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]

Forking Fantastic hits Morocco with Brown & Hudson culinary tour

Now that Thanksgiving is underway, it’s time for many of us to start thinking about our immediate futures. The holiday season and our travel schedules for the new year are all on deck.

Here’s one very appealing idea for travel in the new year.

Tamara Reynolds and Zora O’Neill, Astoria’s very own Forking Fantastic dinner club team, have teamed up with Brown & Hudson to create a seven-night culinary tour of Morocco.

Forking Fantastic began as an informal supper club. It has spawned an international fan base as well as a guide to entertaining: Forking Fantastic! Put the Party Back in Dinner Party.

Back in July, Gadling published an entertaining Q&A with the very lively Tamara Reynolds. Since then, the Forking Fantastic team has been swept up in a media whirl. Ms. Reynolds can be seen on several upcoming episodes of Unique Eats on the Cooking Channel and both Tamara and Zora were featured in the New York episode of Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s American Road Trip.

The Brown & Hudson tour takes in Marrakech, the Ourika Valley, and Essaouira. The tour runs from May 28, 2011 through June 4, 2011. A three-night Fez add-on option is also available.

Hanging out with the Forking Fantastic ladies in Morocco doesn’t come cheap. Brown & Hudson has priced the tour at £3,495 ($5520) per person based on a 16-person tour and on a double occupancy basis. The single supplement is £685 ($1080).

[Image: Flickr / Ahron de Leeuw]

Travel Q&A with author & cook Tamara Reynolds

Tamara Reynolds is a the co-founder (with Zora O’Neill) of The Sunday Night Dinner, an Astoria, Queens-based supper club. The Sunday Night Dinner, which continues to thrive, was well ahead of what has become a supper club trend. Out of the Sunday Night Dinner came a fabulous cookbook, Forking Fantastic, which Reynolds co-authored with O’Neill. Travel is key to Reynolds’ imagination as a cook. She shops for food in the international food markets of Astoria and travels to countries with great food traditions.

Q: Sum up your professions in a few snappy words.

A: Cookbook author, cook for hire, cooking teacher, television show shopper, and Hostess with the Mostess of The Sunday Night Dinner.

Q: How did the Sunday night dinners come to happen? And how did Forking Fantastic emerge from the supper club?

A: SND began when Zora O’Neill and I met in 2002. We worked at Prune together and discovered we were neighbors and both loved to cook. We began cooking on Sundays for friends, and the next thing we knew, we were consistently feeding 15-20 people every Sunday. We began asking for donations so we could afford to keep doing it, and the next thing we knew, we were running an underground supper club.

We became convinced that the next step should be to write a cookbook, with encouraging words on entertaining, for real life. Zora and I felt that everyone was so hung up on the Martha Stewart perfection ideal that no one was actually cooking dinner for friends for the fun of it. Plus, we thought that if we wrote a kick ass guide to entertaining, detailing how we taught ourselves to cook and our many many mistakes along the way, maybe we would get invited to dinner more often.
Q: You told me that the fact that you’re based in Astoria has had a lot to do with the fact that the supper club took off.

A: It is funny, when we started our supper club, it was us and Ghetto Gourmet, a traveling club. Now I get a notice about every third day that another one is starting up, usually in Brooklyn. We remain one of the very few in Queens.

Queens is incredibly culturally diverse, but Brooklyn still seems to keep a headlock on “culinary coolness”. That said, I would never be the cook that I am or be able to feed people the way I do if I didn’t live in Astoria. I find the butchers and “old world” feel of Astoria’s food shops completely inspiring and refreshing. There are stores that only import Greek products, Italian products, Eastern European, North African, Middle Eastern, Brazilian, etcetera. Within a seven-minute walk from my house there are three butchers, all with whole lambs, goats and pigs hanging in the windows. These hanging animal carcasses aren’t decorative. People in my neighborhood cook these things on a daily basis. The produce markets burst with really excellent fresh produce, too. The first Long Island tomatoes and flat beans of the season just appeared last Friday and it looked like there was going to be a riot lead by the grandmothers of Astoria!

Q: Your Forking Fantastic co-author Zora O’Neill is also a travel writer. Did her perspectives on travel and food influence your own?

A: Absolutely. I went to grad school to be an opera singer; Zora went to grad school to study Classical Arabic poetry. Along the way we both learned to cook, but when I met her she had lived in Egypt and knew far more about Middle Eastern/North African cuisine than I did. I eagerly lapped up all of the information I could get out of her. She still travels far more than I do. My travel is mainly for pleasure while hers is for work. It is always nice to get a story of a great meal from her. It spurs my imagination.

Q: Where do you like to travel?

A: I feel like I am kind of done with Europe for now. I really want to concentrate on the US states I have not visited, North Africa, and Vietnam. February I am trying to put together a Vietnam/Cambodia/Laos trip. I think it is safe to say that I like to go anywhere where they are doing things differently than I do them at home.

Q: Have you ever traveled somewhere expressly to try a particular food?

A: You know, not exclusively, but I never go anywhere without considering where and what I will be eating, and cannot imagine traveling to a country with bad food. That said, I cannot wait to go back to Turkey to eat some more, and to Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, Sicily, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos just to eat. I view sightseeing as a great way to burn off the last meal and get your body ready to eat the next one. I am also considering driving around the backwaters of Georgia in August to sample some Gullah specialties. I am fascinated the resilience of Gullah traditions.

Q: How do your travels influence your cooking?

A: People cannot cook without markets and grocery stores. Going into either can tell you so much about where you are, who lives there, and what happens in their kitchens. I love to visit grocery stores and markets in every town I am in, one-horse or otherwise. The fact that in other countries you can wander around and see meat sitting out in the open for hours and here we insist on shrink-wrapping everything is fascinating. Sometimes small observations can inform you that your accepted way of doing things at home is definitely not the only way.

Of course, places have particular smells. Every time I exit the airport in Phoenix, my hometown, it smells like home. The smells of cities often tell me what people are eating, and I love to try to recreate particular smells in my home kitchen.

Q: Do you have a favorite destination, secret or otherwise?

A: Secret? Are there any secrets left? Ha. I must say, I loved Ayvalik, a small town in Turkey. People were transporting goods through the cobblestone streets in the town in horse drawn wagons. And there was pickled watermelon rind everywhere. And the eggplant, tomatoes, melons and lamb were amazing. We took a boat from Mytilini, Greece to Ayvalik and stayed a few days on our way to Istanbul. I would love to return.

I also loved the plains of Portugal. I ended up there six years ago purely by accident; my drive down to the Algarve was scuttled by torrential rain, and we didn’t want rainy beach. So we ended up driving up and over from east to west: Evora, Elvas, Beja. So beautiful and so unexpected. We happened into an ancient Roman Meat Market that had at a later point been a Catholic Church and was now a local craft shop/art gallery. So many Roman Ruins and such beauty! For a few years I loved to say, “If you want to see Rome, go to Portugal!”