A lot of talk has been floating around lately about travel and tourism — how over-tourism can adversely affect the local culture of various destinations and the ways it’s causing every place in the world to begin to look interchangeable with every other place.
There’s no denying we’re spectators when we travel. As much as we may profess to want to have “authentic” experiences, whatever that even means, we’re still only scratching the surface of any place we land. And if we all follow the same top 10 lists of places to eat — lists that were likely put together by other tourists, or writers and content creators flying in for a couple of days then zipping on to their next spot — did we have any kind of local experience at all?
Maybe not. And that’s a problem to which I do not have an answer. What I do have is something I’ve tried to incorporate into my travels for years, and that is the food tour.
That’s a broad umbrella term that can include anything from hiring a local food blogger to take us around the night markets of Seoul like my husband and I did on an overnight layover once, to joining a highly organized group tour of one of the most visited cities in the world, Paris, as I’ve done on my last couple of trips. A local guide took my husband and me through an ancient market in Sicily where she showed us how to shop for the best seafood and produce that we took back to our vacation rental for a feast that night, and a couple in Ho Chi Minh City took us on a spin through the street food scene of that frenetic city, introducing us to all the foods we’d eyed but didn’t know what they were.
Each of those experiences ― and a slew of others like them ― have not only fueled our passion for cooking and exploring other cuisines once we’re home, but they’ve helped connect us with the places we’re staying ― and taught us things.
A guide in another Sicilian city shared how locals drink pomegranate juice as a boost to immunity, and eat a fruit that looks like tomatoes but tastes like persimmon as a digestive aid. We learned to make the most incredible chicken dish in the Basque region of Spain at a private cooking club where we got to hear the role these clubs play in the social life of the region ― and made a friend we’ve met up with again and again.
And in Paris, I was able to venture beyond cliched French fare with a tour that took in Thai, Lebanese, and Argentinian food.
The connections you make with these experiences can be long-lasting. I first bonded with some of my own Airbnb guests, Stacey and Shelby Barker, when I took them to Ollie’s Trolley in Old Louisville. Now lifelong friends, we’re headed to Marrakesh, Morocco with them soon, where we’ll spend a day in the markets and in a hands-on cooking class, and where, as soon as we land, we’re headed out on a street food tour as a way to orient ourselves to the winding ancient medina and the customs of the land.
This food-first approach is a common thread we share with the Barkers.
“We always love to do a food experience on one of the first days we arrive in a new city,” Stacey says. “It gives you an angle and insight into a city that you wouldn’t normally get. You find that hole-in-the-wall place that has the best arancini in Sorrento, or the crispy churro where they add salt to the cinnamon and sugar to give it that extra flavor in Miami. Or even in New Orleans, when you taste a muffuletta sandwich (along with that classic Pimm’s cup) and it leads to a discussion about areas outside of the touristy spots where you spend a night as a local eating German food and beer in the garden district followed by a local outdoor Burlesque show. Food and drink bring people together.”
It’s easier than ever to connect with the local food scene, thanks to things like Airbnb Experiences and the plethora of tour booking platforms online, but honestly, it’s still worth reaching out to a local food writer to see if they would be willing to offer a tour. If they’re anything like me, they’ll jump at the chance to share what they’re most proud of with visitors and take them to the places the out-of-town writers don’t put in their round-ups. (One of my go-to spots is Shirley Mae’s Cafe, 802 S Clay St.)
And here’s the cool thing. You don’t have to go far to experience all the great things about a food tour. Many of us already go on bourbon distillery tours in our own backyard. But you can also take food-centered tours in Louisville. Lia and Jeremy Garcia, the travelers behind the Let’s Go Louisville blog, offer walking tours of several Louisville neighborhoods that look very promising. Mint Julep Experiences also features several culinary experiences that look super fun, (especially the progressive dinners).
So whether you’re headed around the globe on summer vacation or sticking close to home, I hope you’ll dig in with a food tour. And that you’ll make the most of that chance to make connections and keep this world a place of marvels and surprises.
Tell Dana! Send your restaurant “Dish” to Dana McMahan at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @bourbonbarbarella on Instagram.