Eating is a special part of traveling for me. I get positively giddy thinking about which restaurants I will visit and what produce will be in season. Juicy, torpedo-shaped strawberries form France make me swoon. Perfectly al dente pasta in Italy sends me into fits of rapture. And perfectly-steamed lobster dipped in clarified butter in Maine nearly sends me to heaven. Embracing the regional cuisine of an area connects me to its culture making me feel less like a stranger and more like a welcomed guest. Food travel is a growing sector of the industry, as more people are interested in food culture–some are even keeping a food journal (I’m thinking of starting one)!
In the U.S., our food and its diversity represents our culture beautifully. With its ethnic diversity that has a uniquely American spin, food in the States speaks to the melting pot that is our society. When I want to go out to dinner, I ask hubby, “What do you feel like? Italian? Mexican? Chinese? Although some American chefs pride themselves on authenticity of their cuisine, most of the time ethnic food in the States is a blend of old world and new. In the latter part of the 1800s, millions of immigrants came to the United States’ shores. They had left everything behind, but their food culture could let them retain an essential link to their families and past. Since all ingredients for original recipes weren’t available and restaurateurs wanted to please the tastes of their diverse customers, they adapted age-old recipes to meet the demands of the developing American society. By creating hybrid cuisines they also shaped American culture.
Food tells us a lot about a culture—their wealth, lifestyle, religious beliefs, and more. One of my favorite dishes is “Pasta with Breadcrumbs”—a humble dish from the Calabria region of Italy that people ate on Christmas Eve to avoid eating meat. It was ideal for poorer families, as it used day-old bread and readily available dried chili peppers, olive oil, and salted anchovies. It is delicious—briny goodness from the anchovies, a little heat from the peppers, nuttiness from the toasted breadcrumbs, and fruity notes from the olive oil added to perfectly-cooked pasta. It’s one of our household’s favorite frugal dishes! Whereas a dish may impart knowledge about a culture’s wealth, foods like hamburgers and hotdogs lend themselves to an industrialized, fast-paced lifestyle. Although claims to the first hamburger and hot dog are hotly contested, their origin had much to do with Americans’ need to eat quickly. Sitting down to eat a meat patty or sausage took far greater time than putting either of those meats between bread and eating on the go. Likewise, southern barbecue connotes ideas of a slower method of production and speaks to the South’s agrarian past (you can’t hurry agriculture—well you probably can, but not the old-fashioned way).
Food has the power to evoke memories and connect us to our personal past. When I give workshops on how to conduct oral histories, I encourage interviewers to offer refreshments and to draw on the power of food to unleash a slew of recollections. My grandfather was a baker and to this day the smell of oil frying gets me salivating for his freshly-made donuts dipped in cinnamon sugar. Family recipes might tell us more about our heritage, too. I like to look at them as snapshots into the past. If I see lard instead of butter in a recipe where butter would have been called for, then I wonder if this was a habit picked up during food-rationing times of war.
Food tells us a lot about the past, but sharing a meal can also form our future. Dining together bonds us. How many of you shared a meal when you first started dating your significant other? I always joke that I knew I was in love with my (now) husband, when he took a bite of food off my plate and I didn’t poke him with my fork (if you haven’t guessed I love my food and want every bite of it). 🙂 I’ll leave you with a fond memory I have of a food-related story. Two years ago, it was our last night in Rome and my husband and I were dining at a restaurant that we had frequented a few times. Our first course had just arrived when I saw a woman about to be turned away because the only tables available were for four people and she was alone. My husband and I were sitting at a table for two, so we asked her if she would like to join us. She agreed and we moved to a table for four. We drank and dined until late into the night. She encouraged me to order dessert (picture above) and we had one of the most perfect nights I can remember. We laughed until we almost cried. She was alone and delayed in Rome (her home was Australia) while she waited for bureaucrats to allow her to return to her native homeland of Moldova to visit her parents. We hugged goodbye and wished her the best of luck. I often think of her; she had given me her email address, but I can’t find it. I think that her name was Viktoria. If anyone knows of a woman from Australia who was waylaid in Italy on her way to Moldova in May of 2013, please forward this article to her.
Nota bene: Viktoria, if this article somehow reaches you, I hope that you were able to see your parents and that all was well. Thank you for enhancing that meal with your presence and for making our last night in Rome so memorable!