They traffic in delight: Meet Mel and Dave
Catching up with the former Austin food bloggers who now run a literary travel podcast called ‘Strong Sense of Place' from their Prague apartment.
Melissa Joulwan and Dave Humphreys are living a book lovers’ dream.
At least that’s how I imagine the life of this creative couple, these former Austinites who are now cozied up in a tiny apartment in Prague with their cat Smudge, reading books all day so they can talk about them on their literary travel podcast, Strong Sense of Place.
The show is entering its fifth season, each episode featuring five short reviews about books from a certain place. They read half a dozen books (or more) to pick 2 or 3 to recommend during one of the segments, and the rest of the show is them teaching and quizzing each other on the place of the week.
Dave is right: It is absolutely delightful.
I met Mel and Dave about 10 or 12 years ago when they were hosting Paleo dinner parties at their little house in South Austin. She was one of the big local food bloggers at the time, having turned her love of cooking and eating into a full-time writing and recipe development job. In collaboration with Dave, her partner since 1992, she published a trio of well-received cookbooks that I still have on my shelves.
Mel and I would meet up for breakfast at Habanero Cafe to devour their french fries served hotter than the coffee and gush on food stuff and life stuff and love stuff. I was at the end of my marriage at the time and really admired the relationship that she and Dave enjoyed.
They make everything look easy and are full of surprises. Mel was part of the famed roller derby revival that started when the nascent Texas Rollergirls bought a banked track in 2003, sparking a derby revival that continues to this day. (She was named the very first Miss Texas Rollergirl, Dave notes.)
They loved Austin but wanted a change.
“We were renewing our passports and realized that in the 10 years, we’d had them, we’d only left the country once,” Mel said in an Instagram livestream we did last week, just before the storm. “That was counter to the things we wanted to be doing.”
I was sad for me but excited for them when they decided head out on a grand adventure abroad that first included a stop in Vermont for Dave to get a quick little master’s degree in cartooning.
They sold all their stuff in 2014 and packed up their sweet cat for a long journey. Vermont was lovely, but Prague was their ultimate destination.
This was also when they were starting to pivot out of food. “I’d written 500 recipes, and was like, ‘I think I’d said what I needed to say here’,” she said. The niche diet industry was also getting out of control. Everyone was suddenly turning to Keto, a diet Mel and Dave didn’t have any interest in.
They spent the first couple of years in Prague putting together a Well Fed Magazine and adjusting to the new rhythm of their lives and finishing up the last of their big food projects.
By 2018, the idea for a new venture was percolating.
Books had always been a shared passion for this nerdy couple who met at an ad agency in California in 1992. By the time they married in 2007, their personal library overflowed the shelves. Only the most treasured tomes made it to the Czech Republic, but thanks to the availability of e-books, they were reading as much as ever.
“I read like 50 books about Prague, but not very many of them were all that good,” Mel said. “I found it challenging to find curated information about books set in certain places. It’s easy to find travelogues or cookbooks, but to find novels, good novels, was hard.”
Mel and Dave started scheming about a website designed for fellow armchair travelers like them. At breakfast one day — where all the good ideas start — they realized that maybe they should do the podcast first.
So, in late 2019, just as the world was hibernating for what became a very long winter, they launched Strong Sense of Place, a podcast now in its fifth season that is very much their full-time job.
In the first season, they took listeners around the world, from Prague, Sweden, and Russia to Japan, Mexico, and Morocco. They created episodes about non-geographical places — restaurants, circuses, and the sea.
During the pandemic, Strong Sense of Place became a refuge for thousands of people like me who couldn’t travel to the places they wanted to go.
It was a refuge for them, too.
“We don’t discuss the books together before recording the podcast,” Mel said. “The surprises, the laughter, the teasing, none of that is planned.”
Producing the podcast has expanded the kinds of books they both read. “I’ve always read a lot of mysteries and thrillers, and I thought I didn’t like family sagas or messy characters,” Mel said.
Dave speaks more broadly.
“We try to traffic in delight,” he said. “We are trying to delight listeners by sharing books that delight us, new things we learn that delight us. That is the spark for me.”
The podcast hosts also say that the show, although full of books worth recommending, isn’t really about making sure listeners pick up any specific one.
“There’s all this research that says reading books, particularly novels, is good for empathy because you are literally experiencing the world as someone else when you get to know these characters,” Mel said. “That is really valuable.”
Books that have a strong sense of place don’t just list street names and the types of food served in the markets and cafes. “A book has to make me feel like I’m transported to the place, but not by describing them through the senses. The way I now feel like I’ve been to [a place] is to spend time with these people and the experiences they have been through,” Mel said.
Of all the places they’ve traveled, they said Budapest, Edinburgh, and Barcelona are among the cities with the strongest sense of place, one that can cause a visceral reaction, both when they are experiencing it and when they are reading about or remembering it.
Some of the most popular episodes aren’t about popular travel destinations. “Iran, Afghanistan, Russia . . . These are not places that are at the top of people’s must-visit list,” Mel said. But books set in these places reveal the ways in which every place and the people who live there have value.
“Our not-so-secret agenda is to spread empathy,” Dave said.
Listeners have made travel plans based on what they heard, like the family that booked a trip to Peru inspired by an episode from Season 2.
I heard the Costa Rica episode from Season 3 just before heading there for my cousin’s wedding last May, and when I found out we were just 10 kilometers from the graveyard cemetery featured in Dave’s “Two Truths and a Lie” segment, my mom and I went out of our way to check it out. (And we’re so glad we did!)
Mel said that her own sense of place has changed since moving to Prague. “I’ve lived in places that I have loved, but I have never felt that strong sense of belonging,” she said.
“But being here feels better because no matter how much of the language I understand or how many friends I make or how many parts of the culture we adopt, we’ll never be Czech. It feels appropriate to not totally belong.”
This realization hits Dave. “It just occurred to me that the irony of two people who are largely dissociated from location looking for a strong sense of place.”
If Mel and Dave went to Prague looking for something, I think they found it.
Happy Friday, friends!
Although there are about 50 outages affecting some 1,000 people, I’m so happy to see that almost all of the power outages have been fixed.
It has been a surreal week, to say the least, but we’ve had at least two normal days this week, which is a real win. I hope you have had some good old-fashioned normal days this week, too. May they nourish and satisfy you as much as the extra special ones.
I made this post available for everyone as a way to spread the word about something free that it an absolute joy in my life. I also wanted to remind folks that paid posts on The Feminist Kitchen become free after they’ve been up for a year, so if you are a free subscriber, you can always turn to the archive to catch up. (All those Pittsburg posts are now free. See links below.)
And if you liked this story about Mel and Dave, check out the profile I wrote of fellow Austin food bloggers Mariana and Ian McEnroe, who wrote a wonderful Day of the Dead cookbook in 2021.
See you next week,