I really likes sociology, but I’m shit at it. I read it at university once, as an extra-curricular activity so far off my normal group of subjects that even my tutor had to raise an eyebrow when I told him that I wanted to read it. Despite that I went on, followed the course, took notes, did my assignments, thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing and then barely passed the final exam, much to the scorn of the professor. It was a shock, a sign from the Gods that I’m not meant to have anything to do with the thing. Ever. But I’ve never been that great in listening to the God’s advice, so…
There are few things as diverse as food in our world; despite the efforts of McDonald’s, Burger King and Jamie Oliver every country – and every region, and sometimes every valley – has its own way of answering the “What the hell am I gonna eat today?” question. These differences are born out of necessity, religion, climate, economic status and culture; they are extremely interesting but they also mean that they force a visitor to face unfamiliar choices when abroad. And usually I’d be there, looking at the drama unfolding. These are, ranked from the most negative to the most “difference-embracing” reaction, the categories of individuals I managed to observe when the (mostly Westener) foreigner comes to eat.
The franchised. Also known as the “Let’s go to McDonald’s” archetype, this is the individual that would go somewhere, not necessarily exotic, contemplate the situation and immediately revert to what he knows best, i.e. the local branches of a popular Western fast food, or would scan the aisles of supermarkets for processed food he also eats at home. This is, quite possibly, the person to whom travelling is least useful because not only he’ll come back without sampling an important piece of the local culture, but he’s also likely to find himself sharing tables with local chavs (for whom fast foods are the restaurants of choice).
The paranoid. Do you remember Babel? In that film Cate Blanchett plays a wealthy Western tourist travelling through Morocco with her husband, trying to get their relationship back on track (and utterly failing at it, I’d say). In a scene shot at a local restaurant she behaves like the perfect specimen of our paranoid eater. Gestures include passing wet wipes on every possible surface, refusing local veggies and tea, throwing sanitising gel on her hands by the bucketful and, in general, behaving like an ass. I personally find this kind of people most annoying for a number of reasons: firstly, because they’re not that far from behaving like Howard Hughes (and there’s a reason why we say he was barking mad); secondly, because bacteria are actually useful to us; thirdly because most of their clownings are perfectly useless. Using bottled water and refrain from raw vegetables in areas with shoddy hygiene should, and usually does, suffice. You can pour as much Clinell as possible on yourself but, at the end of the day, Delhi Belly will get you nonetheless.
The homesick. This particular individual might find himself in China, or in Jordan, or in India, surrounded by thousands of years of culinary savoir; yet, he’ll be longing for the Sunday roast he’s used to eat at the Coach and Horses round the corner at home. This behaviour is endemic amongst Italians who, in fairness, have extremely high standards, at home, for all things food but who cannot refrain from complaining because it’s impossible to find a good dish of pasta al dente in Thailand. The result are abominations like Formentera, the last refuge for the Gazzetta dello Sport-toting Milanese, where there are more pizzerias than drug dealers. Or like Sant Antoni in Ibiza, which could be renamed Macclesfield-by-the-Med.
The high-end connoisseur. Have you ever been in those restaurants by the waterfront, or high up downtown with an awesome vista? Those places that have a section on the menu dedicated to mineral waters and where an espresso would be costing as much as the GDP of a Nairobi slum? If your answer is yes, then you’re probably one of what I call “high end connoisseurs”. This means that you usually are wealthier than myself (or that your credit cart has a higher platfond) and that you don’t shy away from trying the local specialties… As long as they have multiple Michelin stars, that is.
The cautious experimenter. You have left the safe surroundings of the savours that are most familiar to you, and you feel ready to try that dish you ate at an ethnic restaurant in your hometown, this time in its native environment. However the paranoid that lives in you is still very much alive and kicking, forcing you to what you deem as “respectable” restaurants, which must have a) an English menu b) assorted paraphernalia advertising German beers or Scottish whisky c) at least another couple of sunburned tourists as customers. The risk is to end up in those sad establishment with pseudo-waiters calling in potential customers, watered-down cuisine and spiced-up bills.
The gone native. In a nutshell, this is the eating equivalent of Colonel Kurtz, without a Captain Willard steaming upstream in sight. The person gone native will instinctively head towards marketplaces, tiny food stalls, diminutive restaurants and cafés, everywhere he can spot the best clue of good food: a queue of locals. The gone native will know and believe in the assumptions that locals will know where to go for good, tasty meals that won’t give food poisoning as a dessert, and will also know that those places will cost a fraction of that waterfront restaurant. Does it always work? Not often. Will he be offered fried locusts, dog meat or steamed seaweed? Possibly. But will it make for great pub stories? You bet.
So, where on this spectrum are you?