I’ve lived in Missoula, Montana, for three years. My father back in New Jersey explains this to acquaintances as though I’ve moved to Mongolia, or joined a cloistered religious order: “Katie lives in Mon-tah-na now.” At my grandmother’s funeral, a friend of a relative smiled thinly and asked how I was liking Minneapolis. I easily forgive them, because until I moved out West, its geography looked to me like printer-paper states spined with mountains.
Living in a state with one federal Representative, I better understand its residents’ indifference toward coastal interlopers. Tourism dollars are welcome, and of course some Montanans have relatives and friends beyond the overlooked Mountain Time Zone. But the opinions of those residents when it comes to our food, our hotels, our lack of major sports teams? I think small Western towns probably invented the concept of zero fucks given.
Yet major food and travel publications insist on discovering small towns in fly-over country, meting out wide-eyed generalities and back-handed compliments in equal measure. The latest example was a Food & Wine guide to Knoxville, Tennessee, headquarters of Scripps Network, home to the University Of Tennessee, a city with a population of 187,000. Though it was a positive article, the author’s surprise at finding such cosmopolitan delight—a good croissant!—in this peeling-paint backwater didn’t go unchecked. The author doesn’t only speak for himself, but for locals themselves: “Really, when you look at the way the city tends to sprawl away from itself—quite far, actually, for a region where real estate doesn’t cost all that much—it would appear that Knoxville has not always been all that much in love with Knoxville, so why are the rest of us supposed to care?” Those residents responded, notably through a measured rebuttal from the Knoxville News-Sentinel. The general tone: an unimpressed thanks-but-no-thanks.
The Knoxville debacle doesn’t prove visitors can’t write about small cities; they can. But parachute journalism is fraught, and too often mines only the surface cliches, or attempts to speak for a population it doesn’t belong to. The purpose of travel writing is to illustrate and illuminate. It must do better than golly-gee exclamations that there is worthwhile food to be found outside of New York, L.A., San Francisco, and smaller cities absorbed onto that list—Portland, Charleston, Asheville—because their excellent food scenes tag-team with savvy convention and visitors bureaus.
I winced at times, reading the Food & Wine piece, as its author opens with this overview of Tennessee geography: “Driving along North Central Street in Knoxville, away from the heart of Tennessee’s third-largest city, reassurances that you will eventually end up somewhere good are few and far between; the further you go, the less glamorous your surroundings, not that there was much to write home about in the first place.”
Where is the self-consciousness? I feel under-qualified to generalize about Missoula, let alone a town I’ve spent a week in. Humility, respect, and curiosity seem to be the most necessary tools for this type of endeavor. Respect means letting a place tell its own story, not grafting one on to it. It means letting locals speak. If I visit a place for four days, I’ll probably only come away with a list of restaurants and bars I liked, not a grand vision of a city and where it’s “going.” And isn’t that guide enough? Tell readers where to get a good cup of coffee, where to have dinner, and where to find a decent beer—that’s all most of us want to know anyway. It’s possible to write a tidy travel guide and mostly leave cultural anthropology untouched.
Writer Julia Kramer does it well in her Bon Appetit piece about Pittsburgh’s restaurant scene. Another writer could take this in the hackneyed direction of Springsteen-esque rusting steel, but she states her thesis plainly: “The City of Bridges is in the throes of a full-on nose-to-tail, barrel-aged, small-plates culinary renaissance. And if you didn’t know it, yinz (that’s “you all” in Pittsburghese) probably don’t know anyone from there.”
Probably you don’t know anyone from there. It’s an overlooked but crucial step for visiting writers: ask a local. Run assumptions by the local reporters, by the chefs, by the regulars at the bars and sandwich shops. What are their experiences? Do your conclusions match their observations?
Then there’s the question of which restaurants, coffeeshops, etc. even comprise that guide, or which chefs even get interviewed. What some visiting writers take as proof of culinary merit—a list of natural wines, a coffee truck whose location is revealed via Instagram, small plates—are just familiar signposts to visitors from a larger city. Perhaps that reflects the demands of a publication’s audience. I personally didn’t come all the way to Knoxville, Las Cruces, or Boise just to eat in a Brooklyn facsimile.
There is a way to praise small cities for their culinary achievements, and it’s to start with an assumption they have them. Then, the surprise, the discovery, the moment of revelation is not characterized by the mere fact of delicious food’s existence, but by its nuances. We never find out what made that Knoxville croissant notable, in fact. We’re just assured it was very good.