French Gastronomy : The History and Geography of a Passion

 

Cover_French Gastronomy.jpg

Opening with a tongue-in-cheek discussion on whether gourmandism is a sin in France (or anywhere), the author is equally at ease citing evangelical and Pauline epistolary evidence as the classical Greek and Roman philosophical commentators on how to live life well. For those concerned with the eating habits of Jesus, the author points out that once the fasts ended, Jesus ate and drank heartily with the best of them.

From there, the lively analysis moves to explain that French food is so varied because it lay on the path between the warring and striving clans of the past. Political changes brought trade and the next thing you know, wealth builds, which buys good cooks, fine ingredients and the leisure to stay at table.

The Parisian dedication to eating and measuring success by wealth of the table long predates the ostentatious 1890’s or the studious culinary minimalism of the 1980’s. The Venetian ambassador to the King of France in 1577, surely no bumpkin, commented on the diverse provisions and how rich and poor alike eat well. In the early 19th century Parisians could buy strawberries in January, grapes at Spring solstice and pineapples year round.

The big advance in French cooking occurred with the change in meat preparation from roasting on an open fire or boiling in a suspended pot to a raised prototype stove called a potager. Built of bricks and tiles, a similar cooking system existed in Italy a century before it arrived in French kitchens in the 1700s. Hot coals were arranged inside the potager and cooks could simmer broths, stir sauces, and braise meats. “Henceforth, cooking was done standing up, close to the source of heat, a position more favorable for producing complicated hot dishes.” Of course the elaborate presentation caused the food to cool by the time the dish reached the banquet table.

In more recent centuries, the author’s primary source archives expand. Chapters dedicated to the French royal and imperial kitchens extend to the rest of Europe because any duke worth his salt wanted a French chef. Contemporary French food nationalism, street eating habits and the revival of regional producers dedicated to traditional specialties come under Pitte’s scholarly scalpel, always leavened with humor and graceful translation by Jody Gladding. In the end the author is hopeful that the French will abandon fast food and nouvelle cuisine, returning to their gourmandizing  and sinning ways.

French Gastronomy: The History and Geography of a Passion, Jean-Robert Pitte

Columbia University Press, 2002, 207 pages with index.

Reviewed by L. Peat O’Neil who teaches Food and Travel Writing for the Smithsonian Resident Associates Program and L’Academie de Cuisine.

Overbooked

Overbookedoverbooked-cover

By Elizabeth Becker . Simon and Schuster, Trade paperback edition 2016.

Elizabeth Becker spoke to an audience in the Ralph Bunche Library at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC about her latest book, Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, as part of the Library’s ongoing Speaker Series. 

In 1980 there were 250 million tourists. In 1995, 500 million. By 2012? Wait for it…. One billion tourists rove the planet in search of something different than home. Then there’s the environmental impact of the mammoth cruise ships, idling buses, trains, planes, ferries or cars they rode in on. Where ever that place may be, there’s an impact – sometimes positive, often negative.

A large eager group listened to Elizabeth Becker discuss the research and analysis behind her new work “Overbooked” The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism published by Simon & Schuster this year. Becker pointed out that tourism provides opportunities for advancing public diplomacy and ran us through the efforts of savvy countries like France, Costa Rica, China and others with national marketing programs. Attracting tourists from BRIC countries – China mainly- France harnessed the power of tourism decades ago. The “well-heeled, educated tourists” leave their RMB, reals, and rupees and rubles throughout France, not just Paris. The country has an integrated win-win marketing strategy that drills down to agricultural networks so provincial inns will have enough succulent organic lamb chops for the menus. Every week, a cultural festival in different regional towns ensures steady stream of visitors. The tourism ministry even issued a marketing report on how to attract Chinese tourists.

Alas, the US government abandoned the promotion of US tourism around 1995. There’s no national tourism marketing program. Since 2011, tourist traffic to the US has flat-lined, called “the lost decade” by travel industry professionals, said Becker. During the same decade, the number of tourists nearly doubled. In 2009, more Chinese went to Paris than anywhere in the entire USA, including Hawai’I, Becker pointed out. US efforts to leverage tourism for public diplomacy are lightweight or non-existent. Tourism marketing is left to the states, Becker pointed out, but most states don’t have the resources to integrate with regional or national travel networks.

Anyone who’s been out and about in the world during the 21st century knows about the crowds of people – in the baggage scan line, traveling and spending money. Too bad they aren’t spending that moola in the US, even if they do stand on the wrong side of Metro escalators. The impact of gigantic cruise ships damages the ocean ecosystem and shore environments. Fragile Venice receives 20 to 24 million tourists a year. Angkor Wat took in 800,000 tourists in the first quarter of 2013, yet the province of Siem Reap is now Cambodia’s poorest with devastating environmental degradation and declining water resources. I wonder if there is an internal migration issue as well, as in China, Mexico and elsewhere, farm families go to the tourist destinations for hotel construction work or service jobs, but can no longer afford to live in their own region. I’ll have to read the book to find out.

It’s not all bad though – Costa Rica practically invented eco-tourism and maintains highly sustainable programs. African game safari tourism is key to protecting animals and communities, Becker commented.

The Q & A session opened with discussion of what can be done to tap into tourism revenues and how can public diplomacy leverage tourism to support its goals. Becker mentioned that in the past Embassies offered information about travel in the US, helping to promote the US tourism industry. She mentioned that the US could encourage residents and citizens to learn foreign languages to be better hosts for those potential visitors. At the request of one participant, Becker recalled her celebrated war reporting career, a strange interview with Pol Pot followed by a desperate escape from Cambodia.

Africa on Six Wheels

 

Too bad every teacher in the rich hemisphere can’t hustle the class off to Africa for a semester on wheels.

It takes an unusual teacher to lead students on trips that extend for a semester in places on the fringe of the average college attendee’s comfort zone.  

Africa on six wheels

The author is that exceptional type, an English professor specializing in African studies and African literature at Doane College in Nebraska.  She leads small groups of college students on enriching study tours through southern and eastern Africa. Betty Levitov skillfully shares the experiences gleaned during several teaching tours in Africa focused on cross-cultural communication and experiences.  The narrative usually unfolds in the present tense giving immediacy and connection to the characters.

The Africa Semester sounds like a great idea and Dr. Levitov’s lighthearted motherly presentation should put at ease the parents or guardians of prospective exchange students. Even if the students aren’t headed for Africa, this book offers travelers handy advice for how to get along in challenging circumstances and how to interact with people from other cultural and economic backgrounds.

Africa on Six Wheels, A Semester on Safari

Betty Levitov

University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2007, 184 pages.

 

Eighty Days, Two Women, The Globe

Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman
Eighty Days
by Matthew Goodman

Here’s a book I thoroughly enjoyed  —  a terrific read, a thrilling trip, adventurous women — what more could one want!  For this life-long voyager, it offered an historical version of my own round-the-world trips.  You don’t have to be a traveler to get a kick out of reading about two enterprising women journalists and their historic global circumnavigation in opposite directions. 

Eighty Days takes its title from Jules Verne‘s serialized novel Around the World in Eighty Days, published in book form in 1873.   

But — this  Eighty Days is not fiction.    

FLASH Update:  Nellie Bly’s route retraced 125 years later on Nellie Bly in the Sky

Eighty Days opens in mid November, 1889 when 25-year-old journalist Nellie Bly is waving farewell to chilly, wet New York City from the deck of the steamship Augusta Victoria. The book tracks her biggest story — a solo global circuit and intrepid race against time — eastward across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe and Asia.  The author introduces us to Nellie Bly’s character and achievements as a pioneering investigative reporter adept at “stunt journalism“. She posed as a factory worker. She exposed baby-selling scams.  She got herself locked up in an asylum for the insane  for nearly two weeks by acting bizarrely so she would be incarcerated as mentally disturbed. Her reports sparked a grand jury investigation of public hospitals for women where conditions were unsanitary and cruel.

Nellie Bly dressed for travel, 1889.
Nellie Bly dressed for travel, 1889.

Nellie Bly was not a novice traveler.  She had lived in Mexico with her mother for company, writing articles about bullfights, coffin manufacturers, political graft and cultural oddities.  Proof of her travel saavy was the single small handbag she carried as luggage, now displayed in the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

Elizabeth Bisland en route around the world, 1889.
Elizabeth Bisland en route around the world, 1889.

Meanwhile, a competing publication sweet-talked another woman to race around the globe in the other direction, westward across the continent and the Pacific Ocean, committing her to return to New York City before Bly.  Elizabeth Bisland, a gently-bred Louisianan, was an accomplished literary essayist and poet, 28 years old in 1889 when the around her world trip began a few hours after Nellie Bly sailed away.

 During her years as a magazine essayist and community group leader in New Orleans she had forged a life-long friendship with the acclaimed author Lafcadio Hearn, but she hadn’t traveled beyond the southern and eastern states.  In New York City,  Bisland was a serious professional writer, stylish and well-dressed, the toast of the New York literary scene of the day. Photographs  in the book show a pristine beauty.  She traveled with several trunks filled with clothes and accessories for the climate changes anticipated during nearly three months at sea and on the road. 

Author Matthew Goodman
Author Matthew Goodman

Matthew Goodman does a brilliant job of explaining the travel infrastructure of the 1890s — grand hotels, steamships, comfortable railway carriages in the USA and the rudimentary, poorly heated rail cars in Europe and beyond.  The British Empire made such a journey possible with its tightly scheduled steamships moving mail, people and supplies to the colonies with refueling stops strung around the world.  At that time, the sun never set on the British empire.

As any true traveler knows,  the people in a place show the real story.  Goodman explores the city streets, ports, lodgings, restaurants and markets, writing historically accurate scenes of faraway places.  Prejudice, injustice and the downtrodden lives of the world’s workers are exposed.  Too many travel narratives shy away from tough realities, presenting a distorted rosy view of places tourists pass through insulated by money and tour guides.  At sea, headed for China, Bisland writes about the human cargo of Chinese railroad workers  forced out of the USA some of them ill and half-dead.  Bly made a point of going ashore whenever possible to poke around street markets, ride in human-powered pedicabs or watch port operations and  refueling.

Thanks to the British Empire, English was spoken just about everywhere the women put ashore as well as at the telegraph stations .  Logistics were complicated to arrange without telephones, mobile phones or online travel sites. For me, an attractive feature of the book is following their route on the maps, noting transport connections and wondering if any of those elegant old hotels remain.  I’ve had the pleasure of staying in one or two very vintage hotels in Asia, but renovations might be overly elaborate and erase historical character.

Still, their journeys were not luxury tours hopping from one British outpost to another.  Annoyances ranged from extreme temperatures, weather delays, dramatic storms at sea, fickle health, loneliness, intruding gawkers and local reporters in search of a story.  Nellie reinforced her pre-existing negative opinion of the snobby Brits and Elizabeth learned that she liked to travel, despite a tipsy stomach.

Elizabeth Bisland and Nellie Bly used telegraph messages to communicate their progress which the newspapers used to pump reader interest and increase circulation.  One paper ran a contest with a free trip for the winner who could guess Bly’s completion date. It was a neck-to-neck race in opposite directions and I won’t spoil the suspense unfolding during their around-the-world journeys by spilling the beans about the final days and the unusual trajectory of their lives afterwards.

Eighty Days was released in paperback on March 11, 2014.  It’s a great book for book club discussion groups too.  Read my interview with Matthew Goodman at AdventureTravelWriter.org

Around the World in  Eighty Days by Jules Verne book cover.
Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne book cover.
  • Ballantine Books
  • ISBN: 978-0-345-52727   eBook: 978-0-804-17644-6
  • Paperback edition, 2014. $16.00
  • Includes: Index, Bibliography, Photographs, Maps and a guide for reading groups
Around the World in 80 Days film publicity 1956.
Around the World in 80 Days film publicity 1956.

Some readers may remember the 1956 Technicolor film with David Niven in the title role and a legacy of five Academy Awards.  The film Around the World in Eighty Days was produced by Elizabeth Taylor’s beloved husband Mike Todd, who died in an aircraft accident 18 months later.

Following the Sun

Following the Sun, A Bicycle Pilgrimage from Andalusia to the Hebrides     

Book cover
Following the Sun
by John Hanson Mitchell

John Hanson Mitchell

Counterpoint, 2002

ISBN: 1-58243-136-1, 280 pages

Who wouldn’t enjoy following the sun through Europe to end on Summer Solstice in Scotland? That’s the premise for the author’s bicycle journey from Cadiz, Spain to Callanish, Scotland.   is to follow the sun, a passionate interest of The author is passionate about connecting with people and explores the differences among cultures as well as the universal binding qualities of humanity.   The trip took place a while ago, during the early years of the Common Market.  Considering one of the finest travel books ever — Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “Between the Woods and the Water” — was written decades after the experience, I fully embraced the timelessness of this enjoyable narrative where spirit transcends distance.

The author is well integrated in local habits, traveling as a slow-moving cyclist on a Peugeot clunker.   He mentions being thanked for American assistance to Europe during WWII — that’s because  even now in the 21st century, European  folks of a certain age often insert a thanks for Liberation Day in conversations with visiting Americans.

The reader wheels along with the author.  And it’s a great ride.  Mitchell artfully describes landscape, the curious characters and the local cuisine.  He never misses a human interest story and samples the local plonk, usually with a talkative companion.

Interwoven with the journey narrative are tidy summaries of historical or scientific detours relevant to the place, climate or festivals encountered by the author.  Religious cults, folktales, myth, pilgrimage routes and culinary lore expand the thread of  Hansen’s journey.  He arrives in Scotland for the summer solstice.

En route,  we learn of the westerly winds that permitted Christopher Columbus to push further west off the “edge of the known  earth” and eventually sight the islands we know as the West Indies. This provides a segue into the solar influenced civilizations of the new world.  Ever mindful of the sun, Mitchell discusses bird and animal behavior related to the sun and solar eclipses.  We hear about the religious and intellectual growth of Spain during the enlightened years of Muslim rule prior to. He touches on bullfights and the Mithraic cult of the bull and sun, early Christian rituals, Greek myth, harvesting grapes and how to cut peat. All of it is fascinating material, lucidly presented.  Alas, the book lacks an index.

Several times Mitchell mentions sojourns in Spain and France prior to this bike pilgrimage, so we can assume he knows the languages, always useful for independent travelers. Either he diligently recorded his previous travels, or he plays with memory.  It would be useful to know whether he kept a diary at the time to assist memory and  report past conversations verbatim.  Many travel writers do this.  For example, “A Time of Gifts” and “Between the Woods and the Water,” describe Patrick Leigh Fermor’s walk across Europe at age 18; he wrote these books as a mature adult and occasionally quotes the people he met years earlier, but makes it clear that he was using detailed diaries as a source.

Mitchell acknowledges contributions from friends he met up with during the journey.  While I believe it is possible for a writer to have vibrant memories of significant journeys and other experiences in life,  it seems only fair to let readers know about invented dialogue based on memory.  Then we’re more likely to accept that every encounter really took place and wasn’t a mirage or convenient authorial invention.

–L. Peat O’Neil

Double 00 Books Store

L. Peat O’Neil blogs about travel at http://AdventureTravelWriter.org and contributes to numerous online and print publications.

She wrote Pyrenees Pilgrimage about a solo walk across France from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean along the

Map of the St. Jacques de Compostela routes through Europe.
Map of the St. Jacques de Compostela routes through Europe.

Camino of St. Jacques de Compostella that extends across all of Europe and into Spain. She is also the author of  Travel Writing – See the World, Sell the Story.

Already Home: Topography of Spirit and Place

Already Home  ::  A Topography of Spirit and Place  

Barbara Gates searches her backyard for personal meaning, exploring what’s hidden behind the obvious.

Lotus blossom symbol.
Lotus blossom symbol.

A neighbor on her Berkeley, California street has started sleeping in Gates’ car to avoid household turmoil.  Gates tolerates the backseat sleepovers, though other middle-class neighbors object that she’s encouraging bad elements .  Reminds me of the hilarious (and bittersweet) Alan Bennett novella The Lady in the Van.

The woman seeking refuge in the backseat of a car and other events propel Barbara Gates to investigate the street where she lives and the extended neighborhood.

What starts out as a tentative exploration of self and the meaning of home broadens as the author gains confidence in the mission.  She notices drug dealing on the street, the poverty of certain neighbors contrasted with the prosperity of others.  She explores abandoned industrial facilities  a few blocks from her door.

The narrative includes high and low crises in her life (a rat in the kitchen, raising a daughter, cancer) and chronicles her aperture to the broader world.  She learns about herself by exploring the neighborhood; and that’s when the story becomes more engaging.

The glamour of meditation. Image: http://matsmatsmats.com
Glamour of meditation?
matsmatsmats.com

It threatens at first to be another slightly irritating Oh-poor-me-and-my-inner-life narrative (the Eat, Pray, Love genre) from a privileged person.  What a change when they jump off the meditation cushion and notice the world, or even where their feet fall.   In contrast with her neighbors, the author can read, has a stable home life, an income and time to meditate.  What’s her problem, a reader wonders, at the mention of a rat in the kitchen?  The rat turns out to be a linking device jolting the ecology of  the neighborhood, like street crime and encroaching development.  The book turns interesting once the inner-gazing and self-glazing ends and Gates notices the windows, street, people and neighborhood.

The author is cofounder and coeditor of the Buddhist journal Inquiring Mind.  She is brave enough to show the process of how she opens to the world.  She explains and exhumes the history of her house and surroundings, then realizes the lesson is simply to let go of the past and embrace her present life there.

Resources:

Daily Om

Yoga Journal

Interview with Barbara Gates

Book information:  Shambala, Boston & London,  2003,  229 pages,  $21.95 hardcover,  ISBN: 1570624909

This review appeared in a slightly different format in The Bloomsbury Review.

The Atlantic Rim

While the Pacific Rim captures attention  ::

Consider the Atlantic Rim, an older trade route.

Map of N. Atlantic Ocean floor and N. Atlantic Rim coastal areas.

The July 3, 2008 issue of London Review of Books discusses two recent books:

North Atlantic Map. http://en.wikipedia.com
North Atlantic Map.
http://en.wikipedia.com

My interest in the history and geography of the Atlantic Rim took me to Kenneth White’s book On the Atlantic Edge. White’s ideas about geopoetics are provocative. He’s a Scotsman who lives in France and writes in English and French — a forward-thinking author with poetic nuance.

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On the Atlantic Edge
by Kenneth White

Resources:

The Atlantic World Research Network – University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Atlantic World Foodways Conference – January 31 – February 2, 2014.

Transatlantic Exchanges Forum – Plymouth University – Atlantic Studies Initiative.