MatadorU’s newest Road Warrior talks about baking, travel safety, child-rearing, and of course, Belize.

KRISTIN FUHRMANN SIMMONS is the fourth writer-in-residence to participate in the Road Warrior program, a partnership between MatadorU and the Belize Tourism Board. This spring Kristin will be documenting her food experiences in Belize, as well as family travel tips – in fact, her husband and two young daughters will be joining her and contributing media as well. Each week Kristin will report on her experiences for Matador, her website, and for other outlets.

1. You’re a psychotherapist and social worker turned pastry chef (with a wedding cake business!) turned food writer and travel blogger. What motivated you?

I learned the art of pastry and baking through graduate school, as a part time baker. I worked for a famous tea room in Baltimore City called Lisa Anne’s, and at a German bakery called Heinz’s. The hours and money were a great way to support myself in school and also provided me with much needed psychological relief.

I moved to Maine with my husband and I continued to do cakes on the side while I worked and practiced clinical social work at a local psych hospital and in my own office. Once I had my second daughter, I was burned out. I wanted to be at home with my girls and cakes were a great way for me to have flexibility and money, while being at home.

My push to get better at cake decorating led me to do wedding style pastry. I wanted to be good so I threw myself into the food scene of Portland, Maine with its burgeoning James Beard chef population.

I have always been a cook, conversationalist, and a lover-of-chitchat. I was approached by my editor at Seacoast Media Group/Dow Jones at the playground. She said, “Kristin, you’re articulate and you like to cook. Would you be interested in putting together some clips for me? I’m looking for a new food writer.”

It was a dream offer. I have been with them for 3 1/2 years and actually find myself appreciating that same flexibility and creativity that cake making has afforded me. The challenge both intellectually and creatively is exciting, as well as the kick-ass food and wine. (Let’s be honest: I am just here for the food.)

2. As a pastry chef, do you tend to focus on the sweeter side in your food writings, or do you feel like your focus is more broad?

I focus on everything. Food producers, farmers, home cooks, and chefs… I see the full gamut. I do not do restaurant reviews – I can’t stand that actually. I try to look at where the cook is coming from, what they are making, and the process and product. I have my high and low days so I never like to put a “you-should-not-eat-here” slam out about anyone. I prefer getting in the kitchen and working alongside cooks.

3. Writing about food is often a natural segue into travel writing (and vice versa). How long has travel been an important part of your life?

I have traveled since I was a little child. It was a priority for my family and we made our way around the US, Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean. In high school, I had two homestays in Mexico. The perspective has been a vital part of my life, much in the same way that you gain perspective working in mental health – you appreciate your life in a new way and gain respect for the value that each person brings.

I lived away from home in Italy during college and loved the student life. I painted, took cooking classes, and read a tremendous amount. From Florence, where I lived, I traveled as much as I could with other students who were from all over Europe. I went to Germany, Hungary, Croatia, and Greece.

I have been back to Italy several times. Now that I have a family, we spend a lot of our time in the US and occasionally get to Canada. We host international graduate students through Rotary International for homestays with our family. It’s like getting to travel without leaving home. The people have always been the best part, so we love having the students with us.

We traveled to Belize for the first time this past fall and loved it. The people were amazing, as was the food. Travel is great fodder for stories, and boy do I love to spin a yarn.

4. Your blog, 4 Tickets Please, is a family endeavor, with each member contributing posts and media. What motivated you to start this project?

I knew if I were to focus solely on food, it would exclude my girls. In the past they have enjoyed coming on assignment with me and have become quite the critics themselves. However, they love to draw and paint, as well as craft stories. My husband Mark and I thought about a way to be inclusive to them and their perspective.

They are getting ready to launch their part when they arrive on February 4th. As parents, we were careful to avoid the “precious” tendencies that we have seen on some other blogs. We think wholeheartedly that their view of the food, landscape, and culture can be just as exciting for all age ranges.

5. How do your daughters, aged 5 and 8, contribute to 4 Tickets Please? Any projects in mind for them when they make it down to Belize?

They will do a weekly video of where they have been in a news report style, as well as a daily drawing or story. With Ava (who is 5), we will help her dictate her impressions to be posted with her drawings. Ellie is a good typist and so we will let her post with minimal correction from us.

Part of the process is helping her to understand how to present her ideas, and letting her be her own first line editor is part of the plan. We will edit some to help with flow, etc.

They will report on cave tubing, zip lining, the zoo, snorkeling, fishing, and of course, food. They have been prepping at home with the kinds of questions to be thinking about. Ellie is planning a report on the biomes of Belize. She will be focusing on special animals and plants.

We also want them to make friends so both of the girls will visit a school in Dangriga with the Stuff your Rucksack program. They are excited for this.

6. I know many parents who, while they understand the positive impact extensive travel can have on young children, worry about both safety and disrupting traditional schooling. What are your thoughts on having your daughters take part in your Belize Road Warrior adventure?

I am excited and pragmatic: I feel like this job is a gift and with that comes the responsibility to plan well.

I am concerned for their safety and am taking the precautions necessary, from pre-travel shots, to explaining etiquette, and bringing safety equipment like life jackets. We also have travel insurance for the family in case of emergency.

Honestly, the thing that keeps me up at night is climbing the Mayan ruins with the rise-and-run of the steps. My husband is fully grounded in a child’s natural ability to right themselves and their great sense of balance. This is more fear than reality – and something I was worried about for myself before I was worried about for the girls. Intellectually I know it will be fine. My heart needs to catch up.

The thought of being in a new environment brings to mind the kinds of precautions we take on a daily basis at home. Sometimes those precautions become so ingrained that when we have to think about how to plan for them in a foreign country, it gets overwhelming.

When you lay it all on the table, its like, “Wow! Ugh! Look at all we do!” Sorting through and planning for a trip is simple once you get that ‘overwhelmed’ feeling out of the way. For us, if we do it at home, we will need to do it here to have peace of mind.

As far as schooling, we have spent time communicating with their teachers about assignments and upkeep of their work. We have a plan for communication with their classes via email and blog. The experience will be an opportunity to extend what they are already doing in the school. If they miss on skills, we feel confident that they with catch up in what they need to do.

We value their school, and we understand that school is only as good as the support they get at home and from our extended family. The trip alone is not what is of value: it’s what we will make of it in our conversation, planning, processing, and sharing. We feel like this is a chance to have that ‘experiential ed’ piece that people would kill for.

7. Did you have any preconceptions about Belize that, since you’ve arrived, have been either debunked or confirmed? What have you learned about the country in your first week?

The first week has been incredible. I am focusing on food and that topic is the great connector. I have an easy entry into conversation and meeting new people. Everyone has something to share and stories to tell.

I was expecting friendliness and have found that. I was not expecting to have ‘old-fashioned’ manners extended to me: car door opening, holding grocery bags, men walking streetside while I am walking with them etc.

It has been hard to let these manners happen, as I am so used to doing many things for myself. I don’t know that everyone in the country would extend these kinds of courtesies (I have been working with a lot of tourism and hospitality professionals) – however, I have been well cared for and have felt a great amount of respect. It is more than refreshing: it’s just damn nice.

8. As Matador’s fourth Belize Road Warrior, do you have any plans for promoting Belize tourism to folks who aren’t frequent travelers, or who are outside of the travel blogger community?

Readers of my column for SMG/Dow Jones can follow me, as well as friends and fans on Facebook and Twitter, and my blog. My plan is to promote Belize outside of the frequent flyer/travel blogger community in two ways:

  1. A cookbook filled with stories and profiles on the people we meet. My goal is to have local cooks and chefs begin to use and respect Belizean foods and ingredients. Chefs can be great ambassadors and I am more than willing to get side-by-side with cooks upon my return to share my stories and food experiences.
  2. TED/Pecha Kucha-style videos: I have loved giving talks in a short, sharp format that condenses ideas and makes seeing a presentation fun and inspiring. I will post weekly videos and slide shows no longer than 7 minutes on YouTube and on my site, to engage and inspire. I am also slated to present my slides at Pecha Kucha Maine upon my return in April, 2012. I have to present at my home ‘group’ and then be invited to go throughout New England.
  3. Okay, maybe it’s three ways…

  4. I will also be at the Kennebunkport Festival in June with a booth of Belizean pastries. In the past, I have done a yearly circuit of food shows alongside chefs from Relais and Chateau and Maine’s James Beard winners. I love teaching and presenting and I know the combination of slides, photos, and kick-ass food will pique and promote interest.