“I have an idea,” I told Mike one rainy afternoon in Bologna.
“Oh no,” he said. Lives have been changed, careers re-arranged, international airfare bought, as a direct result of one of us casually saying, “I have an idea.”
In this case, though, our lives were already being upended. We were less than a month out from moving across the ocean and ending a major travel adventure. We were headed back to the United States after two years living abroad in Italy to spend the next little while in… suburban Florida.
Anything I could add to that was really small potatoes. Especially if my idea was literally about potatoes.
I want to start writing again
A bold statement, considering that writing is literally my day job. As a content marketer, I write thousands of words each week, mostly for SaaS companies on subjects like omnichannel marketing, hiring for remote companies, and how to redesign your product page to generate more sales.
It’s a good job and I like it. I get to work with cool people and I learn so much. But man do I miss creative writing. I’ve complained before that I write all day and when the day is over, I’m far too zapped to sit down and do yet more writing. The poor novel that I was lovingly working on at the beginning of 2019 has sat fully untouched since April. Even opening the Scribner document is psychologically intimidating enough to stop me in my tracks.
Try as I might, I can’t budge on the novel. It’s time to take a different tactic. After all, writing something, anything has to be better than writing nothing.
That’s when I had an epiphany: I’ve always let my stomach guide me on my travels, so I thought, why not let it guide me in my writing?
The transcendent power of food.
For the past decade, I have been traveling, working, or living abroad nearly constantly. I backpacked my way through Southeast Asia and South America, camper vanned around Australia and road-tripped all over the United States. I bluffed my way into a job that sent me to places like Fiji and Finland, Spain, and Sri Lanka. I spent time living in England, China, Argentina, Mexico, and Italy. Even my 3-year-old has snacked her way through nearly a dozen countries in her short life.
One thread connects these disparate adventures: really, really delicious food. When I think of Japan I think of basement ramen shops and train station bento boxes. When I remember Morocco, I taste the amazing tagines our Airbnb host served us in Fez, and the sweet mint tea we drank in the souk. Talk to me about Sri Lanka and I’ll rave about the most perfect yellow dal and the fragrant curries I couldn’t stop eating.
It works the other way too: When I breathe deeply into a big bowl of pho, I am right back on a busy street in Hanoi, motorbikes whizzing by as I sip a fragrant broth. When I make scallion pancakes or pour a heavy hand of Szechuan peppercorns into a frying pan, Chengdu swims in front of my eyes. Homemade pasta is a direct line to Italy, a perfectly crafted margarita is a forceful reminder of long afternoons drinking by the beach in Sayulita.
Food and travel are inextricably linked together in my mind. So now, when I’m stranded in the suburbs, on a travel sabbatical for the foreseeable future, what better way to revisit my many travels, than by cooking the foods that most remind me of my past adventures?
I made a bucket list
I sat down and made a list of all the dishes I could think of that most remind me of the places I love. Spanish omelets, Australian meat pies, pad thai, carnitas, Argentine Asado, okonomiyaki… It ended up being quite a long list. In the end, it was close to 100 dishes from 5 continents and over 2 dozen countries.
Banh xeo, crema catalana, pozole, arancini, shepherds pie, burek, saganaki…
Some of these things I’ve tried to cook before with varying success, some of them I’ve been too intimidated to try (croissants? yikes). I limited myself to food I have actually been lucky enough to try in the places they are from (so no bibimbap as I’ve yet to travel to Korea).
My plan is simple: I’m going to cook them all. One at a time. And I’m going to write about it. About my memories, about the dishes themselves, and about my attempts, successes, and failures, to create my favorite dishes and connect with food cultures around the world.
If I do this right, it will be a slow undertaking, but an educational, and hopefully fun one. I want to understand what makes certain dishes special or iconic, and why we connect them with particular places. I also want to explore how certain dishes have changed as they made their way to America. Lastly, I want to provide real, useful recipes that you can use to have your own mealtime journey should you so choose.
Here’s the list (which is still a bit of a work in progress). In a couple of days, I will be publishing my first entry in what I expect will be several year-long journeys. I’m tackling one of my favorite Italian pasta dishes.
So what do you think? Will you come with me?