I grew up in Oklahoma and was not particularly interested the world beyond KFC and Big Macs. But a study abroad to China in the 1980’s changed all that. From 1985 to 1987 I spent most of my time in the PRC – learning Mandarin and prowling the back streets of Nanjing and Beijing for alternatives to the dorm cafeteria. We found an unexpected and vibrant economy of home kitchen restaurants – serving dishes that had nothing in common with American-style “sticky brown” Chinese food. These entrepreneurial families simply opened their homes for a few hours each evening, offering whatever was seasonal in the market. Never mind that it was illegal at that time! There were also the street vendors – steamed buns, roasted sweet potatoes, and fresh yogurt were all common and all deliciously fascinating to an Okie from, well, nearby Muskogee.
From those beginnings my education, work and gustatory curiosity have taken me to many other corners of the planet – South America and South Asia in particular. My PhD in geography was not initially oriented toward food and agriculture (rather rivers and floods). But nowadays I see food and environmental geography as intertwined. I spend much of my professional life planning and organizing educational travel programs – and food is always near the center of the itinerary. What we eat defines us culturally as much as anything else. And street food diplomacy may be the most influential kind. Who can deny the common humanity of peeling roasted sweet potatoes together – curbside on a frosty winter morning?