Ithaca is welcoming its first food tour this May, organized by Ithaca is Foodies, which is founded by Ithaca natives Sarah Barden and Seth Wraight. The tour promises to “connect you with Ithaca in a new way,” no matter if you are a native Ithacan or just a tourist visiting for a few days.
When I first heard about the tour, I was excited to spend a Saturday not eating instant ramen alone in my room. However, I was also skeptical. First off, the $55 price tag is pretty steep, and a three-hour tour sounds exhausting. Second, though I’ve never been on any food tours in the United States, I’ve had my fair share of bad experiences — imagine long queues, hackneyed scripts, greasy food, useless detours to shopping centers, and you’ll get the picture. Additionally, and most importantly, what is there to see on a 1.7-mile trail in a three-block area that I thought I was familiar with already?
Fortunately, the tour I participated in this Saturday was nothing like that. At our meet-up place, a group of six cordially introduced themselves and couldn’t wait to start.
From the onset, I became very anxious to see what awaited the couple who ate vegan; would they be left to their own devices, resorting to munching a small serving of salad at each establishment? Fortunately, by design, two of the establishments were either exclusively vegan or famous for their vegan food, and dairy-free and gluten-free options were readily available. As an omnivore, I became an avid admirer of the vegan dishes served at these places; where I was served meat, I looked at the vegan option and said to myself, “I’m going to try that next time.” Indeed, the concepts of plant-based and locally sourced food are built into the design of the tour. Instead of merely “accommodating” these dietary needs, Seth and Sarah made these new food trends the heart of the tour in the most unobtrusive way.
Invariably, even foodies have been intimidated by the idea that we have to know about the food in order to enjoy it, which is to a large extent true. For one, I was afraid of vegan-sounding food, because I didn’t know what to expect. I realized the reason I didn’t trust myself to enjoy the food was because I was ignorant of its composition — the magical fusion of many culinary traditions — and the food source, which I was too timid to inquire about.
This is where the food tours come into play. Seth made a point of emphasizing where the food comes from; where there was a wine tasting, we learned about local breweries; where we tasted vegan cheese, he gladly explained how it’s made to create the wonderful melted texture. He was also frank about where the meat comes from, and how it’s best cooked. Of course, only focusing on local food risks missing out on the incredible diversity of food traditions represented by Ithaca; I was pleasantly surprised to see Ethiopian food on the tour, and Seth was not shy about making us eat with our own hands, fulfilling the jump between a historical Ithaca and a global Ithaca.
There are six establishments included on the tour. From appetizers to desserts, each establishment is a gastronomical footprint. To my pleasant surprise, we didn’t just hurry from point to point and taking short cuts whenever possible. Seth, our tour guide, gave a thorough and interesting introduction to downtown Ithaca; he pointed out multiple murals painted on commission for public art projects, which I hardly ever noticed when I walked past them; he explained the history of Clinton House, how Press Bay Alley got its name, and so much more.
I was flabbergasted by how little I know about Ithaca, despite owning several books about the history of the region, and as were the others who have lived here for decades. Simply put, all I’ve heard from the “townies” is, “I didn’t know about that!” I admired how the tour guide’s research on downtown Ithaca stayed relevant and on point, giving tidbits of history that reflects an evolving, dynamic community. The best part was, the walks also aided our digestion so we felt refreshed by the time we arrive at the next establishment.
The culinary culture and the vibrant restaurant scenes are most exemplified by the workers and owners of the restaurants. After extensive interviews with the restaurant owners that formed the backbone of the partnership, Seth talked about how they fell in love with Ithaca and how they chose Ithaca as the location for their restaurants. Some of the establishments featured are brand new, some are forward-looking and cultivating the new generation of food and wine experts and some have been a staple of Ithaca experience for decades.
The rich preparation and deep collaboration gave us a rare inside look into many of the establishments. As you probably gathered from my hints, one of them has a culinary program and another is a boutique ingredient store. As the managers of the establishments explained their job, the shop and the new trends in the industry, I was drawn into a whole new world. Just seeing the kitchen got me all excited, and seeing the most advanced classroom technology utilized in a culinary class was extremely exhilarating. Indeed, one of the benefits of going on a tour is that you get the rare companionship of someone who also loves to experience new food. This someone could be a fellow foodie, or a food professional laboring behind the scenes.
The takeaways from the tour are plenty. By the end of my tour, I was eager to visit a few wineries in the area and go to the local holiday farmer’s market before Christmas. As a home cook, even if I don’t visit Ithaca for another decade, I still learned something about balsamic vinegars and their varieties. The next time I want butter on my popcorn, I know I can drizzle some flavored balsamic vinegar as a flavorful and healthy alternative.
Seth and Sarah are food connoisseurs, and according to them, paring down the script was very hard — there is simply so much to include. When this season of tours ends in October, they expect to experiment with new tours, based on the ideas they’ve always wanted to implement, like a happy hour tour and a dessert tour. Will the food tour become a permanent part of downtown Ithaca? We’ll see.