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Michele and Doug McMurry had a big trip planned for Doug’s 60th birthday. The food-focused world travelers had set their sights on New Zealand, renowned for its natural beauty, intercontinental cuisine, and sauvignon blanc.
As with so many plans, the pandemic caused the cancellation of their trip. Their response was to visit New Zealand via its cuisine by cooking an elaborate course of meals over the weekend based on what they might have eaten had they actually been able to go: spring lamb with rosemary kumara – a type of sweet potato – salad, smoked salmon and herb omelet, mince and cheddar pie, and kiwifruit salad.
The couple had enjoyed cooking together through their 12 years of marriage, but “during the pandemic, we really took it up to the next level,” Doug said. “We really decided to travel through our kitchen because we couldn’t travel any other way, obviously.”
Since April, they have spent weekends on culinary “journeys” to Italy, France’s Provence region, South Korea, and Southern Portugal, among other destinations, all from their small galley kitchen in Alamo Heights.
In August, they began recording their journeys in a blog called Kitchen Traveler. Each post begins with “The kitchen is open,” but the primary focus is visual, with photographs of each part of the meal.
“I wanted to inspire people to travel, inspire people to cook, by the images,” said Michele, who is a professional writer. “… It’s not a lot to read. It’s just a fun, visual, little escape.”
The former editor of Taste magazine prefers not to focus on recipes, either. “I wanted this to be a creative project,” she said, and not to feel like work.” She did hint, however, that that they are just starting out and the blog might expand its scope in the future.
The idea to cook thematically is not entirely new for the McMurrys. Michele stays busy during the week and Doug works as executive vice president of the construction industry group Associated General Contractors, but weekends are devoted to cooking and trying out adventurous recipes. On an early morning run in April as the city shut down, the couple bounced ideas off each other about how to pass the time. The notion of connecting travel to cooking solidified in Michele’s mind, and Doug was on board.
At the time, they had no idea the planned New Zealand trip would be canceled, but with worldwide travel restrictions emerging, they knew they’d have to cut down on their regular travel, even to closer destinations like Quebec City and Ireland, which they had recently visited.
They each pick destinations for their milestone birthdays, and Michele chose Brazil for her 50th “a few years ago,” she said shyly.
“That was a really big deal. I had always wanted to go to Brazil my entire life,” she said. While editing Taste, she interviewed a chef of Brazilian background at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio. She learned that her mid-November birthday coincided with Proclamação da República, or Brazilian Republic Proclamation Day, and accompanying celebrations include healthy portions of feijoada, the national dish. They also enjoyed seafood moqueca during a side trip to the Bahia region on Brazil’s northeastern coast.
One benefit of virtual travel is not having to scramble to alter plans when things change. Michele intended to revisit Brazil two weekends ago, but the grocery store was out of dende oil, an essential ingredient in the moqueca, so instead they made an easy switchover to southern Portugal. She promised herself the Brazilian “trip” would occur in November, revisiting her birthday trip.
Regardless of how pandemic travel restrictions play out in the months ahead, the McMurrys still have big plans ahead, noted on a large whiteboard on Michele’s home office wall.
“Looking ahead, we’ve got all kinds of things on the board,” Doug said. “We want to go to Spain, and Tanzania, and Belgium, South Africa, and Thailand, of course.” Next up is a Cuban adventure.
Food isn’t the only focus of their travels. The McMurrys complement their meals with the music and literature of the places they explore, hinting at aspects of their family heritage. Not only was Doug’s father, Fred, a champion chili cook in both Louisiana and Houston, but he was a cowboy poet.
A chili-themed poem from a tome of Fred’s poetry hints at the importance of food during troubled times:
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I’ve been stomped and I’ve been throwed
By the meanest horses ever knowed. …
I tasted dust along life’s road,
And felt the cold wind when it blowed.
Thru eatin’, drinkin’, actin’ silly,
This cowboy found the taste of chili. …
And when we get to rainbow’s end,
This pot ain’t gold, it’s chili, friend—
Does father know best? As literature runs in the family, a 2012 play by Michele titled The Cooking Class portends how this foodie couple would respond to quarantines and isolation brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
The play’s unnamed narrator begins by saying, “Cooking, one might say, is a metaphor for life. … And a proper cooking class embraces the culture and history of the featured cuisine, transporting hungry souls on both a culinary and personal journey.”
Their actual journey to New Zealand will happen eventually, Michele said, but probably not until 2022, if it’s fully safe to travel again. Viewing the current setback with an optimistic eye, Michele said the trip will be more enjoyable than if they had been able to go this month.
“Now that we’ve done more research, September is the beginning of spring, [and] they’re still still very, very cold,” she said, which would have limited their hiking options. “I think when it does happen, it will be a better trip.”