Inspiration to pen a 440-page, oversized hardback tome – Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide (Workman Publishing, $42.50) – about edible adventures around the world came from the online magazine Cecily Wong and Dylan Thuras work together on, Atlas Obscura. She’s a writer. He founded it in 2009 with Joshua Foer.
“There was no single moment (that inspired this book) but more the slow realization that the kind of surprising stories we loved to tell in Atlas Obscura, about place, history and the vast incredible diversity of the world could be told beautifully through food and drink,” says Thuras.
Organized by continent, then country and finally city, the book features 500 compelling stories centered around food. They range from Mumbai’s well-oiled machine of dabbawalas delivering 200,000 lunch boxes daily to students and office workers to the New Year’s Eve Pickle Drop in North Carolina. It also includes, on page 310, a full-page entry about Washington Island, at the northern tip of Door County, Wisconsin, pegged “the world’s most bitter island.” Legend goes that this island of 700 people is the world’s largest consumer of bitters, which are botanical-based alcoholic sweet and sour flavors.
Wong and Thuras will appear at Boswell Book Company on Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. in a virtual talk. (Pre-registration, which is free, required.)
We sat down with Wong to learn more about the book, including the Wisconsin inclusion:
What surprised you the most during your research for writing this book?
I loved learning the hidden stories behind the foods we eat every day. The pineapple, for example, has an amazing history. When they were first introduced to England around the 16th century, rich people went absolutely nuts for them. Pineapples became a really expensive status symbol, because they were so difficult to source from the Caribbean. By the 17th century there was a thriving pineapple-rental business, where you could hire a pineapple to display at your party, then return it so that the pineapple could be sold to someone who was much richer, who could actually afford to eat it. An 18th-century pineapple cost the equivalent of $8,000 in today’s currency.
In your book, you include Washington Island, Wisconsin, as “the world’s most bitter island.” Tell us more about it.
Yes! Tiny Washington Island drinks more bitters than any place in the world! It’s a tradition that started during Prohibition. Tom Nelson, the owner of Nelson’s Hall Bitter’s Pub, got a pharmaceutical license so that he could pour his customers shots of bitters and call it medicine. And it worked! He dispensed a lot of Angostura bitters for “stomach problems.” Even after Prohibition ended, locals kept drinking shots of bitters straight, and it continues to this day! You can still go to Nelsen’s pub and join the official Bitters Club by taking a shot of Angostura.
What food tradition in the book still makes you smile, laugh or chuckle because it’s that bizarre?
In central Thailand there’s a monkey buffet festival that I’m dying to see for myself. Once a year, locals cover the ruins of a 13th century temple with incredible fresh fruit–mangos and dragon-fruits and pineapples. Then they let the town’s monkeys just have the best day ever, climbing the fruit and feasting. There’s supposedly two tons of fruit!
What is one way that travelers are able to experience food differently than they were 10 or 20 years ago?
We’re seeing some cool innovation in food production. In the port of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, is the world’s first floating farm. It contains 35 cows that produce 700 liters of milk every day. There are only two humans needed to operate the farm! Everything else is done by robot, using AI to milk, feed, and clean up after the cows. It’s also super sustainable. Half the farm’s energy comes from solar panels floating beside it, and the cows drink rainwater and eat grass collected from local parks and golf courses.
Name a place in the U.S. that readers should consider checking out for their next food- and nostalgia-filled vacation – and why.
In Georgia there is a man who has collected nearly every (if not every!) metal lunch that has ever been made, and he displays them at his Lunch Box Museum. He has every cartoon character and superhero you could dream of among his collection, which has over 3,000 lunch boxes!
What about outside of the U.S.?
Mexico has an incredible candy scene – I want to go there just to try some of their wacky flavor combinations. Mexicans have a fondness for salty, spicy, and sour in their sweets, so you’ll find sweet-and-sour salted apricots showered in chili powder and cucumber lollipops and liquid spicy pickled fruit.
And if we can’t travel – due to the pandemic, finances or geography – are there ways to access the fruits, vegetables or other food products from far away without leaving Wisconsin?
You can get miracle berries easily and affordably online, which are one of my favorite experimental foods. These berries are originally from West Africa, and their magic is that after you eat one (they don’t taste like much), it makes sour things taste sweet! You can eat a lemon and it tastes like lemonade! Sour cream tastes like whipped cream! It’s so much fun.
Cecily, you live in Portland, Oregon. What should travelers eat or drink if they are in either city?
Portland is food-cart city! There are so many carts here that only make one item and they do it perfectly. One of my favorites is a place called Bing Mi that specializes in Chinese jianbing – a street-food crepe that’s filled with egg, black bean paste, chili sauce, fresh herbs, and a crispy fried cracker. It’s a popular breakfast in China, and this is the best version I’ve had in the U.S.!