Suitcase Full of Food, Will Travel

My dad and I have been talking a lot about tuna lately. It has to do with me going to Japan in a few days… but not in the way that you think. See, my dad is trying to convince me to pack my suitcase full of canned tuna. He’s also a strong proponent of bringing along some pb&j sandwiches, dried fruit and nuts — pretty much anything that will load my suitcase down with food from my homeland, so that I wont have to eat anything particularly foreign. Some may think this an odd predicament to find myself since the whole purpose of my travelling to these countries is to document food. But this is no surprise to me, as this is my father… and Ive known him a long time.

I am the daughter of a health-enthusiast/dentist, who is only interested in food as a delivery method for nutrition. Nothing more. He has very strong opinions (on what you should and should not eat), and equally strong will power. Which is why Gary Fine has never had a cigarette, a can of coke or a cup of coffee in his life. He gave up all added sugars when he was 30 — Meaning, he hasn’t had a cookie, a slice of birthday cake or a donut in over 30 years.

Minutes before going out to any restaurant, you can find my dad at his kitchen table downing a bowl of oatmeal, bland yogurt or cereal and soy milk. He will defend his pre-dinner meal with: “Your grandpa always said to eat before going to a restaurant in case you don’t like the food.” He’s also been known to qoute King Solomon’s famous line: “Eat to Live. Dont live to Eat.” Take that ideology, and add a daughter who is going around the world to film food, and you get awkward conversations about tuna packs. Out of everyone who has given me advice for this upcoming adventure around the world — where our goal is to sample, explore and delve into the culinary and agricultural expanse of the planet —  my dad is the only person who has told me (repeatedly) to avoid the food.

Again, this is no surprise to me. Travel, for him, isn’t about the food experience, it is more an experience of eating food brought from home while taking in the sights. During a recent trip to Mexico, my dad was stopped at Customs and asked whether he had brought any grub into the country. Smiling broadly, he reached into his bag and produced a single orange which he handed to the customs officer. The women on the other side of the desk confiscated the orange and gave him a stern warning: “you really cant bring food into the country. I’m going to have to take this.”

“Of course”, my dad said as he retrieved his bag (secretly filled 20% of the way with packaged food items from home) and sashayed his way out the swinging doors to sunny Mexico.

He has no regrets. In fact, he delights in telling this story as a victory for his cause, and an example of what is possible when travelling abroad: You can make it into a country with (as my mom put it) “the complete contents of aisle 7” in your suitcase.  And, as he has informed me, I can too.

This is how he has always been. A typical packed suitcase from the Fine Family household consists of a couple layers of clothes covered by a full layer of perishable items: loaves of bread, jars of peanut butter, jars of nuts, and packs and packs of tuna: Dad’s snack of choice when on the go. If you came to my parents house the night before they left for a trip, you would find my dad kneeling over his suitcase, strategically placing that last Ziploc bag of granola bars into the jigsaw of rations he had so lovingly created.

After his trip to China a couple years back, while going through photos and video footage of his trip he would talk about the food available to him overseas and lament on the packs of tuna and granola bars that instead sustained him during his travels. And with a knowing, confident look, he would point out that he didnt get sick once while traveling abroad.

Now, I understand that each country has their own food issues. Just last year, there were fresh concerns about the safety of China’s food supply after pork was found to be tainted with a certain banned drug. The drug, Clenbuterol, is a steroid used to eliminate fat and grow muscle. This same drug has recently made its way into doping headlines due to alleged injections by certain athletes who were looking to improve their performances.  China’s State General Administration of Sports issued a document forbidding its athletes from consuming meat outside of official training facilities to avoid being accidentally doped. Unfortunately, ingesting the drug through the form of laced pork, however, does not give you superhuman strength but instead dizziness, tremors and “other unpleasantries”.

Moving on to Japan.  Since the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daichi plant, traces of radioactive cesium have been found in rice and other types of food. The country is still struggling to protect its food supply from radioactive contamination, however, there is a local lack of trust with the government’s safety standards.  So that sucks. Luckily, volunteer radiation-testing stations having been popping up across Fukashima and down to Tokyo to take matters into their own hands.

So maybe my dad is on to something. However, the sustenance in each country is not limited to those stories. Just as American cuisine isnt limited to cantaloupes.  And eating tuna for a month straight has its negatives as well. In addition to gross overfishing (leading certain species to the brink of collapse) canned tuna is the most common source of mercury in Americans’ diet, and it is now widely recommended that consumption be limited.

I adore my dad and it is, in part, his quirkiness, that I find most endearing. But all his quirks around food could be the culprit encouraging me to be more adventurous. After years of being cautious about what I eat, I’ve slowly started to take some risks. There are hazards everywhere you go, but I cant imagine touring China and Japan without indulging in the culinary gems unique to each place: the street food, the sushi, the tofu, the radioactive rice (just kidding, dad). Food is a huge part of culture, and for me, avoiding it while abroad would be a huge detriment to the adventure.

The good news is, thanks to my dad, Ive got all the back-story I need to make a good decision (while still partaking in the local fare). I plan to stay away from pork (which is easy, since I don’t eat meat) and try to not eat anything radioactive. Given this stance, I’ll have to embrace any food borne unpleasantries as a badge of honor in my new travel-a-thalon lifestyle. Ill bring some granola bars with me for good measure — for those desperate times when I am without any vegetarian options. But they will just be backup. The default will be the real stuff.