Last Monday I was blissfully floating across the North Atlantic on the way to Bermuda. I also turned 50 that day.
For many people, this might seem like a huge landmark. For me, last year was the landmark (surpassing the age of my sister). This year is simply a triumph, kind of like "See, I made it this far. Now, what comes next?"
I could be ambitious and make a list of fifty things I still want to do, or talk about the fifty greatest books I've ever read, or the fifty best experiences of my life, but I've chosen to talk about fifty food experiences, which I'll share from time to time throughout the year.
Today, in the spirit of just having returned from Bermuda, I'm going to talk about a few, memorable, international, food experiences:
1. I was three or so. We'd been to Ireland to visit my relatives there and were now having a beach vacation in Forte dei Marmi, Italy (which was very different in the early 60s than the chic resort it's become today). We were in a very small hotel, and I ate separately in our little cottage each night, before my parents would go eat in the dining room. I was a fussy eater at that age, and I longed for more American-tasting food. There was a lovely waiter who would bring supper down from the main building each night, and one night, with a great flourish, he presented me with a true prize: a hot dog! It was plain, no bun, but I was thrilled, and thanked him profusely. It was clearly a gift from one of those Italians who will do anything for bambini. I remember throwing my arms around his neck and saying "Grazie!" over and over again. Once he'd left, I dug into that lovely, pink specimen, only to find out that it was nothing like anything I'd had in the States. It was sweet in flavor, and the texture was all wrong. But it was perfect. It was a present from a friend, and this may have been my first true lesson in cultural exchange. I ate everything that was offered to me for the rest of my visit.
2. I was six or seven. I was back to my fussy eating ways and we were somewhere in France (probably Paris). I was at a restaurant with my parents, and I had something plain and simple in front of me. My mother had a full meal, and her appetizer was quiche. She implored me to try some, stating it was "the French version of pizza". I tried a bite and almost swooned. It was delicious. I tried bites of other things that meal and discovered, especially at the cheese course, that food could be a delightful adventure.
3. I was nine. We were in Guadalupe. There was a huge buffet set out for lunch on the beach. The Caribbean sun had been relentless, and we all enjoyed loading our plates and finding a shaded place to sit and enjoy. The food at this place was wonderful. My mother and I especially loved this one dish - was it fried fish? Fried chicken? Somewhat spongy and delicate that tasted astonishing - soft inside and crisp outside and beautifully spiced. After several helpings each, we found out that we were eating fish brain fritters.
4. I leap forward to 22. My father and I were in Paris for one of his research trips on Camille Pissarro. From what I remember, it was Victory in Europe Day - May 8th, and everything was closed. Since we were staying in a hotel, we'd had a minimal breakfast and nothing since. We'd spent the day traipsing the empty streets of Paris and by evening we were ravenous. We were invited to a French friend's home for dinner that evening, and when we arrived there, our hostess explained that she was terribly sorry, but she'd really had no time to put anything together. We sat down in her living room, making polite conversation and trying to quiet our rumbling stomachs. Finally, our friend served us some saucisson (which I abhorred) and a bit of baguette. My father and I tucked in, and I tried to swallow while barely chewing, as I was starving, but unhappy with the thin slices of soft sausage glimmering with chunks of fat. We both noticed that our hostess ate next to nothing, and we tried, somewhat, to follow suit. After twenty minutes or so, the saucisson and baguette were cleared, and our hostess invited us into the dining room, where she proceeded to serve us classic dish after French classic dish. I don't remember every course, but I do remember that we had Duck a l'Orange and Mousse au Chocolat and that the entire meal and company remains with me as one of the best dining experiences of my life.
5. Age 23: sitting at the famous Sacher Cafe at the Sacher Hotel, Wien. In front of me sat a rich cup of coffee and one of these:
Original Sacher Torte. For a history of this confection, click here.
I was in the middle of a "Cultural European History" tour, which had been a marvelously economic way to see much of Western (and a bit of Eastern) Europe in eight weeks, and while the cultural treats had been many, traveling with a group of college kids, whose general idea of a good time was a kegger, had made the trip somewhat enervating. This escape, on a rainy afternoon, was a lovely respite. I can still taste the undercurrent of the apricot jam, the bitterness of the chocolate, and the somewhat surprising dry texture of the cake. I can hear the rain and feel the warmth of the hot coffee.
Now, please share - what are some of your favorite, international, food experiences?