Back in the Seventies, my wife and I stopped at a rustic little restaurant in Juarez, Mexico. We sat at a rickety wooden table set with a reasonably clean table cloth, and marveled at the severed chicken feet floating in our respective bowls of soup. Between us and the full-length windows looking out on the dusty street was an industrious Señora smoking a cigarette while kneading a mountain of massa for tortillas. She’d occasionally take a sip from a tiny bottle of Coca-Cola, and in between sips jam it back into the mass of massa. Dough dripped over the side of the table and onto the floor, where an untidy little dog lapped contently. The soup was rich, hearty, hot and delicious, and the tortillas were hot and tasty.
Years later in the floating market of Bangkok, we politely declined our guide’s suggestions to sample noodles and shrimp from passing boats. Our guide was disappointed and demonstrated how safe the water was by moistening her rice with it – right out of the river. I remember suppressing a shudder – I was concerned enough about unfamiliar germs and bacteria – but I was certainly not going to invite amoebic dysentery.
In the souks of Turkey we gratefully accepted glasses of hot apple tea, and lunched on fried herring and something like slaw, but in post-Sadat Egypt, we alone of our tour group declined to drink the blackberry juice sold in an open air souk in Cairo from a communal cup from a vendor being dipped in a battered stainless steel pot and passed around for a few coins.
So why Mexico and not Bangkok, or the souks of Turkey and not Egypt?
For my wife and me, it’s all about where to draw the line – and lines must be drawn. Travel is too rare and expensive a treat to be squandered through weeks of recovery from unpleasant gastric distress, not to mention life-endangering illnesses. True, you can get run over by a car without leaving your home town – but looking both ways before crossing the street manages that particular risk rather effectively. Declining street vendors offering seafood of doubtful provenance can do the same.
Concepts of risk do indeed evolve. French Chef Julia Childs was considered daring when she feasted on snails, and the Galloping Gourmet startled viewers by eating raw sea urchin roe. Both opened up the world of exotic cuisine to American children of the Sixties raised on overcooked liver and gray vegetables. To this day I haven’t eaten raw urchin roe, but I’ve learned to eat caviar.
The world of travel and cooking has merged in digital entertainment constructs to create Iron Chefs, and Chopped Champions. We accompany wannabee rock star Anthony Bourdain as he stumbles his way through exotic markets half-drunk and cursing – and shadow Andrew Zimmer with his penchant for bugs, deep-fried bowels, beaks and buttholes. But travel is too rare and precious to court disaster thru carelessness.
Even in this day of savages with cell phones, the classic cautions still apply. Consult with your health care practitioner before you travel for recommended shots, prophylactics and antibiotics. Never drink untreated or un-boiled water from local lakes, rivers and ponds – unless you have very special reasons to trust that the water is safe. Beware of iced drinks if you lack knowledge of the water source. Never drink beverages from communal cups or eat from communal bowls. Don’t eat unrefrigerated raw meat, poultry or fish—lemoned, vinegared, fermented or “au naturale.” Resist the temptation to “graze” ala Andrew Zimmer when visiting local markets, unless the general hygiene and cleanliness really overwhelms. Politely refuse tidbits from a local’s plate, sandwich or lunch sack. Shake hands with abandon, but apply hand sanitizer subtly but liberally. Be civil, reluctant to offend, but never forget that your health and the success of your trip may be at stake. Strive to strike that golden mean – that happy balance between adventure and safety, between paranoia and pragmatism – and when in doubt, error on the side of caution.
My wife and I have traveled extensively over the last the last thirty years and consider ourselves savvy travelers. We did a fair amount of research on the political stability of the lands to be visited – studied up on survival language skills – and avoided local bugs, worms, parasites, amoebic dysentery and such by being very careful where (and what) we ate.
Has our caution cost us culinary kudos? Undoubtedly. But to the doughty explorer who boasts: “I’ve traveled around the world and only almost died of hepatitis once,” I reply, “But… you DID almost DIE.”