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When You Travel, Eat to Understand

Interview with Don George, editor of "A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Adventures ..."

December: 'Tis the season for travel, and the season for eating. And in many cases, both.

When en route to your holiday destination, you could opt for a pleasant five nights in the familiar chain hotel, and wander the laid-out destination of a tourist brochure when not playing Scrabble with the family. You could fuel up in the morning at Dunkin' Donuts, snack at McDonald's and, when not gathered around Aunt Martha's roast or imbibing on seconds of fruitcake, dine at Applebee's.

moveable feast

Patrice de Villiers/Gallery Stock

Or you could travel.

Lonely Planet, the long-running series of immersion travel guides, would recommend the latter option. The editors have a philosophy about going places: In order to truly experience a new place, get to know the locals and dive into their world. And one of the best ways into any new culture — whether on a remote island or in the next county — is through its food. Travel writers often enter new cultures by sharing an ordinary meal, ordering the house specialty or simply saying yes to a snack. Food makes other cultures not so foreign.

Don George, former travel editor at the San Francisco Examiner and the Chronicle and's Wanderlust site, and currently a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler and, is the editor of Lonely Planet's latest anthology, A Moveable Feast. He spoke to the AARP Bulletin about this collection of essays designed to leave the reader hungry for the world. (Read an excerpt from A Moveable Feast.)

Q. When in a different place, how do you find those special, non-touristy places where you might have an authentic, life-changing moment — or two?

A. Get a little bit off the beaten path. Let's say you're in Paris and go to the Eiffel Tower. After visiting this touristy but quintessential place, wander and go into the little shops and observe the shopkeepers closely and the way that the people in the neighborhood interact with each other.

Q. But what if you're staying in the Hilton, don't speak the language, get heartburn after spicy food and are watching your sugar intake?

A. Then you have to be a little careful with your food experiences! But there's all kinds of food experiences. One story in the book is just about a glass of orange juice that was proffered to the author when she was feeling miserable and lonely and life wasn't treating her well; a glass of orange juice that a kindly desk clerk in Venice offered her made all the difference. It's not necessarily the food itself that is the crux of the life-changing experience. Often it's the people around you and the setting in which it's consumed.

Q. What if you're not in glamorous Paris or Venice, but at Uncle Lou's in the state next door where it may be harder to find something off the beaten path?

A. You can have life-changing experiences anywhere — it's the attitude you bring to it. If you pour yourself out into the world with an open heart and open mind, the world will receive you with equal openness. It's mostly how you approach the experience.

Q. Cite some specifics about the stories in A Moveable Feast that can help a reader view travel differently.

A. Every story in this book changed the way I think about the world. There's one story by Amanda Jones about being offered a mango in Africa in a place where there was almost no food to be had, so the gift of a ripened piece of fruit was really extraordinary. I've never thought about a mango in the same way again. Another great story describes a father-son barbecue pilgrimage, which made me rethink what's so wonderful about great barbecued food.

Q. Amen to barbecue.

A. The collection is like this great sumptuous banquet, this great feast, that reminds me how important a part of my everyday life food is for me at home and on the road and what a tremendous agent of wonder, transformation and enjoyment sharing food with other people can be.

Q. On the practical side, what foods could really wreck good vacations?

A. You always have to be careful when you go to places where the hygienic standards aren't what ours are. Watch eating uncooked or unpeeled vegetables, and drinking the tap water. Certainly, when you go to places you are not familiar with, you really need to not push your body beyond its comfort level. The first time I went to India, I definitely had stomach challenges because the food was so much spicier than what my body was used to.

Q. Yikes.

A. That being said, I've tried all kinds of foods in my travels and generally haven't had a problem with them. I've had delicious fruits that I still don't know the names of. Try the specialty of a place so you get a sense of what the locals like to eat. Within your boundaries.

Q. Many people are too timid, especially in an unfamiliar place, to explore both with food and adventure.

A. Taking a tour may be the best way to dip their toe in the water. A group trip will take care of all the logistics and practicalities of getting your bags and tickets, and transporting you from one place to another. They're a great way to experience something new without venturing too far outside your comfort zone because you can be with expert guides and people like you.

Q. What if you're on your own?

A. People in the hotels — asking the desk clerk where to go — can provide a certain comfort level. Rely on their kindness. You don't want to spend your vacation looking over your shoulder or worried about what you're doing or where you're going. But it is important to push yourself.

Q. What about those who are just feeling too weary to try something new?

A. That's just a limitation that people place on themselves. Just going for a walk in a new place is new. You're never too old. Newness comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes and forms. Experiencing new things revitalizes us, reenergizes us, enriches us, helps us grow, keeps us feeling younger and rejuvenated.

Q. What about taking a cooking class while on a trip?

A. It's a great way to get into the heart of a place by learning what people eat, how the food is sold, where they go to the market, how do they do their shopping, how do they prepare the food. All of these are terrific lessons to help you know what it's like to live there. By understanding the everyday realities, the cultural backgrounds and traditions and beliefs of different places, the more you get out of your own background. The more you embrace, the bigger you become, the better you understand the place where you are. And that's true for a different region of your own country as well as a place halfway around the planet.

Q. In his story, Tim Cahill determines that one should eat whatever the host puts in front of him — even if it's the head of a rooster. Another writer, Lawrence Millman , suggests "Eat what your hosts eat; and then you'll understand them a lot better." What rules must one stick to in order to avoid cultural insensitivity?

A. Being attuned to your surroundings is the most important thing. Try to be in harmony with the way people around you are acting and how they're eating. When you're testing and expanding your boundaries, you have to be mindful of all the components of a situation and make an on-the-spot decision about the best thing to do.

Q. Any personal examples?

A. I lived in Greece for a year and learned that eating a lamb's eyeball was a great honor. So when I was offered the eyeball at a feast that my parents and I were invited to, I knew I'd be doing a great disservice to me, my parents and my hosts if I didn't gladly accept it as a token of great honor. Let's just say it did not taste like chicken.

Q. What shouldn't a traveler do, food-wise?

A. Ultimately you can't do something you think is dangerous or morally wrong — but you have to test the limits of that. In rural Japan, I was offered the local specialty with great ceremony at a beautiful restaurant. It turned out to be really, really fresh sashimi. In fact, the whole fish was still alive. It was a difficult moment for me, but I realized it was a great honor, and so I couldn't NOT eat it. In this particular situation, it was what I had to do, as squeamish as it made me on lots of different levels.

Q. In these economically tough times when people can't necessarily leave the country, what do you suggest?

A. It's not necessary to leave your country, or even your region, to have an eye-opening experience. I often suggest that people approach their hometown with the eyes of a visitor. I'm lucky that I live in San Francisco, and every day I encounter someone from far on the other side of the planet who's come to learn and appreciate the city. It helps me put on their mind-set.

Q. But those of us who live in small American towns, or will be visiting them over the holidays?

A. Go to the local diner and really savor the characters who are there, and the great food you get and the atmosphere and the history. We can appreciate, or reappreciate, where we are by pretending we're not familiar with it and really seeing the surrounding riches. There's all kinds of mind-enriching, soul-stretching experiences waiting for us right in our own neighborhoods. It's all about the attitude that you bring to the world and the enjoyment you discover therein. You really don't need to leave your own ZIP code.

Q. As you mentioned, writer Doug Mack travels with his father on a quest to find the best barbecue in the U.S.! Any other great American quests out there?

A. America is full of great quests. Andrew Zimmern also goes on a trip with his dad to find the best lobster roll. In San Francisco, it might be the quest to find the best sourdough bread or the best Dungeness crab, or best wine. Every region offers its own local specialties — the best meatloaf, best fried chicken.

Q. The best po'boy in Louisiana, the best pecan pie in the South, the best pizza in New York or Chicago …

A. Yes! But food is only part of the quest … the great places you will explore, the great people you will meet because you're on that quest: They're very much a part of the whole experience.

Carol Kaufmann is a contributing editor to the AARP Bulletin.