enough to wrap myself in and combat-roll away. La verguenza.
Whatever you think of Bourdain and his work, there was something engrossing and often endearing about his try-anything-once spirit. But practically speaking, for those trying to Bourdain-ify their own travels, it is much more of a chore to find those little-known ‘authentic’ spots when you’re on holiday from the job you hate rather than a professional chef backed by a team of local researchers. So what do you do? You try and fit a lifetime in one trip. You cross-reference the TV shows, the blogs, the articles that have gone before you in order to find those recommended ‘authentic’ dishes. Or you turn to a hired hand for help.
Food and city writer Kevin Vaughn is founder of Buenos Aires-based Devour, which provides tailor-made tours of the city. He is confident that sincere food tourism is achievable with the right expertise and a healthy dose of realism.
You have to be open to some discomfort and by that, I mean maybe not innately understanding your surroundings. So I see a difference when someone trusts me. But then also, for example, the way Argentines dine is slow and ceremonial so I had one client who was outraged at sitting down for an hour and was like, ‘this is boring, what are we doing!?’ and I had to say ‘Well... we’re having a conversation.’ But because he’d been on tours in Southeast Asia or the Middle-East and could reel off vacations in “developing” countries he could say ‘it wasn’t like this here’, as if everywhere that wasn’t Europe or the States was a monolith. You have to come without any preconceived notions and be open to genuine experiences instead of trying to force one.
Faced with a global pandemic but also an expiring visa, I left Costa Rica for Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula in July to hunker down for the foreseeable. This is where I met Felix*, who, before the pandemic, made a generous side-income holding his own private food tours everywhere from Merida to Monterrey. He echoes Vaughn’s concerns:
If you’re doing this fulltime they are labour intensive... You’re building relationships with local chefs and food vendors and making sure they get their share also. You’re keeping the guests safe [while also] delivering that ‘local’ vibe they want. [And] you’re doing this in competition with companies who can now see [this is a] big thing.
Felix is in the limbo of Airbnb’s notoriously lengthy verification process, having fallen foul to a large tour operator imitating his beat and positioning itself as a scrappy upstart by undercutting him. A method which, anecdotally at least, is becoming depressingly frequent.
Of the typical ‘authentic’ food tour punter, Felix added:
I don’t get mad at or make people feel bad for not speaking the language or not wanting to try everything. The thing that’s [more] frustrating is people aren’t as open-minded as they think they are. There is a very clear idea of what they imagined but the reality can be too ‘real’. I had someone complain there was no restroom and no seats when the location was a food stand. I even had a bad review because I only showed the tour ‘Mexican’ food!
I’ve begun to regard this phenomenon as us being unwitting food conquistadors. Green curry and a temple in Thailand, tagine and a riyad in Morocco: you post them on Instagram, you return home. Maybe you try and replicate what you ate for friends and you feel like a well-rounded person. Vaughn adds that:
When people think of Buenos Aires they think ‘steak, wine and tango.’ [So] even though it’s a multi-racial city, with a diversity of class, social structures and language, we’ve been programmed to treat travel like a checklist.
How to fix this situation where travellers expect to get everything on the foodie checklist ticked while simultaneously complain about a lack of diversity? Vaughn suggests:
We have to contextualise and intellectualise the food and their origins alongside the history of the city and the history of the country. So, yes, I can get clients their steak and wine but I want them to think about where the wine came from or who supplied the beef? How did this food culture get here?
I don’t think it is a crime to want to eat well and authentically abroad. In fact, I’d tentatively say it’s progress. However, travel has changed indelibly due to the coronavirus pandemic, as those of us from privileged countries find ourselves not able to swan from holiday to holiday like it’s a God-given right. This is an opportune moment to stop and reflect. How do we thoughtfully interact with international food communities and traditions? How do we respect that, actually, not everything is for us and for our entertainment?
Vaughn answer is to adjust our expectations:
Reading, educating yourself, slowing down... I think we should never cut corners on human knowledge and use that to [understand] that uniform cultural experiences don't exist. The best travel comes when... you’re open enough to explore a place for what it is rather than what you expect.
From my own experience, living in a part of the world so far from my own in the grips of a crisis that exposes both its very best and very worst traits has been – and I say this intending full gravitas – life-changing. I’m confident that if this had been a normal year I could’ve easily lived out my months roaming around farmers markets, sampling food trucks and eating shark ceviche in a parallel existence that fit my rosy preconceptions rather than reality.
Put simply, the search for the authentic as a tourist is an oxymoron. You may well be able to get a few atmospheric Instagram shots of dimly-lit diners and plastic cutlery but to find the ‘real deal’ requires an amount of time, care and rejection of your creature comforts that is incongruous to tourism. The desire to literally feed our inner-Bourdain is not malicious but it may be time to come to terms with the fact that we’re not the stars of our own edgy food travel show. We’re the antagonists.
The illustration is by Natasha Phang-Lee. You can find more of her work over at https://www.natashaphangleeillustration.com.
Both Joanna and Natasha were paid for this newsletter.