Stacey L. Newman
How to be a wooden spoon wanderer
"There are some incredible ingredients that haven’t found their way onto Canadian menus, and I wonder why?"
Food is one of the most searched, shared, beloved and universally appreciated subjects in the world. The historiography of every human epoch and culture includes food and drink and the traditions and ideas. We love food. We love reading and writing about food, and in this age of the internet, we love food blogs. Chefs often talk about deriving inspiration from food blogs and food stories. At the heart of food is humanity, sharing and socializing.
Caeli Mazara and Eric Perez are husband and wife, travel and food enthusiasts. Mazara is Canadian, and Perez is Venezuelan. They are the co-founders of the unique and apropos Wooden Spoon Wanderer (WSW), a Canadian blog which seeks to unite foodies the world over, from everyday people to professional chefs, while paying homage to the history and diversity of food.
Members of the Food Bloggers of Canada, Mazara and Perez, share thoughts on their process, their inspiration, lessons they’ve learned and their plans for WSW’s future.
WSW consists of a series of assignments that focus on one region of the world, its food and culture, and the couple must source, prepare and eat a full meal from the country featured and then blog about the entire process. To date, Wooden Spoon Wanderer has ‘visited’ 56 countries or territories. Mazara and Perez use a list that includes all of the UN-recognized countries, and they’ve added other territories that they feel have enough of a culinary identity to explore (British Antarctic Territory didn’t make the cut, for example, but Puerto Rico and Macau have both been featured). They use a generator online that spits out a random entry, that is how they determine their next assignment.
To source authentic ingredients, they’ve found some regular local retailers or producers to buy from depending on the region they’re featuring. There are times when they have to make substitutions because the ingredients they need simply aren’t available. “For a long time, we were substituting spinach for sweet potato leaves but recently came upon them at an international grocery store.” If they weren’t set in a diverse urban centre (Toronto), the project would likely be much more difficult.
The blog is as much about their journey as a couple and their culinary "travels" as it is about the cultures they profile. The couple took their first big trip together a few years ago (to the UK and Ireland), making them realize how possible travel could be if they just prioritized it. They’ve since travelled throughout Europe, the Caribbean and North America, and have their sights on an East Asia trip in the near future. “Our love of travel stems from an interest in how people live elsewhere, how they speak, how they build, how they make music and art, how they experience their history, and perhaps best of all, how they interact with food—from the ingredients to the recipes to eating the meal itself. We try to eat like locals wherever we go because we feel it’s an important way to experience a place,” says Mazara.
Their goals, according to Perez, are to have fun, spend time together, add to their regular cooking repertoire, inspire culinary exploration in others, and to be able to say at the end of the project that they ate food from every country.
Says Mazara, “I love the challenge as a cook who is still very much learning. As a writer, I love how this project is unfolding. Maybe I can see it more because I’m in it, but when I go back and read old posts, I feel this narrative unfolding, as we get better at certain techniques, or we get frustrated when something doesn’t work, or we make something that reminds us of an earlier assignment. I had this experience when I made soft-shelled crabs for Fiji, and I kind of accidentally anthropomorphized the crabs, and it made it difficult to prepare them. I wrote about that process, and it ended up being pretty funny. It does feel as though under the assignment-by-assignment process, there is a kind of story happening in our kitchen.”
Mazara and Perez look for sources that are as authentic as possible. For some cuisines, they’ve found doing research in the local language (between them, Mazara and Perez speak enough German, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese to get by) yields more authentic results.
Some of the most difficult ingredients they’ve worked with? “Yeast can be temperamental. And dulce de leche from scratch took a really long time. I had to check the condensed milk every 20 minutes for four hours, keeping it covered in boiling water and rotating the can every so often,” says Perez.
Mazara has found doughs are the trickiest, whether it’s puff or phyllo or something else (she has learned that rising times in Togo may differ from rising times in a cold Toronto kitchen).
Perez and Mazara hope that chefs, in particular, will continue to take away unique information and ideas from WSW. Perez says that he hopes to impart a “sense of curiosity” to chefs. “There are so many ingredients that we don’t give a second thought to that are staples elsewhere,” he says.
Why was it important to become members of Food Bloggers of Canada? “I wanted to feel like part of a community. I’m also interested in supporting other food bloggers and felt like FBC would help me do that,” says Mazara. They regularly consult blogs from across the globe to research their assignments.
Mazara and Perez recently gave their first showcase dinner, which was a 17-item menu built from their first 50 assignments. They served guests a carefully planned menu that covered at least one country from every region they’ve ‘visited.’ It was an enormous amount of work, but it gave them a true appreciation of the life chefs lead, and they loved it. “It was great to share what we’re doing with other people,” says Mazara, adding that the blog is pescatarian which adds an element of challenge. “I’m a pescatarian, and we develop our menus accordingly. For some places that means meat substitutes like seitan, soy or jackfruit.”
Says Mazara, “[Wooden Spoon Wanderer] has really broadened my perspective on food. There are some incredible ingredients that haven’t found their way onto Canadian menus, and I wonder why? Like stingray, kecap manis, cactus and hominy, to name a few.” She’s hoping to inspire a continued sense of adventure in Canadian chefs.
To read more, please go to woodenspoonwanderer.com.