Many of us wanted to grow up to be Naomi Duguid.
International traveler, award-winning writer, photographer and cook. Someone who spends months in distant, exotic places, eating, learning and bringing it back.
For six books, she and her husband, Jeffrey Alford, became the two-person National Geographic of the kitchen. From their home in Toronto, they circled the world, young sons in tow, for award-winning books like Flatbreads and Flavors: A Bakers Atlas, Seductions of Rice, and Hot Sour Salty Sweet.
Their books were beautifully photographed and deeply researched. In food writing, they were one word: NaomiandJeffrey.
Several years ago, just as their sons were going off to college, the unthinkable happened. Naomi and Jeffrey divorced. He left for Thailand.
And she? She picked herself up and headed off to research her first book on her own.
At the beginning, I thought, Who am I bouncing ideas off? Well, Im bouncing them off myself. It was liberating.
In typical fashion, she picked one of the most mysterious and remote countries on the planet Burma, known briefly as Myanmar. Bordered by China, India and Thailand, its in the center of so much, but known for so little.
Everybody knows Thai, everybody knows Chinas regions like Szechuan and Cantonese. Who knows anything about Burmese food?
Its been kind of this black hole of a place, she admits.
For almost 50 years, Burma was under repressive regimes. Every trip Duguid made, she expected to get labeled a journalist and thrown out.
Then the amazing happened: Just a few months before her book, Burma: Rivers of Flavor, came out this fall, the country successfully elected the once-banned National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma is suddenly opening to the world.
While all of that was going on, Duguid was finding the food of Burma: Fresh salads with lime juice, peanuts and fresh herbs. Curries with layers of flavor. Condiments like shallot oil and ground powders of dried shrimp. Sort of Thai, sort of Indian, mostly not.
Duguid will be in Charlotte this week. Unfortunately, shes not doing anything thats open to the public. Shes talking at Johnson & Wales University. And yet, Im sort of glad shes focusing on students. Because there are few writers I can think of who have so much to share.
I asked her about how you go into a country and come away understanding the food. How do you get to know a culture and not misunderstand?
I just eat, she says. I eat a lot. Because Im not a journalist and Im not on a schedule, my secret is, I take the time. I hang around. I try one and I try another and I try another.
When shes in a country, she doesnt always stay on the move. I make myself stop and be in this place for a week and go every day to a tea shop and have a pattern. People get used to me and relax, she says.
Ive been called a chronicler, a story-teller, an anthropologist.
What Im trying to do is bridge and transmit.