Have you ever gone on vacation and simply eaten your way across the countryside? Italy springs to mind as one of the best places for this, or perhaps the vineyards of Sonoma County or barbecue in the deep South. Think of the rich flavors of France, the delicate subtleties of Japan, the exotic spices of India.
But what about Colorado?
That was the question addressed at the culinary workshop a few weeks ago as part of this year’s Colorado Tourism Conference. A wide array of self-proclaimed “foodies at heart” (though I think a more appropriate term would be “foodies at stomach”) gathered for a presentation by Erik Wolf from the World Food Travel Association. Wolf is best known for his 2001 white paper on culinary tourism, more recently known as “food tourism.”
So what is food tourism, anyway? Essentially, it is a focus and promotion of food or drink as a geographical attraction. Food tourism takes its roots from agricultural tourism but centers on prepared (or “value added”) food more than raw ingredients. Foods local to the region are often an essential part of this idea.
Something important to note is that food tourism is decidedly not gourmet. Psychoculinary profiling indicates that 92 percent of the population does not identify as gourmet — they just want good food. Few people care about eating at Wolfgang Puck’s newest restaurant and bragging about meeting celebrity chefs, but lots of folks want to try the experience of eating at a New York hot dog stand.
The food and drink section of the travel industry is its fastest growing area. Everyone has to eat, and most of us do so three times each day. There has been a turning away from cookie-cutter fast food to a rediscovery of neighborhood cafes and pubs. People are becoming more invested in the story behind their food.
So what is Colorado’s signature food or drink item? The options are astounding. Denver has more microbreweries per capita than anywhere else in the U.S. (take that, Portland). Varieties of Colorado wine, particularly from the Western Slope, really are starting to expand. For non-alcoholic beverages, Celestial Seasonings tea is at the top of the list. Even our water is amazing, and cowboy coffee is in our history.
And the food? We’ve got beef, bison and lamb as our heavy hitters. For a more exotic palate, rattlesnake, antelope and bear make the list, as well as traditional game favorites like elk. Colorado’s rivers and streams are famous for their trout, and we all know about Palisade’s glorious peaches and Olathe sweet corn.
Unfortunately, Georgia already has peaches and Iowa has corn. California is the default wine country, though Washington definitely is starting to give the Golden State a run for its money. What do you think is a unique yet accessible iconic Colorado food?
At any rate, the time to act is now. Colorado needs to establish its signature food or drink item early to gain a strong foothold in the food tourism market. As the economy continues to recover and the competition grows, the Colorado brand will be at the forefront of people’s minds. And that is a tasty proposition.
Olson is a member of Deep Roots, a local nonprofit organization whose mission is to cultivate awareness about the benefits of local food, educate the community about how to do it yourself and facilitate connections between local producers and local consumers.