Eat Your World, pentaquery edition

Last week, I came across the website of Eat Your World, a relatively new concept that merges two of my favorite things: wanderlust and essenlust (that’s right Germans, I’m inventing new words in your language!). So I tossed them five questions by e-mail. (Also known as a pentaquery. Yes, I’m neologizing up the wazoo.)

1) How and when did EYW get started? Where are you based? What’s been the best thing you’ve eaten since you started this? Most surprising?

Scott: In late 2009 we were traveling through Colombia. We’ve always traveled a lot, selling stories as a freelance writer (Laura) and photographer (me). As we normally would do in our travels, we were searching for the most authentic local dishes. While in the beautiful city of Cartagena, we looked at each other and realized we should be doing this for a living. Nothing makes us happier than finding the dishes that define a city or even a culture—well…except eating them. Within an hour we came up with the name, and I ran to the nearest computer to buy the domain. It was literally $10 and a dream.

Laura: We’re based in a super diverse neighborhood of Queens, called Jackson Heights. It couldn’t be more suited to us—you often feel like you’re in another country here, for better or worse. And the food is wonderful: authentic, unpretentious, cheap, and delicious. It’s proven an awesome place to learn about other cultures’ foods in our own backyard.

Scott: New Orleans was one of the first cities we chose to highlight after starting the site. I think we made ourselves sick eating so much amazing food (which started a recurring theme for many of our trips). When Laura told me one of the dishes was BBQ shrimp, I thought of shrimp grilled on a barbecue. However, it instead was giant shrimps with probably a pound of butter and the most delicious, unique flavor. We ate it for breakfast because we had so many more dishes to try that day. It was surprisingly beautiful and hit all the senses. It was a shame we had no time to go back for a second serving.

Laura: “Best” is a really tough call—we seem to find something we love in every city we cover. Some all-time favorites include a perfect taco al pastor in Mexico City, Delhi’s chole bhature (a.k.a. best breakfast ever), this historic take on “meat fruit” by Heston Blumenthal in London. Surprising, well—as far as foods go, I was pretty surprised by how much I liked this chicken-fried steak in Austin, Texas. It’s one of those famous regional foods, but having grown up in New Jersey, I’d never had before. I didn’t get it—but now I get it.

In terms of cities, Detroit surprised me; it’s so diverse and has such great Middle Eastern, Polish, and Greek influences on its dining scene, but even its really old-school foods, like basic sliders and city chicken, were terrific. Same goes with Buffalo, NY—the wings are perfection, of course, but its sponge candy has become one of my favorite sweets—and even Amsterdam and Prague — always the cities whose food you hear dissed all the time. I don’t get it!

2) What do you make of the hipster/organic/upper-class/trendy aspect of food? Do you consider yourselves a counterweight to that?

Laura: I wouldn’t lump all those things together—I guess there’s the trendy fetish with food and Top Chef-dom, and then there’s the organic aspect, which might be seen as “upper class” but at heart is really a backlash against the industrialization of our agricultural system. Of course, it can go too far—I don’t understand the point of $4 organic bananas!—but it all means well, I suppose. Same goes with the trendy side: I think it’s mostly a good thing, if it means more people paying more attention to food, what they feed themselves and their families. A “locavore” menu that sources ingredients locally is now a very hip thing to offer, and though it’s admittedly easy to poke a little fun at how extreme the local-artisanal craze can be, I love the idea of supporting local farms and producers whenever possible. But even though Eat Your World’s definition of “local food” is not exclusively what’s actually produced in the area, we recognize that local soils, waters, and climates definitely influence what’s eaten in a place, especially when you’re looking at a region’s past. So along with food that’s indigenous or traditional, locavore is our third criteria for what gets covered on Eat Your World.

To answer your second question: I don’t think of us as counterweights to anything; we just take a unique approach. We examine food through a cultural prism, considering a locale’s history, past and present demographics, native ingredients. We were travelers long before we were professional eaters in any sense, and food has always been our favorite jumping-off point for exploring new places. To us, that’s just what makes sense. It’s not going to be everyone’s idea of what they should eat in a city, but there are plenty of other sites out there covering a city’s hottest restaurants. And hopefully everyone eats some of that city’s distinct foods while in that city. What’s the point of traveling if you’re only going to eat Italian food everywhere you go? (That is, when you’re not traveling in Italy!)
 

3) How can people incorporate EYW into their everyday lives, whether they live in Winnipeg or Wellington?
 
Scott: Unfortunately, we have not yet covered the two cities you mention, but locals (or travelers) in those areas can add their local foods to our site and help build our database. For example, someone from Winnipeg can upload some smoked goldeye; from Wellington a traditional pavlova. If you’re not into taking pictures of your food, you can write a Food Memory on virtually any topic that’s food-related (e.g., your favorite meal ever, a childhood memory of food). On the site, you can read our weekly updated blog, which features Q&As from local-food producers, recipes, news, and travel photos/stories, or you can just browse the content we have on the site and learn about 28-plus cities and the foods that define them. Maybe you’ll plan your next trip!

Laura: In the sense of applying the EYW philosophy to day-to-day living, we’ve had users tell us that thinking about our criteria—what foods might be considered native, traditional, or locavore—and applying them to their own hometowns is a fun, even challenging learning experience. We’re hoping that people take pride in whatever foods and drinks their area has contributed to the world, and that they want to show them off! And people anywhere can otherwise make the extra effort to eat locally sourced foods in their town. (Those foods can be shared on EYW, too.)

4) Do you guys make money off the site? What are your day jobs?

Laura: We do aim to monetize the site via advertisers, but it will be a while before we quit our day jobs. Since 2003, when we started traveling more seriously, I’ve worked as a freelance writer and editor. Currently I freelance regularly for two different magazines as a copy editor half the month and spend the rest of my time, about two weeks, working from home on the site and any other writing assignments that crop up.

Scott: I’m a freelance photographer, but have been working in educational publishing for about seven years. I’ve done everything from shooting the photos you see in books to licensing and researching images. Now I manage a staff and deal more with operations and budgets. I look forward to working full-time on the website one day soon!

Laura: The fact that we’re both freelancers has been key to being able to travel as much as we can afford, and think outside the traditional-career box.

5) What’s your culinary guilty pleasure?

Scott: The website gives me an escape from the rules and regulations I put on my relatively healthy New York lifestyle. When traveling, I’ll drink amazing new beers daily, as we did in Amsterdam. I don’t eat beef when I’m not working on the site, but in Prague I ate a raw-beef dish called tatarák (similar to steak tartare) twice, it was so delicious! I am also not a big dessert eater normally, but it seems that in every city we visit, I fall in love with another sweet, unhealthy piece of deliciousness, like sticky toffee pudding in London.

Laura: Oh, I have so many guilty pleasures. Late-night greasy pizza—or street meat—in New York City. Late-night eggs at a New Jersey diner. Salt-and-vinegar potato chips on the beach. Cold leftover Chinese food out of the fridge. Pigs in a blanket with spicy mustard. Swedish Fish [the candy] and Kit-Kats and chocolate-peanut-butter-crunch ice cream. I’d go on, but I’m getting really hungry.