Eating on the Road: Local Food and Long Distance Cravings / by Amy Thibodeau

San Blas Fish

By Amy Thibodeau

We've been on the road now for just over two and a half months and upon reflection, the experience has really outlined how much I relate food with comfort. The namesake for this website, Mark Twain, spent a great deal of time in Europe eating bad hotel food; he compensated for his homesickness by imagining the familiar foods he loved back home:

But the joy Twain took from food was most vivid in a long fantasy menu of favorite American dishes he composed towards the end of his 1879 European tour . Having suffered through more than a year of dismal hotel cooking, he wrote down the 85 dishes he said he wanted waiting for him the moment he arrived home. The menu ranged from fresh American produce like butter beans, asparagus, pumpkins, and "green corn, on the ear" to meats like porterhouse steak and broiled chicken to regional dishes like Southern-style hoe-cake and "oysters, roasted in the shell, Northern style.

via Mark Twain: Writer, Humorist, Locavore - Food - The Atlantic.

The first six weeks of our journey was spent in the Arizona desert, in a very comfortable home looking out onto a vast expanse of Saguaro cactus, scrub and Cholla - all in bloom. The desert in the spring time is like the moon, if the moon were covered in explosions of color sprouting out of plants that at first glance look incapable of producing or sustaining any kind of life. I had always imagined the desert to be an empty expanse of dirt and sand; instead I found it teeming with all kinds of strange creatures from tiny bunnies and wild pigs to snakes and scorpions.

The food in Arizona was convenient but a bit disappointing. We were on the edge of Phoenix and had access to all the strip malls that are in any large US city; but certain things were missing. Unless we went to a specialty store (a very expensive one), it was nearly impossible to find free range meat. At the local Safeway a clerk working in the meat department looked at us with confusion when we inquired about free range chicken. At the same store, we were only able to find one brand of free range eggs out of about 40 different varieties. And the cheese was pretty dismal; mostly of the orange variety and with an oily texture.

There was good food available, but in Phoenix it was hard to find and needlessly expensive. Perhaps it's because of the insane heat of the desert, but farmer's markets just didn't seem common and one of the only options for those looking for anything free range or local was to shop at AJ's - a beautiful store but outside the price range of most people, including us. It made Waitrose look like a bargain. This bothered us because in the UK cruelty free meat and eggs is expected in most supermarkets and although it does cost more, it's still affordable for most shoppers.

The restaurant scene in Phoenix was similar to the grocery shopping experience; there were some amazing restaurants but they were very expensive. Or, there were cheaper fast food and chain places, but they were pretty average.

After our stint in Phoenix, we spent five weeks in a small fishing village in the Nararit region of Mexico called San Blas. The eating experience was unique for us because we had never spent a significant amount of time anywhere in which an abundant variety of imported food wasn't readily available; we were forced to shop for mostly locally sourced produce.

The markets sold fruits and vegetables of varying quality and fresh fish, which was an assault to the sense of smell unused to the realness, the all encompassing odor of pounds of fresh fish piled on tables in the heat of a July morning in Mexico. It was nice to know that we were shopping locally but difficult to get used to buying wilted and bruised tomatoes that had been banged in the heat, browned soggy lettuce and peppers covered in flies and dirt.

In Canada (where I'm from) and the United Kingdom (where I live) we are mostly accustomed to buying our food in clean, halogen lit stores where everything has been washed and packaged so that it looks appealing. The meat and fish counters don't smell and everything comes packaged in lovely white containers, vacuum sealed with plastic. It feels safe and it creates an environment where it's easy to ignore issues such as: where did this pork come from, who caught this fish, and how far were these bananas shipped and what is the environmental footprint of that?

In the small towns of Mexico, the stages of food production are laid out in front of each consumer before they make a purchase. Along the river Nayarit at dawn the fishermen paddle their boats out to lay their shrimping nets. When swimming in the ocean, out in the distance you can see the fishing boats scatter across the horizon and occasionally you will even see a man suddenly walk out of the water, a net tied around his waist filled with fish he's caught with a little skewer while free diving. Every morning as people set up their stalls, pick up trucks filled with fruit and vegetables drive into town, produce piled in the back already wilting from the heat that never really goes away during the summer months. Dirt and mud cling to everything and the flies are ever present.

Although I ate fish in restaurants in San Blas, I couldn't bring myself to buy it in the market and cook it myself. Who would fillet and de-bone it and how would we ever get that pungent smell out of our little flat? It was the same for me with meat. There were a number of small, warm butcher shops speckled throughout the town but I could smell them from far away, the rusty odor of blood completely overcoming me when I was directly out front; the floors often a bit bloody, the butcher smiling and I couldn't help but picture the grazing floppy eared Brahman cows out in the nearby pasture. I couldn't even bring myself to go in.

My experience with food in San Blas was one I will never forget; I hope it will make me more aware of what I'm eating and the privileged sanitized experience that generally colors my experience of food. I am embarrassed to say that I never used to think much about where my food came from, the many hands that toiled for it and how little many of them will ever make for their labor. After San Blas, I will never forget the little ladies sitting on plastic chairs under tarps, shielding their catch from the sun, using colorful bits of fabric to swipe away the bugs while calling out "Pescado?" as we walked passed.

I longed for so many things while in San Blas and although I didn't make a proper list like Twain did, I craved foods desperately, even dreamed about them:

  • Bread and pastries in Paris
  • Spicy chicken Indian curry with a side of Saag Paneer and Naan
  • Vietnamese Pho - cold translucent rice noodles with peanuts and sprouts covered in grilled fish or meat
  • Musky taste of strong cheese paired with a bottle of nice wine and maybe some pickle
  • Homemade spaghetti with meat sauce
  • Caesar salad
  • Okonomiyaka (Japansese pancake)
  • Tender cut of steak and a baked potato
  • Poutine (preferably from Montreal)

This list could go on forever.

Despite lusting for more familiar foods, there were things that I learned to really like about food in San Blas. Apart from an amazing meal in it's only four star restaurant cooked by a fascinating local woman who trained at the Cordon Bleu in Paris in the early 80s (more on her in a later post), which was honestly one of the best meals I've had in my life: the avocados were delicious and fat; the tortillas were made fresh by locals each morning and sold in hot, high stacks; the pineapple was so sweet and fresh that you could smell it from a block away; and the local plantain bread (pan de plantano) was soft and warm - the perfect breakfast.

Part of the experience of traveling is giving up the familiar comforts of home and seeing everything from a new perspective. It's awkward and frustrating but also brilliant and life changing. Am I looking forward to being in Canada for the next month and the amazing meals and conveniences I know we'll enjoy on the coast and in the prairies? Absolutely. Will I ever look at food with the same flagrant disregard for its origin and without a thought for those who worked to produce it? Absolutely not.

What are your experiences with food while traveling? How do you adapt? What are the dishes from home that you yearn for? We'd love to hear from you.

Image Credit: First Meal in San Blas by Amy Thibodeau