Meet James Oseland: editor of Lonely Planet’s A Fork in the Road, editor-in-chief of Saveur and judge on Top Chef Masters

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Much to the thrill of travelers and gourmands alike, Lonely Planet is publishing a brand new collection of travel and food stories, which hits the shelves this November.

A Fork in the Road: Tales of Food, Pleasure & Discovery is lovingly edited by James Oseland – editor-in-chief of Saveur, America’s most critically acclaimed food magazine, and judge on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters. The anthology includes more than 30 essays revealing the joys, jolts and life-changing experiences of eating on the road and we were honored to catch up with James mere hours before he was jetting to southern Lebanon for olive harvest.

LP: Tell us about how you got involved with A Fork in the Road.

James: I’ve been a Lonely Planet reader since I first started stuffing my backpack and hitting the road in the early ’80s. As a super longtime reader of the guides, when I was approached about two years ago to contribute an entry to Lonely Planet’s Food Lover’s Guide to the World, I was thrilled. A couple of months after contributing to that book, I engaged in another chat with Lonely Planet about working on A Fork in the Road. It took me all of three and a half seconds to say yes! I probably wanted to come off a little less eager but I was really, really thrilled at the prospect of working for the company that has meant so much to me as a traveler.

LP: And how did you choose the contributors for the book?

James: Lonely Planet gave me license to throw out the net to people I was interested in working with. Because of my affiliation with Saveur I know an enormous number of people who not only write about food, but in one way or another are respectful of food and its place in human culture. So with that in mind, I compiled a dream list of literally over 200 names, winnowed that down to a hit list, and luckily found that most people on the list were game to contribute pieces.


James Oseland, editor of A Fork in the Road. Photo by Todd Coleman.

LP: Do you know if, like you, those contributors have a history of traveling with Lonely Planet, or was it more their connection with you that drew them to work on the book?

James: I knew most of the contributors from my work at Saveur, however I must say that, overwhelmingly, the responses back were, 'Lonely Planet? Of course!' So it was definitely a good selling point.

The thali lunch at a restaurant in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India. Photo by James Oseland (www.jamesoseland.com/photos).

LP: To select the stories or themes for the book, did you work closely with the writers or did you give them free rein to submit whatever they wanted?

James: I did mostly the latter. I laid the foundations for the book, from a core DNA level of what I felt it could be. Then I challenged the contributors to come up with an idea that they felt really comfortable with, really passionate about. For me, the core idea for the book was 'tell us a story that involves something that happened at the table that, in one way or another, big or small, affected how you see the world – and that happened somewhere outside, not in your own home.' A lot of contributors might have had flashes of the 'Lonely Planet exotic' wafting before their eyes, Fiji and Bali and southern Thailand, etc. That 'someplace outside' could be Fiji or Bali, but it could also be down the road. So I wanted to really interject that idea that travel doesn’t necessarily mean getting on a ten-hour flight. It is more than that, it’s more of a spiritual construct.

LP: At Lonely Planet, that’s one of our tenets: you can have an amazing travel adventure in your own backyard!

James: Yes! And what was so wonderful and liberating about creating A Fork in the Road was that it was my very favorite part of what we do at Saveur: listening to stories, human stories. It just doesn’t get any better than that, especially when food is such a huge part of the story. There’s something about our food memories, about our relationship to food where you can just cut in so close and deep on who somebody is and what their world view is, who the essence of them is. There’s something about food that has this amazingly equalizing force in human culture. And it tells us so fabulously and even quickly about a place.

LP: Yes, in fact you say in the intro to A Fork in the Road that food can help you understand a place, and maybe even yourself – that it can be life-changing. Talk a little bit more about that: What exactly do you mean about how food can help with self-realization and self-actualization, and your place in the world?

James: Without food, we don’t exist. So again, there’s this fantastically equalizing aspect of that for me that transcends political boundaries, religious beliefs, all these cultural systems that we tend to put on ourselves. At the end of the day, you’ve gotta eat. There’s something so gorgeous to me in that idea that you can understand place so clearly, so adeptly, through understanding what that place eats, how they go about procuring food, how they go about cooking it, how they celebrate it at their tables, how intimately they share it with each other – or not. But also in that we see our own individual habits. When I significantly traveled abroad for the first time, at 19 to Southeast Asia, especially those first couple of days and weeks, my sense of who I was in the world was so terrifically jarred by what I experienced as an eater that it actually completely upended every notion of what I thought was right and proper. It challenged me to face this thing: I’m uncomfortable here, this food is too spicy, it’s too oily, it’s too strange, it’s not what I know. Yet I had to eat! Through that discomfort that I faced, I began to understand this place better, and I began to understand myself better too.

A plate of stir-fried rice noodles at a restaurant in Trang, Thailand. Photo by James Oseland (www.jamesoseland.com/photos).

LP: What surprised you most about the stories you received for A Fork in the Road and the messages within them?

James: I can’t say that I was surprised by the naked emotionalism of all the stories, the intensity and honesty. There’s not a lot of bleak writing; it’s all very direct, very from the heart as well as the gut. But there definitely were some individual surprises along the way. I never would have, for instance, expected the nude diner in rural Indiana that Jane and Michael Stern wrote about, and how the macabre hilarity of that experience haunted them for decades afterward! (Laughs) There were many other moments like that too, like Joe Dunthorne’s experience with the maggot cheese in Italy. And when I think about the book, images immediately rise to the surface of my mind of Naomi Duguid’s story of a moose hunt in the forests of British Columbia. There’s something so primal, so primeval even, about what she describes, that how deeply it affected her as a person affected me as deeply as a reader.

LP: Are there any other particular themes that you identified throughout the essays that really penetrate the book?

James: There is an abiding theme of pleasure in the book. Even when authors are describing experiences that are odd and in some respects off-putting, there’s something at the heart of all of the experiences that exudes pleasure. And that goes back to that thing that we must eat. There’s something in our hard-wiring that associates food, and the discovery of new food in particular, with pleasure.

LP: What was your favorite aspect of working on A Fork in the Road?

James: It was the pleasure of hearing all of these new, very fresh stories, and learning different, intimate aspects of each of the contributors whose work I admire so much. And in this anthology there is a very open, liberating quality – go ahead, write what intrigues you, don’t worry about pleasing me, don’t worry about making a book. Tell us a very intimate, visceral story.

LP: In the end, what do you hope that readers get out of this book?

James: First, I hope it that it entertains readers, that they’re engaged by the stories. Second, I hope that it encourages them to travel, to experience their own food discoveries. And third, I hope it allows readers to look inside and see their own openness to new experience. A lot of times we get cordoned off in our ideas about the world and what our place in it is, and I think that the 30-plus essays in this book do a fine job of showing that what we think is only the starting point.

A night market in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo by James Oseland (www.jamesoseland.com/photos).

LP: So based on your highly acclaimed 2006 memoir, Cradle of Flavor, would you say that Southeast Asia is your favorite food destination?

James: I would. I am just endlessly drawn to the cuisines of Southeast Asia. Indonesia in particular is a kind of spiritual culinary home to me. But Malaysia is extraordinary… so is Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, the Philippines… and the interrelationship of all of these sometimes seemingly vastly different food ways that when you crack the surface and analyze them more closely, there’s this extraordinary continuous river of food and ways of thinking about food and ingredients, and I just find it to be the most stimulating food place on the planet. That said, honestly I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a food culture that I’m not in some way enamored of. There’s literally not a food that I will say no to.

A take-away order of stir-fried noodles, red-cooked pork belly, and more, from a hawker’s stall in Singapore. Photo by James Oseland (www.jamesoseland.com/photos).

LP: When you’re not lucky enough to be staying on a Lebanese olive farm with a family who will be cooking for you, as you’re heading off today to do, how do you find great meals when you travel?

James: My food radar, 'foodar' if you will, is omnipresent. It’s always with me. So I’m always very intensely looking for signals for what seems like it might be a good café for a quick nosh, a good purveyor of ingredients where maybe they have already prepared foods where I can cobble together a meal, or signs of which restaurant might be better than another. Honestly as far as food choices go when I’m traveling, I tend not to depend too much on guidebooks. For instance I’ll use Lonely Planet like it’s going out of style for where to sleep and how to move around a particular place. But as far as nourishing myself, I tend to just go on instinct, and what feels and looks right. And I’m not one of those people who does a lot of advance research online. I just go and find out.

LP: So I was going to ask what kind of advice you have for the more timid food traveler, but I guess that’s it – just go and find out! But what advice would you have for someone who’s just a bit more timid about eating and traveling, or has dietary preferences?

James: I can only speak for myself, but I always try to keep as open and fluid as possible when I’m traveling. I tend to try to abandon my own dietary preferences when I travel. I find that if I try and control what I’m eating too much, my experience of the world becomes controlled and limiting, and maybe ultimately less interesting – and there’s nothing that I like less than an uninteresting experience!

Emily K Wolman is Lonely Planet's editor-at-large. When not regretting that she over-packed, Emily lives in Oakland, California.