The book Graduates in Wonderland by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale was recommended to me by an article on Gilmore News that I came across somewhere in my Internet wanderings. It’s a memoir of travel and friendship by two recent college graduates, delivered in the form of letters between the two, as they travel the globe and search for direction and roots post-college life. Jess lives in Beijing and Melbourne, and Rachel in NYC and Paris. Both are certified Gilmore girls addicts and bonded over the show while roommates. I read somewhere that the book reads like a Gilmore girls episode. The girls even got to talk to Amy Sherman-Palladino about possibly directing a film based on the book (which didn’t pan out, sadly– pun intended). I love travel and memoirs and Gilmore girls, so naturally, this book found a home immediately on my to-read list.
But, first, let’s talk about food. That is my focus, of course, in these blog posts. What (international) meal plans can I cull from the writings of two carefree travelers in their early 20s? My habit has been to jot down the page number whenever there is a food reference in the book I am reading. I quickly abandoned that method due to the fact that I had to interrupt my reading almost every. single. page. Ermigerd, these girls love food! And they eat it constantly! (Damn those 20-something metabolisms.) I simply took pen in hand and underlined each food reference (my apologies to any that might offend). They write about not merely the food they experience, but use food as metaphor and stereotype. These references fascinated me. Here are a couple of yummy food metaphors: “I work in a beautiful art space, but I feel like a sloppy ice-cream cone melting all over the designer carpeting” (9), and “From work, right now, I can see Central Park and it looks like broccoli because I’m so high up and the light is so dramatic” (21). As for using food as a stereotype, for example, NYC=bagels, Beijing=street food, London=scones, Paris=croissants, and Texas=iced tea.
For my book-inspired meal, I decided to hone in on that idea… as much as I would like to plate up with scrumptious carbs. Here in Austin, we have our own style of street food in the form of food trailers. It’s what it sounds like. Picture a little RV park with an eclectic assortment of Airstreams and Winnebagos, all painted in garish colors and specializing in a very limited menu. The beauty of food trailers is their low overhead and ease of mobility. No high rents of a brick and mortar building, you can choose your own operating hours, and if you don’t like the location, move! Sadly, unlike the street food of Beijing, you won’t find these food trucks open at 3AM as you’re stumbling home.
I stumbled into a week to myself, as my husband and son went out of town for Thanksgiving, and I worked the holiday. No cooking happened that week, let me assure you! It was the perfect time to try some street food. After a dreaded visit to the mall, I headed to my favorite collection of food trailers, The Midway Food Park. Easy to get to, 6-8 trucks to choose from, and a great open space with a playground for the kiddos. Live music some nights, too. It was a Sunday evening, and sadly, most of the trucks were closed. I had my choice of cheesecake (tempting), ice cream, Thai, and barbecue. I gravitated to the Thai truck with the enticing motto, “Eat Thai or Die.” Like most food trailers, the menu had only about five choices. Since I had just eaten Pad Thai the night before (did I mention that I was really enjoying not having to prepare meals that week?), I chose the street tacos. They were good, really. After I wrapped my head around the fact that I was biting into an Asian flavor rather than my beloved Tex-Mex style tacos, that is. Don’t think you’re getting a great deal because it comes out of a trailer– you’ll typically pay about what you would for a sandwich or burger at, say Applebees, maybe a bit less (the tacos were about $10 with tip, I think). But because they focus on so few menu items, food truck entrepreneurs are typically really good at what they cook.
Besides all of the yummy food references, there was a lot to like about Graduates in Wonderland. Ironically, the things I ended up liking about it were the same things that annoyed me at first. As I read, I couldn’t pin down why this was. Then it hit me. This is a coming-of-age book. My annoyances were, “There’s too little talk about the travel, it’s all about boys and food and hookups and food and petty little friend spats and food and drama, drama, drama…” Yes, it is. It’s about two girls in their early 20s who are finding their places in life and attempting to form and solidify relationships. I couldn’t even keep track of which guy they were with when. But here’s the thing: I was reading this book from the viewpoint of a 30-something-year-old woman who is too long out of college and very settled with husband and child. It was like reading ancient history. Once I shifted my viewpoint, I was able to appreciate it for what it is, and go along for the ride. VERY happy that I’m no longer 22 (unless I had the resources to travel like these girls do). The book is a great testament to maintaining friendships over time and distance, something that I have never been very good at, as well as continuing the dying art form of letter-writing. Real letters– (okay, mostly emails), but I’m counting them as such because they are not just texts or phone calls or emojis. They are letters that contain narrative and characters and thought– things that we rarely take the time for in our current shorthand forms of communication.
All in all, I enjoyed both reading and reviewing this book. Although I would have preferred more anecdotes about ex-pat living and less about boy angst, it was a light and witty read. And, not that it’s a competition, but if it were, I’m on Rachel’s side. New York, Paris, and Team Logan. You go, girl.