Q & A with travel and food writer Zora O’Neill

Zora O’Neill is a travel and food writer, an editor, and the co-founder (with Tamara Reynolds) of an underground Astoria supper club so successful that it eventually spawned Forking Fantastic!, a cookbook and entertaining guide.

Zora has authored guidebooks for Lonely Planet, Moon, and Rough Guides. Her expertise runs from Egypt to Amsterdam to her home state of New Mexico and on to the Yucatán, though her range of interests under the umbrella of food and travel is infectiously broad, sincerely passionate, and very fun to read. (Want evidence? Check out Zora’s observations on Greek food and drink and her “walkabout” ode to various culinary delights of Queens.)

Q: Describe your profession.

A: I’ve been calling myself a “freelance writer” since I quit my full-time job in 2000, but it’s only in the past four or so years that I’ve really felt like I’ve grown into the job, in that the bulk of my income really comes from writing. I usually tell people I’m a guidebook author, although that’s only part of it. It’s just what I’ve been doing the longest, and whatever reputation I have as a writer has really come from that.

I’m also an editor. It’s work I really like doing, so I always have some on the side, even though at this point I could probably manage without it. It’s a break from staring at an empty page, and it helps me feel like I’m actually helping people, using my freelance word powers for good! And it helps me keep sharp on editing my own work.

Q: From the outside, it looks as if you’ve managed to craft the perfect career, equal parts travel and food. How do your endeavors actually settle on the travel/food divide? Or is your personal hybrid of the two so far developed at this point that you no longer attempt to differentiate?

A: For the most part, it has been an organic development and works out just fine–although my blog has always been a little schizophrenic, and so never really fit the “travel blog” or a “food blog” mold. I also had a little bit of an identity crisis last year when Forking Fantastic!, the cookbook I wrote with Tamara Reynolds, was published. For 20 years, cooking had been my sideline, my creative outlet. When I made it my full-time gig, over the year and a half it took to write the book and get it off to the printer, it was on the brink of becoming drudgery. I was really happy to get back to the travel side of things after that, just for the variety. But of course full-time travel writing gets to be a grind too.

I do get the biggest kick out of finding new foods on the road and talking with the people who cook them. The trick is finding a little bit more of an outlet for that, as my guidebooks would bloat horribly in the restaurant sections if I shared all I knew.

Q: You made a break from an academic career. Why did you shift gears? Any regrets?

A: Ah, yes, my secret grad-school past! Lots of people have one, I’ve discovered. I was on track for a PhD in Arabic literature–it had started out as modern Arabic novels, and then I found myself whisked back to pre-Islamic poetry. While I was toiling away on five lines of obscure (but beautiful) sixth-century poetry in the middle of Indiana, the first dot-com wave was ramping up, and I started feeling awfully out of the loop. And then my funding got cut and my department nearly dissolved due to a ridiculous academic feud.

So I took that all as a sign to pack the van and flee to New York City, and I’ve been glad every day since. I’ve used my Arabic skills a bit in the service of guidebook research, and just general travel and picking people’s brains for recipes. And recently, I’ve been thinking about studying it
again, now that the trauma of grad school has finally evaporated.Q: Which destinations do you love the most?

A: Syria! It’s the only place I’ve gone back to repeatedly for fun, and not just for work. Beautiful country, wonderful people and amazing things to eat–surprising spice-road Chinese influences, and food is so local that if you can’t actually see the water, there’s no fish on the menu. And spiffy trains! “Axis of Evil,” my ass.

And I have to give a shoutout to the Yucatán. I was assigned to update a guide there in 2003, a little bit randomly, and I feel so fortunate that I’ve been able to get to know such a lovely place in such depth. My ideas about Mexico were limited before I went there. I grew up in New Mexico, so I only knew the border towns. On my first Yucatán trip, I felt pretty dumb: Why had I been racing off to random corners of the world, when this kind of diversity and culture was just over the border?

Q: Name some places you’ve not yet visited and are dying to see.

A: Asia. It’s a gaping hole in my experience. I finally went for the first time last year–to Thailand, Malaysia and Bali, after I happened across some crazy-cheap business-class tickets. Thailand blew my mind. I’d heard Thais were into food, but I truly had no idea to what degree. My husband and I just walked down the street giggling at the bounty. It was also refreshing to go somewhere where I didn’t speak the language at all or have a travel partner who did. Now I need to get to Japan, Vietnam, India, the rest of Indonesia…

I have two fears: doing the long flight in economy, and being forever ruined for eating any kind of Asian food in the U.S. As it is, I always get so depressed when I come back home and try to eat things from places I’ve been, because everything here tastes like such a pale imitation. Our produce has gotten so feeble and tasteless, the spices aren’t fresh, someone decided to leave the lard out for “health” reasons, and so on. Right now, I still at least take a little comfort in Japanese food, and sometimes Indian.

Q: If you could make one meal anywhere in the world with any ingredients, where and what would you choose? Who would you cook & dine with?

A: How to choose? I once had an ambition to taste everything in the world–but checklists make me tired. I’m torn between getting a lesson in Japanese cooking from a random perfectionist old Japanese lady, or making Indian food with Madhur Jaffrey. I taught myself to cook by working my way through one of Jaffrey’s cookbooks, way back in early grad school. (Grad school was great for learning to cook. Department of Education, your grants were not wasted!) I feel like I should pay her back somehow. But either way, I’d like to use some foraged greens. I love learning what’s lying around by the side of the road.

Q: Give us a travel secret.

A: Make your itinerary, then take one thing out of it. Kind of like Coco Chanel’s advice on dressing, where you should take one accessory off before you leave the house. The tendency, especially when you’re going to a new place, is to overplan and try to gobble up everything you can, but you’ll get more out of a place if you slow it down. Related to that, don’t feel like you “should” do anything. I went to Thailand, and went in exactly one temple, for about 10 minutes, and it wasn’t even a famous one. That’s not terrible, is it? (Screams echo from across the Internet…)

Q: What’s next for Zora O’Neill?

A: Next May, I’m off to Morocco with Tamara and a tour operator called Brown & Hudson for a food tour inspired by Forking Fantastic! We’re basically taking our improvisational dinner parties on the road–it should be a great combination of finding cool new ingredients and crashing locals’ houses for dinner!

The tour angle is new for me, and a big jump, since I’ve been writing for independent travelers for so long. But last year I went on a food tour to Syria, and I finally realized the point of guided tours: it’s not to keep you safe or coddled or whatever–it’s to open doors to places you wouldn’t ordinarily get to go. So I’m very excited to be able to set that up for other people, and use all the knowledge I’ve collected over years of traveling. I’m definitely scheming on a trip to the Yucatán too–there’s so much there that can’t fit in the guidebook.

[Image: Peter Moskos]