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ATLAS OBSCURA HAS PUBLISHED fine travel and adventure books, including The World’s Most Adventurous Kid described here at SimanaitisSays. Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide is the latest, and it’s another winner.

Gastro Obscura, by Cecily Wong and Dylan Thuras, Workman Publishing, 2021. 

Cecily Wong is an Atlas Obscura writer. Dylan Thuras co-founded the company with Joshua Foer in 2009. Wong and Thuras have assembled a large-format 438-page (and hefty!) collection of food lore from around the world. Not recipes per se, but often illustrated half-page tidbits, several of which I glean here.

Pickles. For instance, there’s a two-page world tour of pickles: “Not only do pickles taste amazing and last years without refrigeration, they are nutritional wonder.” 

Greek physician Galen touted the benefits of pickles in the second century.

Popular pickle variations cited by Gastro include sauerkraut, “one of the Dutch navy’s methods in the 18th century for preventing scurvy.” 

I remember another, umeboshi, the dried and pickled plum, as an essential feature of Japanese breakfast (the world’s best breakfast, I say). 

Above, Japanese umeboshi. Below, Korean kimchi.

Gastro notes, “Many South Koreans, including doctors and scientists, believe the scores of healthy bacteria in a kimchi-rich diet are responsible for killing the SARS microbes [during the global 2003 outbreak] and keeping the Korean public from infection.” 

The World’s Most Stunning Fast-Food Restaurants. Wanna quick meal from a neat locale? There’s a Starbucks in a converted 100-year-old townhouse in Kyoto, complete with shoes-off policy and tatami floor seating. And in Porto, Portugal, there’s the McDonald’s Imperial in what was a famous 1930s coffeehouse. 

My favorite is Barnacle Bill’s seafood joint in Port Pirie, Australia: Soaring church spires combine with “Barnacle Bill’s logo, a portly sailor balancing a tray of fish on one hand and ship’s wheel in the other. Inside, the pulpit is now a deep-frying counter, and the pews have been replaced by tables and a salad bar.”

The church, built in 1879, closed its doors around 1991, and the building was abandoned for five years. Now, it continues to feed the poor (not to say other folks).

An Illegal Tonic Turned Cure-All Aphrodisiac. The Taino Native Americans were original inhabitants of what’s now the Dominican Republic. “By the 15th century,” Gastro writes, “they could remove cyanide from yucca, make balls of natural rubber, and tap the medicinal potential of the abundant local flora.”

Then in 1492 Christopher Columbus brought them alcohol. Adding it to home brews resulted in what’s now known as Mama Juana.

Home-bottled Mama Juana tonics are easily recharged.

To make Mama Juana, fill a bottle with pieces of tree bark and herbs (Gastro suggests star anise, clove, basil, and agave), then top it off with rum, red wine, and honey. Gastro notes, “The taste of the liquor, which is woody and sweet, gets stronger with time and is sometimes compared to port wine, and other times to cough syrup.”

In the 1950s, the tonic’s popularity soared with a L’Elisir d’Amore fad originated by a fellow named Jesus Rodriguez. Dictator Trujillo countered, requiring dispensing only by those with a medical license. This hampered the bootlegging, but gave Mama Juana medical cred.

“Nowadays,” Gastro says, “Mama Juana is both legal and abundant. It’s often referred to by Dominicans as the ‘baby maker’ or El Para Palo, which translates into ‘The Stick Lifter.’ ” 

And when the bottle is drained, simply add more rum and wine. “The process, locals say, can be repeated for up to a decade.” 

What fun Gastro Obscura is! ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021

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