“The fact is, I’ve been the dream “Lonely Planet” consumer for literally almost 40 years, since I first strapped a backpack to my body and headed out into the world,” says James Oseland. Two years ago, the editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine was asked to write the foreword to “Food Lover’s Guide to the World,” from the guide book’s publisher. Then when he was approached about curating his own food anthology, says Oseland, 50, “in what basically amounts to far less than a New York minute, I said, ‘Yes.’ ” “A Fork in the Road: Tales of Food, Pleasure and Discovery on the Road,” published in November, gathers 34 original stories about transformative food experiences told by chefs and writers.
Q. You have some big names here, Marcus Samuelsson one of the biggest, and then some rather unknowns. How did you scout for writers?
A. It’s funny because at Saveur we do a lot of parallel work. The not-so-secret secret of Saveur is it’s not so much a food magazine as it’s really a magazine of human culture through this very specific lens of food. It means we’re always looking for engaging human stories, not easy recipes to make on a busy weeknight. So it’s certainly a process that I’m familiar with from my daily job — finding stories that engage a reader in hopefully with any luck a very emotional and visceral way. With that in mind, I created a rather vast list of potential contributors, honestly just shy of 200 contributors all around the world. I wasn’t looking to just find American voices or writers that were just associated with the world of food. Instead I was looking to kind of hopscotch around the world and find folks with interesting stories to tell. Some might be celebrities here, others might have a certain celebrity in other parts of the world but not here, and others maybe would fit neither category but they were folks who had interesting stories to tell.
Q. So which contributors from outside the food world did you bring in?
A. One that comes to mind is a woman named Ma Thanegi, who wrote the essay, “Guns and Gluttony on the Campaign Trail.” She is a journalist in Burma/Myanmar who served as Aung San Suu Kyi’s assistant during the first bid for leadership in Myanmar and in fact was imprisoned — for her involvement in the campaign to elect Aung San Suu Kyi — for three years. She’s certainly not someone who’s famous in the sense that Marcus Samuelsson is famous, but I loved her story and what she wanted to contribute to the book. So I just wanted to create this sort of egalitarian, surprising, fresh spate of voices of authors to contribute pieces.
Q. You really allow the contributors to speak in their own voices, like Tom Carson, writing about making a fettucine Alfredo with “buttloads” of cheese and cream.
A. Absolutely. The next step, once that dream roster of contributors had been created, was to start reaching out to folks and it was a pretty good batting average right out of the starting gate. Once I nailed down the 34 contributors, what I did was give them the basic construct of the book, the sort of basic underriding theme that I felt all the pieces in the book should have, which is basically a transformative moment that involved food and took place somewhere outside of one’s own home. I said, look, so we don’t have any kind of traffic jam of story themes like, say, too many stories that take place in Italy or too many stories that involve an alcoholic bridge-playing mother, why don’t you propose to me two or three or as many ideas as you like? And of those, I cherry-picked the ones that I thought would work best in the book and not conflict with other stories.
Q. What will readers take away from this book?
A. This might sound a little Mary Poppins but it’s really about the kind of great and engaging connectivity of food. As human beings we don’t in fact share that many experiences, but nourishing ourselves is one of them. And invariably, all of us have stories that surround food and the nourishing of ourselves that involves, or even provoked, transformation in us. And I think there’s an entry point for all of us. I think there’s something we can all recognize about ourselves in all of these stories, even the ones that are almost borderline outlandish, like [Welsh novelist] Joe Dunthorne’s maggot cheese and Sardinia story, or even the opening piece which is a favorite, from [British restaurant critic] Giles Coren, a Twinkie-from-afar memory piece. I think we can see ourselves and be entertained and reminded of how much we all have in common and perhaps be turned on to try a dish or two that we never had before or visit a place we’ve never before been.