Random Conversations: There is no Frigate…


I read Emily Dickinson’s poem, “There is no frigate like a book”, when I was in high school and then again in a survey class as an undergraduate English major. Both times I was struck by both the simplicity and profundity of the poem and felt the wanderlust resonate with me. Although I grew up traveling the trans-Pacific airways, I didn’t think that East Asia counted as “lands far away” (although I have since learned to appreciate my parents’ sacrifice and commitment to exposing me and my siblings to our heritage, family, and a milieu of languages).

When I was wandering around in New Orleans a few weeks ago, I dropping into the Spice and Tea Exchange. I like stopping in spice houses and picking up a new spice or two. Truth be told, while visiting DC recently, I had tasted an amazing lavender + lemon sugar cookie and was hoping to pick up some lavender to try my hand at baking them.

Anyway, one of the sales associates asked if I knew how to use the Ras al Hanout spice packets I was holding (I think he was bored – it was pretty quiet in the store). So I nodded and he shared that he’s always been wanting to try it out. We shared some cooking favorites (he likes slow cooking pork, I like experimenting with my tagine, he likes Italian spices, I like spices more found in the MENA region, etc.).

But what struck me (other than his helpfulness), was his wistfulness. As we talked about food, he kept asking “So have you been there? Have you tried it there?” And in a lot of cases, I had. Not on a luxury budget – on shoestring research grant/fellowship budgets but still. He just kept saying “Man, I wish I could travel.” I didn’t really know what to say to that but I did share that how great it was that he had a curiosity about the world and a desire to try new foods and spices. How that’s a character trait that is actually hard to find. We wrapped our small talk, he rung up my purchases, and then went to go straighten some shelves.

As I was leaving, I was thinking about our conversation and how even if one can’t travel – one can learn so much about culture by trying new food, spices, and drinks motivated by a smidgen of curiosity and a pinch of wanderlust. How the smell of cumin, lavender, or lemongrass can evoke memories of a souk in Damascus, a farm in Hawaii, or a dive-like noodle bar in Ho Chi Minh city.  Then it struck me – the scent of food and spices is not unlike Dickinson’s book. (For a great book, check out The Silk Road Gourmet by Laura Kelley.) And with that, the poem…

There is no Frigate like a Book

There is no Frigate like a Book To take us Lands away,
Nor any Coursers like a Page Of prancing Poetry.
This Traverse may the poorest take Without oppress of Toll.
How frugal is the Chariot That bears a Human soul. ~ Emily Dickinson

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