If you asked most writers what their ideal career looks like, the phrases "travel the world" and "eat" and "tell people what I see" will come up again and again. Books like Eat, Pray, Love only strengthen the idea, convincing writers that all they have to do touch their reader's emotional core is eagerly sop up pasta sauce for a few months and then call an editor. Still, eating and traveling and writing probably ranks as one of the top "dream jobs" out there, and Robyn Eckhardt does it. And does it well.
You've seen Eckhardt's byline in many places. She may ring a bell from her food writing in New York Times, Saveur, or Travel + Leisure Southeast. She was a Food Editor at Time Out Kuala Lumpur, and wrote Food & Drink chapters for Lonely Planet guides to places like Melaka and Penang (where she currently lives); Singapore Malaysia and Brunei; and Vietnam.
And according to her, it is not as easy as it looks. Eckhardt started her blog, Eating Asia, in 2005 as a way to practice food writing, and tapped into an enthusiastic readership. "It wasn't overnight" she says, "but I'm working steadily at a job I really like, which is certainly a success in publishing."
An Unlikely Start
Though she always loved writing, Eckhardt never sought out the travel writer's life. Initially, she pursued a career in academia, and in the early 2000s she found herself working on a Ph.D. in a political science program about tax protests in rural China. She had developed an interest in the country in an undergrad class, but as she dug deeper into her dissertation, she realized how often she came back to food, and how she kept getting distracted by what she was eating, or historic accounts of steamed buns when she should have been studying protests.
Soon she got the hint. "I turned 40 and thought I should do something I really want to do right now. I just thought, 'why bother.'" So she left her program behind and started her blog, scrounging freelance work where she could.
A Ph.D. involves plenty of writing, plus training in faithfully recounting stories—both skills that would serve Eckhardt well as she completed assignments that helped her pay the bills. Travel writing involves plenty of traveling and eating, but it's no vacation. "It's not like it's a grind, but there were many times I wrote stuff I wasn't interested in writing, but I knew I was on a path somewhere."
For a while, that path led her around Asia, where she built a reputation as an expert on its varied cuisines and the people who make them, like the chili-slingers of Chengdu and the cuisine-defining vendors at a Bangkok food market. There was no shortage of stories to tell; the challenge was to find what would make a compelling pitch to an editor.
Building a Niche
She landed on an academically-minded eater's approach to the everyday, putting foodways like humble street food in context and showing their relevance to locals' lives. That mission, to "tell the story of culture through food," is what she's applying to her latest project, an upcoming book about Turkey and its cuisines with her husband, David Hagerman, a photographer.
What do you think of when you think of Turkish cuisine? Is it doner kebab? "I have a Google alert for Turkish restaurants," she says, "and every time I get a link about one that's opened in the US or UK, it's always kebab and mezze, and it's so frustrating. It's so wrong." The idea of one "Turkish" cuisine already misses the mark. "I've talked to cooks on the Black Sea who curl their lip at the mention of hummus, " she says, while in other regions it's a major part of the food culture.
Getting the Inside Story
It's easy for travel writers to talk about "real food," but what does the term really mean? A few years ago, chef/writer Eddie Huang and writer/editor Francis Lam famously debated the topic and the value (or lackthereof) of cultural outsiders acting as ambassadors to a foreign culture.
Eckhardt is sympathetic to an outsider's limitations but points out, "my experience will never be the same as that of an insider, but it's complimentary. All experiences and all interpretations are welcome. That's what makes the field rich." She also says her outsider status makes her especially observant. For example, she developed an obsession with palm sugar, the molassesy, sometimes smoky raw sugar that adorns countless Southeast Asian dishes. It's an easy ingredient to take for granted if you've grown up with it, but to an outsider, the sugar's intoxicating coconutty richness is part of the makings of a great story.
In the remote, often conservative regions Eckhardt and her husband visit, being a Westerner—not to mention a woman—have their drawbacks, as locals are often hesitant to welcome outsiders. But Eckhardt's discovered that age works in her favor in areas where reaching middle age earns you social respect. "I feel like I'm taken more seriously. I certainly am not hassled the way I would be if I were in my late 20s." Working with a spouse also allows both of them to enter spaces that they may not be able to see on their own.
Whether it's in an all-male teahouse or a woman's home, Eckhardt keeps herself open to experiences as they come. That means building unstructured wandering time into her itinerary—and getting over her Westerner's sense of propriety.
"Five years ago, if someone said to me 'come to my house for dinner,' my very American politeness would have kicked in. 'Oh I don't wanna put you to any trouble!' But now I'll just say yes."
That may be at once the easiest and hardest part of her work: letting go and stopping at orchards or streetside stands when her instincts suggest something is worth a closer look.