Rosemary Kimani and Claire Rouger are, for the moment, Oak Parkers. But that could change tomorrow because the two have decided to commit themselves to seeing the world, eating every step of the way on what they call an “authentic food quest.” I was intrigued, and I had a few questions for them.
It takes guts to leave jobs and take off to travel the world. What was your motivation?
Rosemary: My previous position was with an independent digital agency as the director of strategy. While I enjoyed the agency and the people, the “politics” was physically and emotionally draining. What was comfortable, in terms of providing a consistent income, was numbing to the soul. This led to some serious soul searching as well as accelerating our plans to follow our dreams and work for ourselves.
Claire: Two unforeseen events happened that pushed us forward. I lost my dad who committed suicide at the beginning of 2015. This made me assess my purpose and recognize that life is too short. Soon after, my position was suppressed. That’s when Rosemary and I decided to take the leap of faith and start our own venture. We decided to get off the corporate track and start Authentic Food Quest in 2015; we decided to establish our base in Oak Park where our friends live.
3. How do you believe food offers insights into culture, and could you each give me an example of one food item, from another part of the world, that provides such insights?
Claire: When we arrived in Cusco, Peru, we asked about the local food specialties. We found out about Chiriuchu, a festive and traditional dish usually prepared in June for the celebration of Corpus Christi. Chiriuchu is a cold meal which in Quechua means “spicy cold.” We learned that it dates back to the Inca Empire. Villagers from various regions of the Empire would come to Cusco with their food specialties and participate in religious processions. That’s why Chiriuchu combines several specialties from the coast, the highlands and the Amazon, including cuy (guinea pig), chorizo (sausage), gallina (hen), cecina or charki (dried meat), cochayuyo (seaweed), maiz (corn), torreja (a type of omelet with corn flour, potatoes, yellow squash, green onions, and spices), huevas de pescado (fish eggs), queso (cheese) and cancha (toasted, crunchy corn). This experience by itself opened us up to the Peruvian Andean culture, the local habits and the surprising flavors of the food.
Rosemary: When we first got to Montevideo, Uruguay, I was struck by the obsessive nature of Uruguayans with mate (pronounced mah-tay). You see people walking around the streets clutching a thermos flask and slurping out from leather mate cups. Mate is a drink made from the infusion of yerba (dried mate plant) and hot water. It’s like coffee in that it has caffeine, and it’s like tea because it is steeped in hot water. Unlike coffee and tea, however, mate is generally shared, and the same gourd and bombilla (metal straw)are passed around from one person to the next. Uruguayans told us that they drink mate as a way of being social, of sharing and connecting. Some drink it as a “pick me up” beverage either in the morning, instead of coffee or tea, or in the afternoon to get through the rest of the day. The one thing that was very clear was that every moment spent drinking mate was special and a celebration of sharing and friendship. More than a drink, mate is a lifestyle! By understanding mate we got a real sense of the local culture and a deep appreciation of the people of Uruguay.
Do you think it’s possible to understand other cultures without traveling – that is, could you achieve the same goals by reading extensively about other cultures?
Claire: We don’t think it is possible to understand other cultures without traveling. Although reading about other cultures helps, it doesn’t give you the richness of experiencing it. When you are living in a different culture you’re confronted with new environments, different behaviors, and unfamiliar situations that a book will not teach you.
Rosemary: As an example, even though I spoke French and had a Curves Fitness Franchise in Nice, France, it wasn’t until we moved there that I got a deeper appreciation for the French. The habits, customs and spoken language cannot be fully appreciated from a book. The same is true for our trip in South America. No matter how much we read in advance about a particular country, it wasn’t until we got there and saw firsthand for ourselves how people work, live, eat and play that we felt we better understood that country or culture.
Why do you think it’s important to understand other cultures? Is it simply a matter of satisfying one’s curiosity, or is it more than that?
It expands our perspectives and facilitates understanding among people. In a society where information is filtered by the media, we don’t always get a “true” interpretation or view of a culture. We have found that exposure to different cultures bridges gaps, and we are all human beings aspiring to live more meaningful lives.
To track Claire and Rosemary’s adventures, check out their site: http://authenticfoodquest.com/