Yes, it was a big jump in careers from doing biochemical research at UW Madison and starting a publishing company (Ginkgo Press) in 1993 in order to write the EAT SMART series of culinary travel guidebooks to foreign destinations—and ultimately begin leading culinary tours around the world. But the transition seems logical if a few more details are revealed.
I happened to marry a UW Madison professor of theatre and music, who was also a playwright, and during the Vietnam War, his plays were selected by the United Service Organization (USO) to entertain the military in bases around the world. I took time off from graduate school, and as the newly trained sound and lighting tech, joined in on the tours to the Pacific and the Caribbean.
We generally performed our shows during the evening, which left much of the daytime for exploration. Since my husband had already become interested in cooking, and was about to take over the kitchen, you can imagine how often we headed to the vast outdoor food markets wherever we were. Huge mounds of vegetables and fruits, many of the varieties unknown to us, existed side-by-side with all sorts of fish, seafood, and meat. And, of course, there were many kinds of spices and condiments, some we had not experienced before, and a bewildering array of dishes for sale made with produce from the market. Needless to say, we never tired of wandering in these markets.
Years later, when we were able to travel extensively on our own, food was always our focus. Before departure on a trip, I would compile a list of dishes I wanted to sample at our destination, but my lists were too inadequate to allow an extensive exploration of the cuisine. And since menus for the most part weren’t in English, we were at quite a disadvantage to understand what the listed menu items were. But unlike many travelers, we didn’t give up and take our meals at American fast food joints that were proliferating overseas for that very reason.
It wasn’t until a trip to Portugal in 1992 that I had an epiphany. My husband and I were staying in Belém, a district of Lisbon, and our hotel was just around the corner from a bakery serving pasteis de Belém. This dessert is a custard tart with egg-and-cream filling baked in a puff-pastry shell and traditionally sprinkled with cinnamon and confectioners’ sugar before serving. It belongs to the class of desserts called pasteis de nata, but the one from Belem is the prize. The tarts at this bakery are said to have been created in Belém before the 19th century. Legend has it that the monks of the Hieronymite Monastery made them from a secret recipe, which they subsequently sold to a local bakery after the 1820 liberal revolution in Portugal, when all convents and monasteries were closed and the religious orders and laborers were expelled.
I thought out loud after enjoying this exquisite treat, “Just think about all the travelers here in Portugal who don’t know these pastries exist. Alas, most will go back home without having sampled any.” Then and there I decided I would write a pamphlet about the foods at foreign countries that one must absolutely taste on a trip there! I would create an alphabetical list of menu items with English translations. Since our next trip was already booked—it was to Brazil—my first book covered the food of this country. My preference, however, would have been to start with a pamphlet about Turkish food because I had become so enamored of this country on a trip there in 1988. Nevertheless, Turkey would be next!
After traveling around Brazil for a few weeks, I soon realized that what I needed was more than a pamphlet. I obviously needed to cover much more than menu items. So ultimately I ended up with a multi-chapter book instead. My first guidebook was entitled Eat Smart in Brazil: How to Decipher the Menu, Know the Market Foods & Embark on a Tasting Adventure. This guidebook and all subsequent ones in the Eat Smart series, began with a chapter about the history of the food, followed by a chapter of regional cuisine including the various foodstuffs available in different parts of the country. Since I had met with many chefs who prepared regional and national specialties for me, a chapter of contributed recipes was definitely in order. Also included was a chapter containing helpful phrases in Brazilian with English translations to use in restaurants and food markets, a chapter with sources of hard to find ingredients called for in the recipes, and a chapter of hints to increase ones savvy in the exciting outdoor food markets and modern supermarkets. Two large chapters followed: one was an alphabetical list of menu items with English translations (my initial pamphlet idea), and one with an alphabetical list of foods and flavors, also with English translations. A few books into the series we added a short chapter at the end that itemized all the restaurants where we had cooking lessons or demonstrations (our source for recipes). This way our guides never became out-of-date, even if some of these restaurants went out of business.
Our daughter, Susan, joined the company in 1997 after her second child was born. It quickly became a family business with her two daughters coming to the office every day. And there’s no doubt that they both fell in love with the arts and music spending so much time with grandpa!
The inspiration to lead culinary tours followed the publication of my third guide, featuring the cuisine of Indonesia. It should come as no surprise that my first tours were to Turkey, beginning in 1998. I was so anxious for others to discover the amazing cuisine of this country as well as its many other attributes that made it my favorite foreign destination. Subsequently I led culinary tours to other destinations I had written about. In the early years of touring I led at most two tours a year. When Susan’s children got older, she was able to join me in leading the tours. She’s been co-leading or leading her own tours since 2005.
We’ve now expanded our culinary travel business and lead culinary tours all over the world.