Barbara Gibbs Ostmann is co-author of the award-winning “The Recipe Writer’s Handbook” and the “Food Writers’ Favorites” series of cookbooks (more than five million books in print). She is a freelance writer covering travel, the outdoors, food and wine for newspapers, magazines and the Internet. Having spent over 40 years in the business, Barbara has had a front row seat to all the changes in travel writing. She joins us this week to talk about her career and offer a little advice to those hoping to enter the market today.
When did you develop your case of wanderlust and how did it all start?
I grew up in a small town in Northwest Arkansas. Our family vacations mostly consisted of family reunions in southern Arkansas, and my parents didn’t travel outside the United States until long after I had already sprouted my own wings and flown away. So I’m not sure what instilled the wanderlust in me, but it was there from an early age.
My first delicious taste of travel came during high school, when I attended the National Girl Scout Roundup in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, riding a train with hundreds of other Girl Scouts from around the country to and from Idaho. I was hooked. From there, it was an easy leap to a year of graduate study in Neuchatel, Switzerland, on a Rotary International Fellowship, and six months of graduate study in Taipei, Taiwan. It just grew from there—and hasn’t stopped!
You’ve authored and edited numerous cookbooks and have written extensively about food. What is your favorite way to experience the cuisine in a destination?
Eat! Seriously, I love seeking out regional and local specialties everywhere I go. I like to go to local bakeries for their specialties, or sample street food for authentic local fare. Dining in white-tablecloth restaurants is wonderful, and I have had the pleasure to experience many Michelin-starred restaurants, but my most memorable dining experiences are usually in hole-in-the-wall eateries that you can only find with the help of in-the-know locals. Of course, being invited to share in a home-cooked meal in a private home is always the best.
Neighborhood food tours have taken off in popularity in recent years, and you can find them in many cities around the world. I recently took a walking food tour of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and it was the perfect way to get acclimated to the city and learn some of the insider secrets of what to eat and where. Joining this type of food tour is ideal for travelers who might be apprehensive about seeking out local specialties on their own.
Are you an adventurous eater when you’re traveling? What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten in your travels?
Oh my. It is difficult to name just one! The deep-fried scorpions in China remain one of the most unusual, along with bamboo rat, sea cucumber, and a 12-course meal with a snake dish in each course except dessert at a snake restaurant in Guangzhou. I’ve tried witchetty grubs, emu carpaccio and kangaroo kabobs in Australia, and horse kidneys in Italy. At a traditional medicine lunch in Singapore, among the items on the menu were dried animal testicles, ground pearls and antler velvet. In Morocco, I tried goat’s head soup and in Turkey, grilled sheep intestines. The tiny fried grasshoppers in Oaxaca, Mexico, tasted a lot like potato chips.
I am indeed an adventurous eater—that is part of the fun! It is also part of truly experiencing a culture. I have eaten all sorts of things that I wouldn’t have thought I could eat, but I did so because to not eat them would have been an insult to my hosts.
When I first traveled to Europe as a Rotary Fellow, one of my purposes was to be an Ambassador of Goodwill. I have tried to always follow that goal throughout my decades of travel. I’ve seen way too many “Ugly Americans” abroad, and I don’t want to ever be one of them.
What do you think food and travel teach us about our world?
Travel is the best education one can receive, without a doubt. And I think traveling elsewhere helps make us better citizens when we return to our own countries. To me, food is a major part of travel, a means of really experiencing the culture and getting to know the people. Breaking bread together is one of the most fundamental of all human activities. Taking a cooking class, shopping in a local grocery store, or visiting a farmer’s market are all easy ways to get a true taste of a destination. The more we know about one another, the more tolerant and understanding we become. World peace happens one person at a time.
You’re career spans over 40 years and you’ve been published in numerous publications, what tips do you have for new writers entering the market today?
It’s not easy to make it as a writer in today’s Internet world. Too many people are willing to write for free, or next to nothing, and that hurts all professional writers. Respect yourself and your craft and don’t sell yourself short. One of the best ways to break into the market is to look for your own niche, an area or subject about which you are knowledgeable and passionate. Then network, network, network!
I recommend joining respected professional organizations that fit your field. Travel writers might consider the Society of American Travel Writers, while food writers might join the Association of Food Journalists. There is an organization out there for almost any specialty or interest group. There are also many groups that are of questionable caliber; check them out before you sign up.
Remember, the two keys to becoming a better writer are to (1) write, write, write, and (2) read, read, read!
Of course you’re not all about food, you’re an adventure seeker too. What are some of your favorite adventures?
I love anything outdoors! Kayaking, hiking, horseback riding and camping are my current passions. I also love long-distance walking. I’ve done two sections of the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, in Spain, and in April of this year I’ll be walking the Via Francigena, or Way of St. Francis, between Florence and Rome, in Italy. Walking through small towns and villages is an amazing way to experience another country. I’ve also hiked hut-to-hut in the Swiss Alps, tramped the Milford Track in New Zealand, and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa.
I’m always ready to visit regional and national parks in any country. My favorite nearby national park is the Ozark National Scenic Riverways here in Missouri, and I head that way often.
I’m willing to try or do just about anything — zip lining, mud walking, whitewater rafting, swimming with the manatees, cow-chip tossing, you name it. Although not an adventure in the usual sense, visiting Christmas markets is one of my all-time favorite winter travel activities.
I love train travel. Switzerland is probably the best place on Earth for train travel—and I love combining the train with the Postbus routes. A recent thrill on Amtrak was cross country from St. Louis to Los Angeles, through some of the most spectacular scenery of the West. The cross-continental trip on the Indian Pacific from Perth to Sydney in Australia was an all-time favorite, as was the Rocky Mountaineer through the Canadian Rockies. Still on my dream list: the Blue Train in South Africa, the Orient Express from Venice to Istanbul, the Trans-Siberian across Russia, the Royal Scotsman in Scotland, and the Alaska Railroad to Denali.
So much world to see, and not enough time or money to do it all!
If you were given 30 days to travel, all expenses paid and you could choose your itinerary, where would you go and how would you spend your days?
My Wish List:
— A small ship adventure cruise to Antarctica, with a detour en route to explore the Galapagos.
— A polar bear and Northern Lights expedition to the Arctic.
— A combination trekking and sightseeing trip to Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar (Burma) and/or Tibet.
— A trip to the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, with stops in Papua New Guinea and Borneo.
— Any of the above!
Barbara’s articles have appeared in several AAA magazines, the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Boomer magazine, Outdoor Guide and many other outlets. From witnessing a cremation ceremony in Bali to floating in a hot-air balloon over the Serengeti during the great wildebeest migration, her travels have opened up the world to her and her readers. She keeps her bag packed and ready to go. Between trips, she lives on a farm in Missouri with her husband and their pets. You can connect with Barbara on Facebook or Linked In.