The Traveling Dieter’s Dilemma
Does being on a strict diet hold you back from truly experiencing another culture? It’s a good question, and–as a vegetarian–it’s one that’s been dogging me on my travels as of late. On his Travel Channel show No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain’s philosophy maintains that digging fork or fingers first into the local cuisine is the best way to understand what a place is all about. Recently, he did a show on the San Francisco food scene, which he characterized, somewhat correctly, as “veganism, rich hippies, sanctimoniousness about food, food fetishism, animal rights terrorists, gastro-dogma, and loud locavores.” He then did a 180 and promptly managed to run with open arms and a mouth full of drool toward every red-juicy, flesh-and-blood, meat-lover’s dish the city had to offer: prime rib and beef tartare and carne asada and even bacon coffee.
As I watched the show, Tony Bordain revealed an entirely separate city from the one I’ve known, one with its own very thriving culture, one where the food said as much about the city’s unique flavors (and even stranger tastes) as the sheltered dietary world I’ve been living in. I’d clearly been missing out on the San Francisco that Bourdain described on his blog (except maybe the martinis, but those are vegetarian!):
“San Francisco, underneath a gossamer thin veneer of granola is in fact, a two-fisted drinking town, a place of oversized martinis, silver zeppelins overloaded with bleeding slabs of meat, restaurants you could call “institutions” that defiantly refuse to suck, and in an ever tidier, cleaner, Disneyfied world–where even New York’s Times Square looks like a theme park, still, a delightfully nasty, dirty, beautiful, carnivorous, vice-filled town.”
San Francisco: carnivorous!? Have I been living all this time under the “thin veneer of granola,” not just in San Francisco, but in all places I visit?
Both at home and when I travel, I am often forced to remove myself from some great cultural traditions because of my diet. It’s happened over and over again: I’ve been offered homemade beef tamales in Mexico, pomegranate chicken in Israel, fresh-caught fish in Jamaica, fire-roasted pork in Hawaii, and veal in Italy. In all instances, I’ve had to politely decline, despite being told how special these dishes are, and how representative they are of the local culture. Instead, I nibbled at cheese or salad and bread feeling like a happy traveler but also feeling like I was missing something–perhaps even something important.
And it does make me wonder: without tasting all of a culture’s true cuisine, can I ever really know that culture and understand what the people are all about? For now, I’ll have to settle for getting close. After nearly 20 years as a vegetarian, I’m not about to change my ways–it’s part of who I am. But can any traveler who is on a strict diet–be it vegetarian or kosher or low-cal or Atkins–really truly say that they’re not, in some way, holding back?
On a recent trip to Iceland this past May, my vegetarian friends and I subsisted on pretzels, cheese, fruit, beer, and yogurt (pictured above). When I returned from my trip, people asked me, “so how’s the food in Iceland?” “I have no idea,” I had to answer! On the other hand, I can tell you plenty about the country’s waterfalls and museums… and grocery stores, for that matter.
For dietary reasons, have you ever had to absent yourself from eating a country’s typical dish?
My name: Rachel Berg.
Favorite way to get around: By Venetian gondola during starlit high tide, gliding past decaying and slightly spooky palaces, with perhaps a bottle of prosecco placed between the gondola seat cushions.
View that took my breath away: Unable to sleep in the mystical city of Sfat in Israel, I wandered outdoors predawn and was treated to a purple-on-purple sunrise below the mountaintop that seemed to emerge feet-first through ground-level clouds.
Greatest travel lesson learned: Sunny weather isn't everything. Some of my best travel memories involve go-karting through a deluge turned mud-fest in Mexico, drinking tea in the cold Denali tundra, and watching electric thunderstorms roll through national parks out West.
Most challenging travel moment: Getting leveled by altitude sickness in Cuzco and realizing that my body was forcing me to slow down and rest despite the fact that there was so much to do and see.
Travel ambition: To see the northern lights.