Perceptive Travel Book Reviews December 2010
by William Caverlee

In this issue: A Lonely Planet compilation of fine food stories, an anthology of stories and photos paying homage to New Orleans, and a re-released collection of stories from war correspondents originally compiled in 1904.

A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Adventures Around the World
Edited by Don George

Lonely Planet’s borrowing of Ernest Hemingway’s title, A Moveable Feast, may strike readers as impertinent, but then we recall that Papa himself stole the line from the Catholic Church.

A professional stoic, Hemingway wrote many voluptuous pages of food writing—via his famously nonvoluptuous style. My favorite occurs in “Big Two-Hearted River,” when Nick Adams treks deep into the Upper Michigan woods, pitches his tent, and lights a campfire. It’s hard to imagine a better description of food anywhere, of a young man’s hunger, of eating ravenously after a long day’s hike. Nick opens a can of pork and beans and a can of spaghetti and heats the two together as a single meal which he downs with four slices of bread. And then he opens a can of apricots for dessert. Hemingway offers us this brief handful of details, and the reader is close to jumping off the sofa and heading into the kitchen to throw something together for supper.

Maybe that’s the point of all food writing: to launch you off the couch in search of something hot, steamy, dripping, succulent, possibly nourishing, certainly inebriating. Or alternately, as these things go, to send you out in search of sex. Among Lonely Planet’s catalog of feasts is a single glass of orange juice remembered by Johanna Gohmann when she was a student in Venice in 1995. It’s offered to her by a young Italian clerk in the hostel in which she’s staying.

He was maybe in his mid-twenties, and like so many of the Italian men I had seen, he was attractive in a way that seemed to say, “Why would I be anything else, foolish girl?” His head was covered with shiny black curls, and his lips were almost embarrassing in their suggestive thickness.

Lonely Planet’s anthology consists of 38 essays, with a rich ladling of headliners: Anthony Bourdain, Jan Morris, Pico Iyer, Andrew Zimmern. . . . In addition, Stefan Gates drinks enough sake in Nagoya, Japan, to strip down and join a few thousand other revelers in the Naked Man Festival, a half-parade, half-riot. Stanley Stewart eats sheep’s guts in Mongolia. Naomi Duguid shares a transcendent bowl of tea with Japanese mountaineers in a tent in the Himalayas. Sitting under a shade tree in Ethiopia, Amanda Jones accepts a mango from a naked, AK-47-wielding Mursi tribesman, while “doggedly trying to avoid staring at his penis, which was at eye level and extravagantly decorated with white waves and ochre dots.” Mark Kurlansky travels up the Maroni River in French Guiana. Simon Winchester eats a dog.

After such exotica, a few of the riffs on Italy and France may seem a bit tame. Jan Morris’s brief essay is perfunctory and manages to combine the kind of name-dropping (Harry’s Bar in Venice, the Concorde) and snobbery (Pathetic reader, you haven’t lived until you’ve been to . . .) that make up much of travel writing.

But A Moveable Feast contains many surprises and oddities: Liz MacDonald tracks down the last bottle of Paradise Pepper Sauce in Hawaii. In the Banda Islands, John T. Newman encounters the durian, the King of fruits, whose smell, for Westerners, “has been compared to rotting onions, stale vomit, skunk spray, pig shit, an infected wound, putrescent corpses boiled in fetid effluvium and strained through the filthy sweat socks of 40,000 sufferers of terminal trench foot—or all of them combined.”

Moving right along . . . that glass of orange juice Johanna Gohmann drank in Venice suddenly seems bracing. Gohmann was a nineteen-year-old American student in 1995, and the romantic, handsome young Italian clerk who gave her the orange juice becomes the emblem of all Europe, of experience, love, sex, adulthood.

As I finally began to shrug on my backpack, the clerk grabbed one of my hands, as though we had been lovers for years and now were being ripped asunder by the fates. I almost had to bite my lip to keep from giggling at his urgency. “Well, goodbye to you . . .” He clasped my fingers. “Please . . .” he leaned towards me. “May I have just one kiss?”
And in one of my most foolish moments on this earth, I declined.

Poor thing. . . . But then who are we to judge? She was an innocent abroad.

New Orleans: What Can’t Be Lost
Edited by Lee Barclay; Photographs by Christopher Porché West

Since Katrina, the field of New Orleans studies has spun nearly out of control: two documentaries from Spike Lee; an HBO series; and what seems like three or four hundred new books. Nevertheless, by some miracle, the old city contains enough riches to support all these tributes.

In a handsome anthology, New Orleans: What Can’t Be Lost, eighty-eight authors contribute essays, memoirs, and descriptions of the city—most are only a page or two long—accompanied by 92 black and white photographs by Christopher Porché West, a transplanted Californian who, we learn, “currently lives and works in one of New Orleans’ oldest neighborhoods, Bywater, founded in 1809.” The whole business is a not-for-profit endeavor, with proceeds being donated to Sweet Home New Orleans, a local 501(c)(3) dedicated to cultural preservation.

An early chapter invokes Ignatius J. Reilly, hero of the best novel ever to come out of New Orleans, A Confederacy of Dunces, written by John Kennedy Toole. Ignatius is a comic character for the ages: glutton, ne’er-do-well, philosopher, moviegoer, and monumentally lazy son, and he calls his hometown “a comfortable metropolis which has a certain apathy and stagnation which I find inoffensive.”

Although I live in grimly-Baptist north Louisiana, 300 miles and several culture-zones away from New Orleans, I know just what Ignatius means—his backhanded praise of charm and indifference is one shared by the whole state. In fact, it is Louisiana’s lazy acceptance—one could say expectation—of political knavery and every kind of personal sin and failing that is, for me, the sign of its redemption. In short, to save us from our sins, we have po’boy sandwiches, gumbo, Mardi Gras—and New Orleans.

Among the 88 authors contributing to New Orleans: What Can’t Be Lost, a number are big shots: Richard Ford, Robert Olen Butler, Rick Bragg, Andrei Codrescu, Jason Berry, and Chris Rose. Editor Barclay has cast a wide net in gathering 82 additional writers; a few of the essays are unremarkable, but overall the volume contains many fine, idiosyncratic vignettes. From Julie Kane, I learned that 200,000 purple martins roost under the 24-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain causeway, “the largest purple-martin sanctuary in North America.” An author named GiO, a graduate of the Pratt Institute of Technology and the University of New Orleans, who was once the “Burlesque Queen of New Orleans,” introduced me to folk artist “Dr. Bob” Shaffer. Errol Laborde recalls lost business names like D.H. Holmes, Maison Blanche, and Schwegmann’s.

Here also is the St. Augustine Marching 100—a nationally known halftime marching band, from a black, all male, Catholic high school. Here are delicious shaved-ice sno-balls, New Orleans’ version of snow cones, made from the “Sno-Bliz machine” patented in 1934. Here are black “Mardi Gras Indians,” in their refulgent suits of beads, sequins, feathers, and plumes. Here are dozens of “little parades” hardly known outside the tourist routes of Rex and Comus—they have names, Ann Marie Coviello tells us, like “[the] Young Men Olympians, the Black Men of Labor, the Jolly Bunch, the Prince of Wales, the Lady Buck Jumpers, the Big Nine, the Big Seven, the Money Wasters. . . .”

Woven among the mini-essays are Christopher Porché West’s superb photographs of faces, street scenes, funerals, musicians: An ancient woman in a dilapidated doorway. The sash-wearing grand marshal of a second line brass band. A beautiful young woman swaying at the head of a small-time parade—she’s being cheered by three men in mock clerical robes and miters. For some reason, she’s wearing a paper sack over her head—you can barely make out her eyes—her arms are raised in joy and happiness, and her shirt is pulled up, revealing a slender strip of tummy. That’s all. There’s a small crowd of onlookers surrounding her on a non-descript street. You can’t see the young woman’s face and yet her palpable and overflowing joy, sexiness, ecstasy, self-mockery, humor, and casual everyday happiness is like a benediction and a prayer for this strange and inimitable American city.

In Many Wars, By Many War Correspondents
Edited by George Lynch and Frederick Palmer

Forty-nine journalists contributed to the little known anthology, In Many Wars, By Many War Correspondents, first printed in Tokyo in 1904. For a freelancer today, the long list of their news organizations is depressing to read, compared to the present-day state of markets. Here are just the American publishers: Eastern Illustrated War News; Chicago Daily News; New York Evening Post; Chicago Evening Post; Pittsburgh Dispatch; Detroit Journal; Associated Press; Collier’s Weekly; New York Herald; New York World; Scribner’s Magazine; New York American; New York Globe; and the San Francisco Evening Bulletin. Another seventeen reporters represented London papers. Such numbers are simply unimaginable today. How many American newspapers other than the New York Times maintain a foreign desk these days? One? None?

In Many Wars, By Many War Correspondents was concocted by George Lynch and Frederick Palmer, a pair of reporters who were among the fifty (and upwards) mostly British and American journalists (including one woman) stranded in the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo in early 1904. Almost all were veteran war correspondents and they had traveled to Japan to cover the Russo-Japanese War—or rather to await its outbreak. War hadn’t started yet but the whole world knew it was imminent.

The Japanese government, however, didn’t plan to let a crowd of Westerners prowl about their war, and the reporters found themselves more or less imprisoned in the hotel. Thus, they had time on their hands, and Lynch and Palmer suggested that everyone write a brief essay on “some exciting event in their careers,” as John Maxwell Hamilton, editor of the current update, terms it.

The result, naturally, was a hodgepodge of memoirs, descriptions, and slices of life. The best known author among the forty-nine is Jack London, and his account of an attempt to slip his Japanese captors and sail to Korea is one of the best and funniest of the collection. For modern readers, some of the stories grate against the ear—purple prose written in a nineteenth century style. Still, other accounts are jaunty and irresistible, like the day Stephen Crane captured a Puerto Rican village in the Spanish-American War. Frederick Palmer includes a tiny anecdote, almost an aside, that is strangely moving:

When General Anderson advanced on San Pedro Macati, one Filipino alone retreated in order. With a score of rifles blazing at him, he fell back by stages, kneeling and firing carefully. “He’s too gallant to die; let him go,” said the General.

In his detailed, useful foreword, editor Hamilton offers us the lush, literary-sounding names of journalists who were international celebrities in 1904: Richard Harding Davis; Percival Phillips; Bennet Burleigh; E. Ashmead-Bartlett; Edward F. Knight; Thomas Millard; W.H. Donald. The volume’s stories and sketches range all over the globe: South Africa, the Fiji Islands, Crete, China, India, Cuba, the American West. Many are tales of narrow escapes, derring-do, and absurdity. My favorite is “A Naval Engagement,” by Ashmead-Bartlett, writing of the Greco-Turkish War of 1897. Somehow, the reporter finds himself in the abandoned home of the Crown Prince and Princess of Greece (the royals had just hightailed it in a panic).

Under the circumstances I thought it would be justifiable to carry away a few articles as souvenirs and made a selection, which included among other things a dress. These I annexed, that I believe is the polite word used in war for what constitutes robbery in times of peace.


William Caverlee is a contributing writer to The Oxford American Magazine, and the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays.

Also in this issue:

A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Adventures Around the World

Buy A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Adventures Around the World in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

New Orleans: What Can’t Be Lost

Buy New Orleans: What Can’t Be Lost in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

In Many Wars, By Many War Correspondents

Buy In Many Wars, By Many War Correspondents in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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