The market is shaky, gas is not cheap -- but at least in Western New York we have our gastronomical riches.
Around here, thank goodness, we can always happily eat and drink -- and even learn while we do. Truly interesting and varied culinary adventures abound.
There are wine tours and beer tours, neighborhood tours and chef competitions.
"Anyone can go anyplace for a Disney-like homogenized experience, but Buffalo has the real thing -- architecture, real people, great restaurants and wonderful locations," says Sandy Starks, who with Christa Glennie Seychew has founded Feed Your Soul Buffalo, which they call a "new culinary tourism initiative to showcase exciting Western New York gastronomic adventures featuring the region's agricultural bounty."
Culinary tourism? That's a new phrase to some, but it shouldn't be. "Judging by the surge since 2001 in the number of times [the term] has appeared as a subject matter," says the encyclopedia Web site Wikipedia, "... we can see that culinary tourism is valued by tourism industry professionals as one of the most popular niches in the world's industry. After all," says Wikipedia, "all travelers eat."
According to the Web site of the International Culinary Tourist Association, the term can be defined as "the pursuit of unique and memorable culinary experiences of all kinds, often when traveling, but one can also be a culinary tourist at home.
"But not just experiences of the highest caliber -- that would be gourmet tourism. The experiences should be memorable but not necessarily pretentious and exclusive."
What, we ask you, could be a better fit for Western New York?
"Buffalo has, in my opinion, a lot of opportunity in that area based on ethnic heritage plus fantastic agriculture," said Seychew. "We should not only appreciate it ourselves but it's also so potentially interesting that people from out of town will come here."
"If Cleveland and the Hudson Valley can do it," Seychew says firmly, "so can we."
Let's tend the home fires first, though. How can we become local culinary tourists? Fun opportunities abound, and what follows is but the tip of the iceberg.
We can start by visiting the wine trails. There are two in the area (or three if you want to cross the border).
* The Niagara Wine Trail has 12 wineries and constitutes, says Janet Bittner of Marjim Manor in Appleton, "a perfect stay-cation. You can be a tourist in your own backyard, with the wineries and plenty of mom and pop restaurants and no need to travel across the country and no airports and no security and no passports.
"You can even do it in one day."
Go onto www.niagarawinetrail.org and find maps and details about coming events like the "Hall-owine Weekend" on Oct. 25 and 26. Billed as a murder mystery, you collect clues at each winery you visit, as well as a wine glass. Solve the mystery correctly and you're eligible to win a grand prize.
You can easily drive the trail yourself. There are guides at each winery to give you information and tastings, but limos are also available if you don't want to designate a driver. (Tip: limos have big trunks to hold any purchases.) It's all on the Web site.
The Chautauqua Lake Erie Wine Trail. www.chautauquawinetrail.org.
This is easy travel, too. The weekends of Nov. 1 and 2 and Nov. 8 and 9 are Holiday Wine Weekends featuring wine pairing with holiday food.
* The Canadian Niagara Wine Trail. www.winesofontario.ca.
Drive on your own if you wish, but there are daily private tours, too, that leave from central locations. One example: Crush on Niagara Tours out of Beamsville (crushtours.com).
* Buffalo Brew Tour (www.buffalobrewtour.com) is run by Steve Snyder, whom you might call an "enthusiast." He's been leading tours for about a year. He'll run you around by bus to visit sites like the Flying Bison Brewery, where customers with beer in hand learn about the brewing process; Gabriel's Gate for the house brew; Ulrich's Tavern, said to be the oldest bar in Buffalo: Pearl Street Grill & Brewery (seven beers) and Buffalo Brew Pub, where the tour ends. A designated driver can come along without charge.
The tours usually run Saturday afternoons, but call 512-8410 to reserve. Groups welcome.
* Forgotten Buffalo Tours. (ForgottenBuffalo.com). "We tap into what is unique," says Marty Biniasz, an owner with Eddy Dobosiewicz and who is a graduate of the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning.
"This is a blue collar, ethnic town with real history and a city of neighborhoods," said Biniasz. "It still has little enclaves that are like time capsules." And all of this involves food and drink, of course.
"It's more than just the food," he says, "it's the experience of eating in these places." The company has offered tours so far about "Pierogi and Prohibition," as well as one through the Old First Ward. Also, secret clubs on the old East Side. (Did you know the old Bocce Club was the first pizza place to design and use a special pizza takeout box? No? Neither did we.)
Move around the city by bus with musical background and some (very little) language training. Included on the schedule is an exploration of Buffalo's German legacy, tailored to Octoberfest and dealing, too, with flour milling, meatpacking and politics. That tour is scheduled for Oct. 25.
Nov. 12 and Nov. 22, "The Soul of Buffalo" tour will take a musical journey through Buffalo's African-American heritage with stops at taverns and clubs and "some of the finest soul food this side of the Mason Dixson Line."
* Know How Tours (www.knowhowtours.com) insists it's not a gourmet touring company.
Marion Roche, who with her husband Larry offers some 200 varieties of tours, some for one day, others last several days and some overseas.
But the Roches do offer tours of the wine trail events, a Celebrate the Harvest Tour of Amish Country, and a terrific tour of several nights to the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park.
* Feed Your Soul Tours (www.feedyoursoulbuffalo.com) sponsors several terrific tours from Buffalo to the Chautauqua Institution. A popular one was last summer, took people to Chautauqua during its food week, which included chef programs and wonderful luncheons.
Coming in January and planned for four times a year, the company will host a Nickel City Chef competition. The program will be based on the popular television Iron Chef competition but with local chefs featured.
Pack your bag. Or click on Mapquest. And stay tuned.