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Thursday, February 21,2013

The transformative potential of travel and food

A woman’s passion for traversing cultures

By Cayte Bosler
Photo by Merete Mueller
An olive oil tasting in Italy

Somewhere in an old suitcase, Peggy Markel has a photograph of her father as a young man in the military, breaking bread with Gypsy (also known as Roma) children in Florence, Italy. For her, this image captures what she values about her relationship to food: kinship, adventure and unexpected good stories.

Cooking is never a chore for Markel. It’s an adventure. It’s about transforming her relationship to others and the world ≠— something she has been doing in 20 years of building a business that creates personalized trips for people to dine in parts of Europe, Africa and India.

“I choose each region because of the pride surrounding the food,” she says of the locations her business, Culinary Adventures, takes foodie travelers to. “In the United States, we have unfortunately misunderstood a place like Italy for being spaghetti and meatballs because when the immigrants came over that is what we knew. For the longest time, it was this and checkered tablecloths. That couldn’t be further from the truth as far as what each region has to offer.”

After each trip, Markel says, she returns to Boulder invigorated to share what she has gained. She says American diners have to do some reordering of values around their food.

“Since the industrial revolution America has been homogenized,” says Markel. “We have trucks that take vegetables back and forth even when they are out of season; we have huge supermarkets where we can get anything at any time. We haven’t been educated to taste as we have to convenience and availability. When you look at smaller regions, they go by what is available, and even corner to corner of each town is different. In this country it is difficult because we haven’t been educated in this way.”

But in the last 10 years or so, Markel says she has noticed a shift in awareness around food that she believes is in part due to the slow food movement, which has a strong foothold in Boulder.

“If you look at, for example, the slow food movement, and body and mind awareness groups, you’ll see that people are starting to value what they have and what is around, “ she says.

While her culinary adventure trips provide a chance to see the world, Markel says she believes you don’t have to leave your neighborhood to connect to a rich history.

“Here in the Southwest, when the Indians were prevalent, they had handfuls of various squashes, beans, wheat, rye and buffalo,” she says. “There was a real gestalt about how they grew, the wisdom of how to kill an animal, how to use every bit of it, that was in harmony with nature. They were living with the elements at all times, so there was an understanding. I think we are regaining some of that. Markets are now appreciated based on a particular berry they sell, or native foods. Towns like Boulder are starting to have an identity for food.”

She says she hopes to see a shift in lifestyle away from people eating canned soup in front of their computers and toward sharing stories at the dinner table. According to research done by CBS, approximately half of American families eat dinner together each night, but usually distractions like cell phones and televisions are present.

“Sitting around the table is the home perch for the family, it’s where you sit and have conversation,” says Markel. “If you are away for meal time, you lose touch. And bonding at dinnertime is important for children as well. In many of the places I visit, you would never find someone eating in front of their computer. That would never take priority.”

She recalls a visit from the 15-yearold son of a chef friend from Italy. During his visit, she planned a day to explore the mountains. They took off one afternoon in the car with packed lunches.

“He just stared at me with his sandwich in his lap and this big grin,” she says. “He told me he’d never eaten in a car in his entire life.”

With the advent of fast food and drive-throughs in America, many of us eat on the road as habit. Though her trips are in part about breaking routine and trying new customs, there is something much deeper at play that the traveling component encourages.

“A travel experience connected to food can be transformative because when we are outside of our normal environments, we are vulnerable and more open,” she says. “You examine yourself and cross your own personal boundaries because you have to have courage to do so. When you are willing to meet with cultures it opens your understanding to a different way of looking at things than you thought was possible. With food it is fundamental. Even with your biggest enemy it can be a way of sharing. It crosses all political, religious and what-have-you notions of separatism and puts you in relationship to each other. We don’t get stuck in our dramas.”

It was coincidence that Markel’s second home after Boulder is Florence, where her father fed those children years ago. But her dad’s kindness did teach her an important lesson that she hopes people who take her trip can learn: Despite cultural differences, food is a shared constant among us that can strengthen bonds and transform people.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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