Joan Peterson is the author of the Eat Smart series of travel guides for food lovers, which helps people discover the culture of a country through its cuisine. She hopes to give travelers the knowledge — and confidence — to find authentic dining experiences, even in places where the language is unfamiliar.
“There’s only one way to truly get to the heart of a culture and that’s through the cuisine. That’s my mantra, and I live it,” Peterson said.
77 Square talked to Peterson recently about her new book, “Eat Smart in Sicily,” the Eat Smart series and her career path from biochemistry researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to culinary tour operator and author of award-winning food travel guides.
How did someone with a biochemistry background become the author of the Eat Smart travel guides?
My husband and I always really loved travel in other countries. The impetus probably began back in 1971 when we had an opportunity to tour for 4 months entertaining U.S. troops in Japan and several other Pacific Rim countries because he’s a playwright, and a UW Extension professor in theater and music.
We especially enjoyed learning about the cultures of the countries we visited through the food. We took any opportunity to visit the awesome local markets. We discovered how much people love sharing their culture when we asked about family recipes, or where food came from or how it was prepared. An interest in food transcends many language barriers.
Initially I began making lists of words and helpful phrases as guides for myself, doing the research before we took a trip so we’d have some background. There wasn’t much available.
Was there a particular moment when you decided to create a guide for other travelers?
We were in Portugal and the next trip we were planning was to Brazil, so by default that was the first travel guide. What I’d learned over a number of years was that the available information — if you wanted to really experience local food — was woefully inadequate.
Originally I was only going to include menu and food items, with food glossaries and phrases, but it grew into including background notes and research about the cuisine, and also included some recipes.
The guides began as a moonlighting job, and they kept growing until their siren song took me out of the lab.
What’s the process like for creating one of the Eat Smart guides?
I begin creating lists of food and useful phrases, as well as researching recipes and food background, long before I go to a country. Then I can verify that everything is correct by talking with chefs, and those who know firsthand about the food. I make a point of making many contacts with food lovers wherever I’m traveling, and I may take some classes, too.
I do want to say we’re really fortunate to live in Madison because there’s such a vast wealth of information about foods and culture through the university community.
You’ve made it a point to go off the beaten track. Can you describe any particularly unusual experience?
Probably one of the most unusual was when we were planning to have a meal at someone’s home near the medina (native section) in Fez (in Morocco). We had a guide, and it was a good thing, because (otherwise) we’d probably still be there! It wasn’t easy to find our way around. We were told it was an auspicious day for a feast, and we noticed there were many young bulls tied up outside of peoples’ homes.
We wound up climbing four flights of stairs to the home where we were going to be eating. There on the floor was a dead, decapitated bull, ready to be butchered. It was really a surprising thing to see up four flights of stairs. But what an honor to be witnesses to the beginning of preparing meat for a family for the winter.
The latest Eat Smart guide is about Sicilian food. What did you learn, and what’s unique?
Sicily was an impoverished island until fairly recently, and you still sometimes see people foraging for things like wild fennel or other wild vegetables and greens. Even today, when it’s much more prosperous, Sicilian cooks are very imaginative, very inventive. One woman I met made a liqueur from foraged ingredients. Sweet and sour eggplant (caponata) is a delicious Sicilian specialty; Sicilian bread is excellent. A dish known as involtini is flattened meat or fish wrapped around a stuffing of bread crumbs, spices, pine nuts and currants. Sicily also has a great tradition of high-quality cheeses and dolci, or sweets.
You’ve written or co-authored nine Eat Smart guides. What country is next?
Most likely Vietnam, followed by Norway.
Have you ever thought about doing a guide for food in an English-speaking country, like Ireland or even the U.S.?
Probably not. I haven’t chosen English-speaking countries because I’d have to change formats completely. The glossary and menu guide are such an important part of the format.
You do culinary tours also, right?
They grew out of the books, and they’ve been a lot of fun. We’re going to Morocco for 10 days in October. It’s limited to a dozen participants so we can all sit at the same table. We take cooking classes, go to markets and learn the culture through food. We also see some of the important sites so it’s not just about the food, but the food is spectacular. Anyone who is interested can go to our Web site at www.ginkgopress.com for more information.