Food and Travel (Through Books) During a Pandemic

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I’ve never been a huge traveler, but in the last 5–10 years I’ve wanted to travel more. Of course, now that I have a 4-year-old, that’s changed things as well. When it wasn’t always feasible for me to travel where I wanted to (hello graduate school, paying back loans, and parenthood), I have often turned to books and travel guides, which I’ve written about before. I have a pile of Lonely Planet and Moon guides on a shelf and a bunch of other books like travelogues and anthologies related to travel sitting next to my work desk.

Especially since the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, I’ve felt the impulse to travel (or at least leave the house) more. Obviously that won’t be happening anytime soon, so I’ve had to make do with books. Not only have I found myself gravitating to books about nature, but also to books about travel and different geographical locations—and many of these also involve food or cooking. Some books I’ve read aren’t categorized as either of these but contain elements of both. I don’t know what it is, but somehow, it all works together, the food and travel. Maybe it’s because food and geography can be so intertwined with one another.

Books have allowed me to travel these last few months, if only on the page—and I’ve learned a lot not only about places and locations, but about food and cuisine as well. I have read about family traditions and recipes, foodie obsessions and deep dives into food cultures, and devoured poems about favorite meals. As a relative newbie to food writing and a complete novice in the kitchen, it’s been interesting. The interaction between food, place, memory, and story has transported me countless times. It may not be as fun (or as tasty) as actually going to these places or eating the food, but books have been a nice respite. These are some of my favorites.

American Cheese: An Indulgent Odyssey Through the Artisan Cheese World by Joe Berkowitz

Unlike most people, I’ve never been a huge cheese fan. Sure, I liked it well enough, but nothing major. That might have changed over the course of reading this book. The passion that Berkowitz brings to these pages could turn anyone into a cheese lover, and the descriptions of trying various kinds of cheeses made me hungry just reading them. After an innocent night out one Valentine’s Day, an encounter with cheese sent Berkowitz down the rabbit hole and on a journey of exploring the subculture of cheese and artisan cheesemaking. From France to New York City to Wisconsin, Berkowitz brings the reader along on a mouth-watering tour of the world of cheese and the people that love it.

The Carolina Table: North Carolina Writers on Food Edited by Randall Kenan

I went to school and lived in North Carolina for a time, and ever since I left nine years ago, I’ve missed it every day. The people, the geography, the food…the food. This book was a balm to my soul. Food can tell you a lot about a place, and this collection of food-related stories set all over NC and from a variety of cultures does just that, with contributors like Lee Smith, Jaki Shelton Greene, Wiley Cash, and Jill McCorkle. Randall Kenan is the editor, and his introduction to the book is a masterpiece in itself. There are stories about family conflicts, sharing Shabbat meals with friends, holiday rituals, and opining about Carolina barbecue. The recipes included in the book are an added bonus, too.

Make Me Rain: Poems & Prose by Nikki Giovanni

I’ve loved Giovanni’s poetry since reading Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day back in college, and her new one did not disappoint. Where does this book fit into this list, you might ask? These poems and short prose pieces describe living in America as a Black woman, dealing with racism and white nationalism, celebrations with her family, sexism, culinary favorites and picnics, and police brutality. These pieces explore America. She travels to Ferguson, to the courtroom with Dr. Ford, to the 1960s and Malcolm X, and to Virginia Tech—but she also writes about vegetable soup, fruit, biscuits and pancakes, and much more. To read this is to be transported. Nikki Giovanni’s writing is such that reading a poem one, two, three times is never enough—there is always more below the surface, and I love that about her. Her writing comforts and confronts, dissects and celebrates, and feels urgent and necessary right now. If you’ve read her before, this is one you need to pick up, and if you haven’t, then you’re in for a treat.

Best American Food Writing 2020 Edited by J. Kenji López-Alt and Silvia Killingsworth

I love this book because it’s the perfect combination of essays and food writing and travel, all rolled into one. These pieces deal with topics like white supremacy and “authenticity” ratings, the atmosphere in the kitchen, the cultural history of foods and appropriation, making restaurants accessible to disabled diners, disappearing supermarkets and what comes next, and much more. The tone of each piece varies, and that’s one of the things I love about these books—you never know what the next essay will entail, and in this volume, it’s a pleasant surprise for nearly every single piece. From Portland to New York to Illinois, and from Benihana to Per Se to Jeni’s ice cream, this book was a trip—in the best possible way.

The Deepest South of All: True Stories from Natchez, Mississippi by Richard Grant

Natchez, Mississippi, has the highest concentration of antebellum mansions in the south and still puts on ritual celebrations of the old south, but they also elected a gay Black man as mayor, with more than 90% of the vote. The town is eccentric, progressive, and quirky, but stubbornly holds onto racist, outdated traditions. To an outsider, this doesn’t make any sense. Grant decided to go down to Natchez to explore the town and its history, and the community he found there is reminiscent of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: a cast of unforgettable characters and a backstory worth diving into more deeply.

The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School in Paris by Kathleen Flinn

For all my ineptitude in the kitchen, I love watching the Food Network and reading about cooking. This is Flinn’s story of how she lost her corporate job at 36 and decided to use her savings to move to Paris and got a spot at Le Cordon Blue, the famous cooking school. It gives the reader an inside look at what really goes on in the kitchen, and the detail in her food writing is lush—how to prepare the food, what the food tastes like, and all the sensory details. She blends food writing with travel writing when she writes about living in Paris, and this book is a great way to escape a bit into the bustle of Paris.

Salt Fat Acid Heat cookbook cover

Salt Fat Acid Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat and Wendy MacNaughton

Okay, this one might seem like a weird addition to this list but hear me out: it’s so much more than a cookbook. It’s food writing, a manual of flavor, and a jumping-off point to travel—especially when paired with the Netflix miniseries of the same name. The illustrations are delightful, and it’s fun to read. Nosrat looks at flavors around the world and how ingredients are used in different regions. Even if you’re not a pro in the kitchen, this book is a fun read and good to have around for occasional forays into the food world.

Have you been reading to escape while unable to travel?