Second in line for the Globavore Interviews is Colombian-born, Canadian-raised Mary Luz Mejia.
Mary Luz Mejia:
1. Who are you and how does food play into your travels? I’m a Colombian born, Canadian raised journalist based in the Toronto area. I worked as a food TV producer/director for 17 years until my husband and I were lucky enough to have a little girl 3.5 years ago. There was no way I wanted to take on the 18 hour days after she was born, so I switched gears more seriously into full-time writing (I have always been freelance travel and food writing all along). I’ve written for enRoute, The Globe & Mail, The Toronto Star, The Latin Kitchen, Paste Magazine, HOSS Magazine and Ricardo to name a few. Today, I try to travel with my husband and wee one as much as possible because we’re firm believers that exploring together is a bonding experience and one that I think will give Nathalie insights into how others live, eat, and navigate this place we all share.
2. You’re at your favourite eatery with three companions (fictional, living or dead). Where (and when!) are you, and who are you with? I’d likely start with my father who left us when I was 21. I was just getting to know the man as a person, rather than a straight up authority figure (he was a die-hard, old-school Latin American man after all- and that meant being a super strict father). I’d also add Frida Kahlo into the mix- I bet she and my father would have an interesting repartee. But then again, I might be wrong. For as “traditionalist” as he was, he was also the one to pull me aside and say “Promise me that you’ll get a good education. For Yourself. If you never marry, or if he should leave or die, you need to be ready to be able to take care of yourself. Always.” Not words I expected at 19. And I’d round off the trio with Dorothy Parker for her wit and insights into human nature. Explosive combination? Perhaps. Maybe she and Frida would have tried to “out-cool” each other with my father watching on in amusement. At least he and Frida could converse in Spanish. Poor Dorothy.
3. What are your favourite foods? I like the flavour-forward, healthy foods of both the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Lots of vibrant spices, olive oils, grains, vegetables, seafood- these are the foods that make me feel good and make my palate happy. In the mix, I’d throw in the comforting flavours of Latin America with corn, rice and beans in their infinite iterations.
4. Is there anything that you’d never eat? What is it and why? I’ve tried insects in Mexico and I know it’s more than likely a mental block, but it’s a bit tricky for me to mentally overcome the hurdle of eating a creepy crawly. Chapulines (grasshoppers) I’ve done but in China, when I saw huge millipedes on a stick or cockroaches, I just couldn’t put either of those in my mouth. The thought still does nothing to warm me.
5. What do you crave but can’t get whilst on the road? How do you satisfy the craving? It depends where I’m travelling. I’ve got RA (rheumatoid arthritis), so I can’t eat wheat gluten, pork or refined sugars- those flare me up like the 4th of July! In certain European countries, where bread, meat and potatoes are the core of the diet- it’s hard to find other filling, tasty choices that don’t involve their beloved pork or bread products…. I usually manage to find some sort of salad or soup but it’s not quite the same way of truly experiencing a culture when you’re forced to cut yourself off culinarily from what helps define their food culture for example.
6. What food are you embarrassed to admit you like to eat? The Canadian university student favourite- Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. It’s not good for you (they have GF versions now that I’ll eat once in a very blue moon) but when I was in college, this bad boy was on high rotation. Elbow macaroni and a packet of “yellow/orange” processed cheese mixture. I know, I should know better but you asked!
- Ed’s note: Every once in a while we all need a little KD :-)
8. Strangest meal? Snake heads in Vietnam. Ordered by accident, nibbled upon and then taken away by our host as he realized our “newbie” error. So embarrassing. Not to mention for the snakes that looked at us like “what, we’re not good enough for you?” I hope they’ve forgiven us.
9. Ever had food poisoning while traveling? Any advice to share? Lord yes. We got what we thought was straight up food poisoning and then declined into dehydration. At which point I looked at my husband through bleary eyes and scratched out “call a doctor” in the middle of San Francisco. We luckily had traveler’s health insurance and we found a nearby doctor to look at us. “Sorry folks, I can’t let you leave my practice. You’re both incredibly dehydrated. You have salmonella” WHA? Yes, from eggs we had a famous restaurant in town. So we each has to have a full bag of solution fed to us via IV. It took over an hour. I remember freezing so the nurses just kept covering me with blankets until I dozed off. This was the coldest summer in San Francisco and we were so weak from having thrown up all day/night. It was hideous. The doctor also prescribed me anti-nausea tablets so I could keep water down (I’d drink it, 20 minutes later, I’d spew it back out). That helped and we slowly started looking less gray and more human. Lots of herbal tea, broths, and “light” fare for the next week. In hindsight we should have been plying ourselves with probiotics too! We missed our trip out to Alcatraz too. Bummer.
10. Have you fallen so much in love with a foreign dish that you learned to make it at home? What’s the story? A few times. Spanish paella that my husband has just started to really play around with and really get good at making. A modern take on Colombian stuffed arepas that we served at new year’s eve dinner last year with braised, shredded beef in a guajillo chili simmering sauce. Next up the most amazing drink we discovered in Cartagena de Indias in Colombia called limonada de coco (coconut lemonade) which is more like a whipped ice concoction with lime juice and zest and coconut milk and water. Refreshment in a glass.
- Ed’s note: Will you teach us to make the limonada, Mary?
11. What’d the first thing you eat after returning home from a long trip? Likely a huge salad, depending on where I was coming from.
12. Favourite foreign ingredient you wish your home supermarket carried? Peruvian peppers- rocotos, aji panca– they’re all so fabulous!
13. Country / city where you’ve found the best food? Details please so we can check it out too! I loved the fresh seafood and tropical fruits of Cartagena where mojarra fish is simply fried until crisp and served with plantain patacones or coconut rice. They have some of the best popsicles known to human kind at La Paleteria and really inventive fare at Charlie Otero’s restaurant, La Comunión. He strives to marry the flavours of Colombia’s two coasts- the Atlantic and Pacific- in his cooking. So you’ll get really well thought-out dishes that are his homage to his homeland’s cuisine. Squid ink corn tamales with mini shrimp for example, and a yucca based flan that’s absolutely gorgeous.
14. Country / city where you’ve found the worst? What made it so awful? I love Italian food, but as a tourist, you’ve really got to do your homework, lest you find yourself “settling” for something in hungry desperation and then wondering why it was so god-awful and expensive. This happened to us in both Rome and Sienna where we were absolutely fleeced and didn’t have enjoyable meals. In Rome, it was at a restaurant recommended to us in Campo de’ Fiori. When the bill arrived, we wondered about the 12 Euro/per person charge and we were explained that this coperta (cover charge) covered our unwanted basket of stale bread, tablecloth and cutlery. Sigh. In Sienna it was the world’s worst sandwich that looked lovely in the case but when we went to eat it, the juices from the tomatoes had seeped to the bottom layer of bread, rendering it a soggy mess. Woefully disappointing.
- Ed’s note: Agreed … I can’t stand having to settle for tourist food. Especially in Italy! I wrote an article about how to avoid tourist food in Venice for Mallory on Travel (and there’s a little interview with me there too).
15. Do you have favourite markets for a) buying stuff to eat b) finding unusual things (which you may or may not want to actually eat!) and c) just for taking photos? The Tlacolula Market in the valleys of Oaxaca where you’ll find all of the above, including stunning hand-crafted artisan pottery, bowls, and everything in between.
16. If money were no object, where (and what) would you eat? I’d be in Barcelona or surrounding villages eating fresh seafood on the beach with a carafe of chilled Spanish white. Maybe a seafood-based paella with clams, shrimp and octopus. I’d let the sounds of the crashing ocean surf and salt-air tinged breezes wash away all and any care in the world.
17. Do you have any food regrets? Not really but I’m thinking I have to give sea urchin another go. Maybe in its fresh format because everyone raves about it. I however, once had it at the South Beach Food & Wine Festival made by a famous, handsome chef in the form of a soup. Without being too graphic here, it tasted unnervingly like hot, soupy semen. I know, TMI, but that’s why I’ve been wary of it ever since. It wasn’t even my first date with this soup, you know!?
- Ed’s note: Ugh … I’m really not a fan of sea urchin. But it sounds like the one I had was better than your soup!
18. If you could invent any ice cream flavour, what would it be? (yes, I am looking for ideas to add to my ice cream repertoire!) A mangosteen, lime and coconut ice cream would be my idea of ice cream nirvana.
19. What do you love and hate about food writing (yours and/or in general)? These days, a lot of sites just want listicles. I have no problem working on them, but sometimes, I wish it went beyond a list of what’s good or cool, or the latest and more about WHY this is eaten here and how that dish has evolved. Sadly, a lot of outlets don’t want to take the time to meander into this realm much any more, especially the online ones…
20. You’re having surgery tomorrow and there’s a reasonable chance you’ll lose your ability to taste (oh the horrors!). What would you choose as, essentially, your last meal? Comfort on a plate- my husband’s lemon, butter, paprika and rosemary roasted chicken, roasted root veg, kale salad and a good glass of wine. Eaten with him and Nathalie.
Mary Luz Mejia is a NATJA nominated freelance food/travel journalist, Gemini-nominated former food TV producer and food communications professional. She is a regular HOSS Magazine contributor, the food and drink contributing editor for the NATJA award winning Ensemble Vacations magazine and is the Toronto correspondent for Travel + Leisure’s online platform. A former brunch columnist for the Toronto Star’s weekly column “The Morning After” for the last year of its existence, Mary Luz’s work has also been published in Saveur Magazine, Today.com, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Latin Kitchen, Organic Gardening, Paste Magazine and Toronto Life. She curates and hosts food festivals throughout Toronto including Luminato’s food day, The Pan American Food Festival and numerous Harbourfront Centre festivals where this year, she is Guest Artistic Associate of the “Hot & Spicy Festival”. Former Saveur Editor-In-Chief James Oseland calls her “One of Toronto’s most passionate food journalists” and her personal goal is to master iconic Latin American dishes, one plate at a time. And por supuesto, se habla Español! Her latest musings can be found on the culinary travel magazine she founded with her husband, Mario Stojanac, at www.appetype.ca.
Twitter: @MaryLuzonFood, Instagram: @MLMejia123, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mary.l.mejia.37.