When I realized that I wanted to pursue a career in Food Studies, I started a food and travel blog that highlighted some of my most memorable exploits in the Americas. One of these particular experiences happened during my very first trip outside the United States, in the country of Bolivia, when I was 19 years old. In Bolivia, the locals eat salteñas for a morning snack — a very different breakfast to my typical eggs and pancakes — so I was delighted to come across a food stand selling these savory pastries my first morning in La Paz. I took one into my hands and, disregarding any thought of etiquette or sophistication, I munched into that salteña like I hadn’t eaten for years; hot juice running down my chin, bits of flaky crust sticking to the edges of my mouth; I didn’t care. It was one of those foods that wasn’t just delicious; it was mind-numbingly good. I quickly whipped around, turning to the man who sold me that heavenly treat. “¡Delicioso, señor!” I exclaimed, my mouth absolutely stuffed to the brim, cheeks bulging. The man, surprised, looked slowly over my messy, food-stained face and started to laugh. It was obvious I had never eaten a salteña before and he decided to help me, showing me the proper way by holding one upright, nibbling at the top corner and eating downwards without spilling a single drop of juice. After thanking him profusely, he gave me a wink and a knowing smile. “Bienvenidos a Bolivia, amiga,” he answered. That connection — a brief, fleeting moment of a local man welcoming me into his country — resonated deeply within me. It was the first time I realized that food had the power to connect people, regardless of what country they were from or which language they spoke.
That salteña was the first thing I ever ate in Bolivia, or in any country outside the U.S., for that matter. I consider the salteña, and the memory that it invokes, the beginning of a fiery passion for food, culture, and travel that has stayed with me ever since that first trip to Bolivia. I don’t know if I would be where I am today, an aspiring culinary anthropologist, had I not discovered food’s remarkable ability to bring people together, back at that food stand in La Paz years ago.
Posted by Elizabeth Unger—NYU Food Studies graduate student