My first dawn breakfast in Albuquerque, I sat down in an Old Town diner to a big bowl of blue corn mush so dense it took me half an hour to get through.
But it was important that I ate it, because I really wanted to understand the place where I was. I was a traveler with a purpose.
I wanted to be permeable.
Years ago when I traveled to yoga workshops, we all used to pack in food with us, sometimes needing an extra suitcase for our blenders and the groceries allotted to our special diets: our tea, our supplements, our macrobiotic and ayurvedic mess kits, our water in plastic bottles from Iceland or Fiji. It wasn’t for economic reasons (else why would we have been traveling so far to go to a week-long yoga training?), but because we thought we needed our special food, everything hermetically sealed.
We were too rarefied for actual contact with the place we were staying, and apparently yoga had done nothing to make our guts more adaptable or resilient. In an environment of transformation, we held to the known. We were traveling on the surface, and in our spirit, but skipping the important layer between.
Food is important to travel because food literally changes you.
Food converts itself into the basic matter of your being, which is why in Yogic physiology, your material body, the basest densest most physical level of what you “are,” is called the annamaya kosha, the “food sheath.” It is the part of you that is made up of food (and will become food for others).
Even in the old stories, our instruction manuals, this is true: if you ever find yourself in Faerie, you should not eat any food there because if you do, you won’t be able to come back. There’s a secret reason for this: if you are what you eat, and you eat in Faerie, then part of you becomes Fae and so of course can’t leave. Your body changes its element. When Persephone is in the Underworld, she succumbs to the temptation of six seeds that juicily gleam like rubies in the honeycomb latticework of a pomegranate. Those alter her enough that she has to spend six months out of every year underground.
The stories know the secret. You are made of what you eat, and if you eat of a place, that place becomes part of you. In sustaining you, it exacts its price, which is to make you a little less of what you had been and a little more of a new thing. Which is what travel does. You can travel internally at the same time you are traveling externally.
If you seek to travel, make what you eat part of the adventure.
Eat as much as you can where you visit, where you are. Eat what’s relevant, cultural, near—green chile in New Mexico, fry bread in Arizona. Eat at places teeming with locals, respected local institutions that are part of the town’s story.
And when you’re purely on the road, in transit between proper places, eat the beautiful diner road food that is the inheritance of the American wayfarer—caramelly root beer; luscious greasy fries; salty red ketchup; spaghetti dinners; black coffee jacked up with sugar; pancakes as big as your steering wheel. Remember that the road is its own place, too.
If you can, unless they’re the only thing, skip chains which are purposefully the same from place to place, that, like our yoga mess kits, seal you off into sameness. At the very least, eat at regional chains that you don’t have at home. But the best is to eat at locally-owned diners and circulate your money back into the town you’re visiting.
Place yourself at the mercy of where you are. Be permeable and vulnerable. No, it might not be “good for you” but you will recover. You might be off your regimen but you will be alive in the way that living is for.
There’s a caveat—in some places it’s very hard to have a disciplined diet and eat locally. My little sister called me from New Orleans on her first visit there and warned, “If you are vegan you cannot stay here longer than three days. You will die.” In some places, if you’re vegetarian or gluten-free, you will have a very hard time. And of course there are places where you don’t have the stomach for the microbes in the water. Use good judgement, and be creative.
So if on Maui the best you can do is shaved ice and pineapples so cheerfully juicy and alive that you can see why they made 1950s travelers giddy, that is still paradise…. Honey from local bees. And water from the tap, even if it tastes funny—it comes from the local reservoir or river. The locals are 72.8 percent that.
And that spirit-of-the-place transforms you and carries with you. Maybe that’s why we often feel so peculiar returning from a trip: it’s not just a longing of our figurative heart, but a longing of our actual physical heart through part of itself that now corresponds to something far away.
All of the things that travel does for you—that it expands the capability of your imagination, the palette of colors and kinds of light you know can be possible, the sayings and colors of skin of people, your capacity for patience—begin in your cells at the most fundamental level. Forget souvenirs. Make yourself the memoir. Some part of you will never come back. At the cellular level, you are of the place and you are the place. It has become part of your body and the makeup of your brain. And somewhere down deep, the call of your heart.
Editor: Lynn Hasselberger