When food lovers travel it's often to find and enjoy a very specific food, dine at a well-known restaurant, shop at a popular market, or discover the origin point for a certain cuisine. But have you ever wondered about the lasting effect that our food-centric travels have on the people and economy of the places we visit? Dr. Lucy Long not only thinks about, she researches the results as part of her work with Bowling Green State University and the Center for Food and Culture (CFC). As she explained to Emily Thomas, host of the BBC's Food Chain, Long is working to promote cultural responsibility for both food tourists and food pilgrims - and she explained the difference between those two types of travelers.

Lucy Long: I lived in Spain for a year. Part of what I was doing was studying the food culture, and people kept telling me that I needed to go to the north of Spain during a certain season and try their bean soups. I was told that every village had their own variety of bean and would make these into soup or stew. And people who were knowledgeable about this tradition, they could look at a bean and tell that it came from a particular village. They'd spend a day, maybe a weekend, traveling to these villages to eat these beans.

I did go to one or two restaurants in villages and try these. To me, it was just bean soup. I was eating out of curiosity. I didn't have enough knowledge to fully appreciate the distinctions that were being made. I wasn't going there as a pilgrim; I was going there as a tourist. I could definitely tell that some of the other eaters were there as pilgrims because they were eating very carefully, they were tasting very carefully, and they were experiencing this on a much deeper level that just eating some bean soup.

Emily Thomas: What is the difference, then, between a food tourist and a food pilgrim?

Mourad Lahlou
Lucy Long
Photo Courtesy: Center for Food and Culture

LL: A food tourist tends to be primarily motivated by curiosity about a food, whereas a food pilgrim is very knowledgeable. There's a sense of seeking the sacred and seeking the authentic, but authenticity also tends to mean that it's unmediated by marketing concerns or by trying to adjust taste to different audiences.

ET: Why is it that people seek this out? Why do you think people develop these obsessions for certain foods or restaurants?

LL: That's where looking at this as a food pilgrimage is helpful. Technically, pilgrimages were journeys that were assigned by the church to people to atone for something, and at the end of their pilgrimage, they were then transformed back into an innocent person. They atoned for their transgressions. Now, I'm not saying that food pilgrims today are trying to atone for any transgressions, but they are seeking some kind of a transformation.

ET: Can you be transformed through that experience? Does that offer them transformation?

LL: I think that's possible. When you eat food in the context in which that food developed, you start understanding the logic of it. You start understanding why certain choices were made for ingredients or certain preparation methods. You start seeing what that food means to the people in that particular context. You're able to gain a fuller understanding of the food as an aesthetic form, but you also are able to experience it as a cultural form, so that it's not just about the taste. It's about the meanings that are being given to it by the people who developed it.

ET: Do you think there is anything wrong with the way that the tourism industry uses people's interest in food? Is it to be encouraged, these long journeys across the world to experience local cuisine?

LL: Well, food tourism that is done without sensitivity can have massively harmful effects on a food culture, on the host community, the economy, the local environment. Frequently the tourism industry, in order to attract the tourist, focuses on finding dishes, ingredients, or ways of eating that are very different and considered very exotic. That frequently, then, exoticizes the whole culture. It takes foods that are not necessarily the most representative foods of a culture, but because it's different for the tourist, that's the food that's highlighted. A good example of that is you go to Peru and have llama meat. It is something that is eaten occasionally in Peru, but the restaurants that are catering to tourists feature it on their menu. So, now people are thinking the national food of Peru is llama.

ET: Does this have economic effects when one food is emphasized above another for tourism?

LL: Yes. It can end up changing the local economy. If there's a food that is generally used just for celebrations, for example, and now there's much more of a market for it. Then farmers end up shifting from growing one food to another, producing that food just for the tourism market, and it shifts the whole economic commodity chain in that way. It can also have massive environmental impacts. If local farmers are going to mono-cropping – only raising that one thing – that can be very bad for the environment. Overfishing and overharvesting happens, just for the tourism market.

ET: So, there can be irresponsible food tourism, but can there be irresponsible food pilgrimages?

LL: Probably yes.

ET: How can a person be a responsible food pilgrim or a responsible food tourist?

LL: I think, first of all, recognition of the complexity of food, that food itself carries people's identities and carries their histories. If you're consuming a food purely for its aesthetic qualities, that's fine, but when it comes to then creating a market and emphasizing that particular food over others, we need to be aware that these are identities that are being traded off.