Phoenix, I'm Your New Food Editor, and I Have a Confession

Yes, that is my name in nigella seeds on Turkish flatbread.EXPAND
Yes, that is my name in nigella seeds on Turkish flatbread.
Olga Aymerich

It’s true that I’m a food nerd, but a food snob I am not. Actually, I am biologically unable to achieve true food snobbery, thanks to my single food allergy — truffles. Not the chocolate. The fancy-ass mushroom.

It doesn’t matter if it is truffle oil, truffle salt, or fine slivers of the earthy ‘shroom falling like dirty snowflakes onto an awaiting coil of steaming pasta. It will, at best, make my tongue numb and throw me into a panic. At worst, my throat will close up and I will die. (Probably not die ... but an ER visit would be in order.)

After I shyly admit to my cursed allergy, the question from my attentive (perhaps disbelieving) listeners will begin. “Is that a real thing?” “Are you allergic to gold and diamonds, too?” And, inevitably, “How did you find out?”

It all started in New York City. I am a West Coast bumpkin, so when I arrived on that golden isle, I had a lot to learn about culinary sophistication. One of my first lessons in the art of enjoying a meal and showing off at the same time came with the introduction of truffles, which my dining companion had just, with a gasp, spied on the specials menu.

I asked her how they tasted. “They are exquisite,” she purred. Going on, she explained that they were priced per ounce, like gold.

“But what do they taste like?” I asked. She paused, thinking for a moment as though she had never actually considered what the flavor of these “exquisite” bits of mushroom might be. “Earthy and rich,” she finally said.

I didn’t have a chance to taste the divine fungus that day, as the kitchen had run out of the truffle supplement, but soon enough, I had my chance. It came in the form of truffled honey. At first bite, I couldn’t quite understand what I was tasting. It was almost as though the honey had been mixed with dirt (Was that the earthiness?) Before I had the chance to take another bite, my tongue began to tingle and swell. I put down the jar, wondering if I’d become allergic to honey.

I continued to sample the delicacy over the years, each time with varying levels of tingle. I came to secretly hate the mushroom that had bewitched all around me. But I reasoned that perhaps I had just never tasted the right truffle. Living on the paltry wages of a young professional in one of the priciest cities in the world, I didn’t go out of my way to find out.

Then, a few years later, I went to graduate school at New York University to study Middle Eastern culinary anthropology. What, what? No, graduate school did not make me instantly wealthy. And no, they don’t use truffles in Middle Eastern food. But it was because of my studies that I found myself in Beirut.

Okay, perhaps at this point I should back up a few steps.

I started my adult life, or perhaps I postponed it, by joining the army at the age of 17. I wasn’t from a military family (my parents were West Coast Ph.D scientists), but I was a fiery punk rocker who felt frustrated and lost and thought that I might find some kind of direction and purpose in the military. Besides, how bad-ass would I be? 

Well, after four years in the service, a year of which was spent invading Iraq, I came back to civilian life feeling not very bad-ass at all. Lucky for me (though I didn’t know it at the time), my experiences in the army had given me the direction I was after.

During the war I developed an insatiable hunger. These cravings were not only for delicious, non-military-issued cuisine, but also for a kind of human connection that I could only seem to find while sharing a meal (I wrote about one such meal in Iraq for Saveur). I came back to America obsessed with the people I had met in Iraq. And food was my only clue as to how to get back whatever it was I had found and lost there.

Okay, so flash forward about five years. I’m in New York City. I've decided to go to graduate school to study Middle Eastern food culture and history, and I am simultaneously trying to learn to be a food snob, though I’m still broke and can’t afford to cultivate my taste for truffles.

With this background, I set off to study Arabic in Beirut for a few months, and it was there, on Gemmayzeh Street in the fashionable neighborhood of Achrafieh, that I finally learned what all the truffle fuss was about.

In an over-the-top show of opulence, the chef decided to put chunks of truffles, rather than mere shavings, on the pizza of the day. The white pizza was slicked with olive oil, dotted with pillowy ricotta cheese, and studded with nuggets of black truffle. I took a bite, waiting for the “woodland floor” flavor to hit me. Instead, I tasted a deep, savory, almost meat-like flavor. It enhanced the taste of every other element on the pie. I finally understood. I had reached truffle actualization.

Then my throat closed up.

The rest of that night was spent clutching a bottle of Benadryl and sucking down water. It was the end of my flirtation with truffles. I’d like to say that it also marked the end of my flirtation with the world of food snobbery, but alas, that siren song proved harder to ignore.

I returned to New York where I landed a job writing about food, travel, and culture as the assistant editor, and then travel editor, for Saveur magazine. Over the years that followed, I spent a great deal of time eating and writing about the foods of the Near and Middle East. At the same time, I learned to carefully craft a more subtle form of food snobbery. It wasn’t until I found myself in a tiny country in the Arabian Gulf, where I spent two years writing a cookbook and culinary history, The Food of Oman, that I finally rid myself of my hard-won airs. I was fortunate enough to have the chance to see that out of context, even the most highly evolved sense of snobbery becomes laughable. And it does nothing to make you a better writer, or better human.

I guess what I’m trying to tell you, Phoenix, is that I love food not because it’s fancy or hip, but because it feeds my sense of curiosity, it satiates my longings, and every once in a while, it opens my mind and mouth up to a new world. That’s what I hope to discover here and share with you all.

I can’t wait to explore the Valley and all the culinary worlds it contains. If you have tips or favorites to share, or just want to say “hi," shoot me an e-mail at felicia.campbell@newtimes.com.


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