When I was a kid every Friday night my whole family would eat at a Chinese food place. It was cheap and good, great for an evening out without crippling the budget. I loved it, not for the variety of great food, but because I loved egg drop soup and Lychee nuts which I would look forward to after the chow mein. I would always eat the chow mein because I couldn’t stomach the look of the other dishes my mom and dad would order. Well, what do you expect from a little kid? Of course, thank the lord, I changed. Boy, did I change. Here are Some recent tastes of mine which went beyond Lychee nuts and egg drop soup: Whole young-beef head, floating island, mondongo (intestines), cumin-flavored anything and everything, chocolate covered chicken. Sound good? Or how about reindeer stew, halusky, tzimes, cuttle fish pan-fried in their own ink? Palacinky? Reflect on this: whole baby goat roasted and coated in almonds. Yup, a long distance from my mom and dad’s Friday nights. Folks, I’ve changed. I moved on. You wouldn’t recognize the little stinker who was always ready to gag at the sight of a new plate.
Recently, I had a mental conversation with my father. Although my dad has long been gone, I confess I have these conversations all the time…in my head. I tell him all about my travels, and my eating, and he adds his two cents on to my observations just as he did years ago. It’s a way, albeit I confess a little odd, for the two of us to stay close.
When Dad first began participating in our joint adventure he pointed something out to me, which I now agree with: The only consistently characteristic local item in this age of purposeful sameness of vehicles, movies, loud rock music, TV headlines and re-runs – and the constant effort of pick-pockets to deprive you of your wallet and spoil your journey – is the food. Yup, the food. People link their nationality and love for their homeland with their local favorite food. And so do my pop and I after we’ve eaten in their country.
Notice, my Dad and I avoid talking about the McDonalds and other fast food places. They only qualify as “food” under gastric emergencies, according to my Dad. He and I are referring to the signature dishes, and their artisanal variations, that voice a call for the people in any given country to queue up with their eating implements at the ready position preparing to take their first bliss-filled bite of their home dishes.
Dad and I got in a heated discussion recently. The people who saw us arguing aloud on the metro began moving away from me, but my Dad was insistent on continuing the exchange, despite my embarrassment in appearing to be arguing with myself. To summarize the discussion, Dad is a down to earth guy who loves people and, as my companion in my frequent travels, says that every place has its own uniqueness. I have found that is true, even in the most travelled areas. These arguments with my father, who sometimes becomes overbearing, but who is always worth listening to, once told me that that the people that I meet would be what be what stuck in my mind the most when I travel. I am now proud to say, as an adult, that he was slightly wrong, and slightly right. However distinctive the people in any given place, or the great waterfalls that I now see, the deep chasms I peer down into, the rainbow colored sunsets, all seem to be linked in my memory to the food I’ve eaten in those places. In fact, it often seems to take a greater space in my remembrances than the national monuments proudly displayed in any given country. So, there dad! And, it’s your fault, really. You got me started on lychee nuts.
Recently dad and I went to northern Europe, then to Alsace in eastern France, then back to Paris. Of course, dad never shows himself to the locals, but he insists on making his commentaries no matter where I am. It’s okay. I’m trying to learn how not to move my lips when we talk. Anyway, in one Scandinavian country we visited I had a basil ice cream. It was creamy and, unlike too many overly sugary ice creams, it left my taste buds without a cloying residue. In another country I (or should I say we?) had a hot beet borscht, leavened and thickened with meat and served with a dollop of sour cream in the middle, the dish so tasty and appetite-satisfying that there was no need, or want, for any other food at that sitting. In Alsace we had a tarte flambé made with Munster cheese and sprinkled with lardons that made me glad that Alsace had been returned to the provenance of France after the Second World War. Dad was even more pleased since he fought in the Second World War. Finally, when I (we) returned to Paris we found a small sorbet stand that was advertising a group of unusual tastes in their products. We tried the apricot sorbet flavoured with pepper. Yes, pepper! The pepper cut the sweet, and (I am now going to insist on my own individuality, despite what my Dad says) I walked away thanking the imagination of man for creating the dish.
Which gets me to my point as an eater – and writer. As I travel through one country or another on the page I find that I now include, among my dotted I’s and crossed T’s, a share of kitchen hopping and tasting which seems, for me, to be growing in importance. In my next book, which will be published in July of 2010, I write about a sumptuous breakfast. That breakfast happened. I experienced it in St Petersburg. And, I love reliving it. I can taste it as I write about it today. I was, and am still, in awe at its size and variety of dishes. And all those wonderful flavors. I rolled out of the dining area after that breakfast only regretting I had no capacity to stuff myself further.
One other thing both pop and I perceive from all these experiences: Meals are like individuals, various dishes having their own particularity, some being different, better and “tastier” than others. It’s the good ones that we remember, that keep us going and seeking the next taste…of both people, and food. Now, let me add a small addendum: Who would have ever thought, when I was first tasted egg drop soup, chow mein and lychee nuts in our Friday night family dinners that one of the most important questions I would ask when going into a foreign city is, “What’s the soup of the day?”
Lychee nuts, anyone?
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