Monday, July 20, 2009

On Turning Fifty, part 1: Some special food experiences

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?


anno said...

Wonderful vignettes! You have certainly been a far more adventurous eater than I (who spent her first two years in Europe insisting we eat only at places where I could get roast chicken and french fries). There's a reason most of my food stories from living abroad involve just clementines and chocolate, with the occasional appearance of some crusty bread.

Your stories, though, if we ever travel again, they could inspire me to at last try something new.

Happy Birthday!

Korie said...

Well, there was the time I tried a correctly poured Guinness with black current syrup in Carlow Ireland, and the time I tried a Britton pancake stuffed with ham and cheese here in Gent, and also my first Brusselse Belgian waffle with whipped cream and fruit.
Also my first New Years in Belgium when I tried hare for the first time.

I don't remember much about childhood food cause I ate mostly everything that was offered.

Madam Crunchypants said...

I am so in awe of your willingness to be adventurous as a child.

My biggest food memory?

Your #5, only Age 12. We actually bought one and brought it home with us, and just the thought makes my mouth water.

Ben said...

I love that you have such a great memory for food. If we measured our lives in foods we've eaten instead of years, we'd probably be happier :D

Brian Miller said...

happy belated birthday! dropped by early to see if you were back, but then got your comment in confirmation. hope the trip was amazing!

1. awesome! i usually at least try everything...except lima beans of course...sorry even for culture...

2. my mom tried quiche on us one christmas morning...seriously our attention was elsewhere...can we go play now? i appreciated it much more later in life.

3. errr...ok, i think i might try it...

4. duck with raspberry sauce...ahhh...

5. yum

nice treat. glad you are back. see you soon!

Dru said...

Welcome back!

I remember the first time I tried frog legs and was surprised that I liked it. Then it was onto escargot - didn't like it.

As long as I don't know the ingredients and it looks visually appealing, I'll give it a try.

Shan said...

What a great idea. I am looking forward to reading the rest of these posts.

painted maypole said...

i was hungry even before i read this post! now I must go make dinner

MQ LOVES quiche. it is one of her favorites. In fact, I will be making some later this week, from a super easy recipe I love.

the twins said...

ooh, i want that sacher torte! and travel memories. i remember being the first one in my family to dare try haggis on our trip to scotland. it was delicious. =) and finding so much great food in spain--tapas in barcelona are amazing!
happy birthday!

Elizabeth Bradley said...

I enjoyed this post immensely!

I'm remembering our first breakfast in Paris. My husband spotted a sign in front of a corner cafe just paces from out hotel for a 2$ US breakfast. I told him I questioned how good it would be. But...we were served robust cafe-w/heavy cream, crusty bread with that heavenly French butter, with two organic sunny side up eggs served atop a thin slice of the best-ham-I've-ever-put-in-my-mouth, accompanied with crispy herb potatoes. We ate breakfast there for the three days that we stayed in that particular hotel.

glamah16 said...

Great post and happy belated birthday. Great memories ,thanks for sharing.


Happy Birthday. I loved this post.

Linda said...

My favorite may have been my first taste of escargot in a small village somewhere in France or calamare en su tinta a Parador in Spain. Good food hard to find out of those special locales.

However, the best food memories are from my children.

Jaya, age four, took great delight in eating everything in a shell at a little place in Italy. She even ate little tiny snails for which she had to pick out the taste of meat with a toothpick. She delighted in the tiny little octopuses, too. It was wonderful to share her excitement and delight at these new treats. Also to see her be so willing to experiment.

Geetha, age five, snuggled up in my lap in a restaurant in New Delhi at the end of two or three weeks spent in India, mostly with relatives. We were at a nice tandoori restauarant that also served American-style food. (Worst, non-beef hamburgers I have ever seen.) We had mulled over the choices and picked whatever the girls thought sounded good. Geetha said she could hardly wait to get home and get some "real American food". I asked what that was and, with no hesitation, she replied, "Puris and tandoori chicken." I guess her Indian grandmother would have been proud--and a little confused.

Jen said...

Anno - I might have been that chicken eater if I'd been there later and if my parents would have let me. Our travels were usually on their terms - so I went along.

Lilac - it sounds like you've had some delightful culinary adventures. One of mine, which shall be related later was black currant soda on a blistering hot day after a long bike ride in the Netherlands. I wish we did more with black currants here in the States.

Thalia - yum. I was tempted to order one researching the site today, but now I think I'll just look for a recipe. I know it won't be the same, but it will be *close*.

Ben - don't you, too, having grown up in a restaurant setting? I'd love to hear about your experiences with your parents as cooks some time.

Brian - thanks for the b'day wishes! I'm so with you on the lima beans - I've formed this opinion because I *have* tried them! Duck with raspberry sauce sounds like a marvelous combination.

Dru - good point. I don't think I would have tried the fish brains had I known they were fish brains. I love both frog legs and escargot, but I developed a really horrible allergy to escargot, so I don't eat them anymore.

Thanks, Shan - I'd love to hear some of your adventures, too, even if local or whatever.

PM - I know - what's not to love about quiche? MQ has fabulous taste!

Twins - you are a braver woman than I - I still haven't tried haggis despite my D's Scottish background. You give me hope for trying it some day. I'm dying to travel to Barcelona - and partly for those tapas, but just to experience it.

Elizabeth - I love experiences like that - where you make a discovery traveling and you just become a regular because the experience is so pleasant. It sounds like it was perfect for you both.

Thanks, Glamah. I've already had such pleasure reading some of your international experiences through your travels.

Widney Woman - thanks so much!

Linda - I so loved those stories and can see each girl in each setting. Geetha's comment reminds me of the lovely Thanksgivings at your house - exactly that kind of "American food".

peter said...

I was just yesterday thinking about my Great Aunt Martha's Sacher torte. It was a splendid thing. Definitely up there in the pantheon.

Jen said...

Peter - that's wonderful that you had an aunt who made truly amazing Sacher Torte. Do you have her recipe? My grandmother's recipe for lemon meringue pie was lost to the ages - something I'm truly sad about.

Ivy said...

Welcome back Jen and Happy belated birthday wishes. It's strange how food can evoke such interesting memories, mostly pleasant. I remember at the age of 6 when immigrating to London, how we would devour our mashed potatoes and the rice pudding with plumbs :)

thailandchani said...

My gosh! What a memory! I can't remember what happened last year! :)


Jen said...

Ivy, I think it's those sensory experiences that cement themselves in childhood. Partly I guess it's my love of words and art, but odors, tastes, colors, etc., always attracted me and I guess all those things are present in food.

Chani - I have more trouble with last week - my long term memory is strongest, I think.

Momisodes said...

Wow! Happy Belated birthday BTW.

These all sound like amazing culinary experiences.

One of my favorite experiences as a child was in the Florida Keys. We had dinner at a seafood restaurant and they had an all u can eat crab meal for kids, and I remember filling bowl after bowl of crab shells after scarfing down the yummy crab!

Anonymous said...

Before I share...I need to find out what your parents did professionally that you travelled all over the world like that as a child. My God...what amazing experiences!!! And, happy belated birthday...fifty is the best...I went skydiving to celebrate!

One of the BEST food expereinces I had was when I was 19 and went on a ski trip with the Ohio University Ski Club...we spent 10 days in Innsbruck and I took a side trip to Munich. We had the most absolutely fantastic food...1st new love for me was wiener schnitzel with creamed hot sour kraut.OMG, OMG...I eat it EVERY SINGLE Oktoberfest now. THe second one was oxtail soup...I thought I died and went to heaven eating that soup! I can still taste both of them as I visualize the Alps!

Jen said...

Momisodes - I would have been right there with you. I *so* love crab.

HotMama - One advantage was my father was an art historian - that was the French connection. Also, any extra money we had went into travel - my mom and dad had both been adventurous backpacker type travelers, in fact my mom took a banana boat to Guatemala when she was young, and so they'd find out of the way places cheaply. There were a lot of things we didn't have, but I was extremely rich in travel as a child.

Unknown said...

AHH I loved this post! (And everyone's comments.)
I'll chime in a little later...

Jen said...

Cindy - I'd love to get your perspective, especially after your various travels this year.

Vivienne said...

Oh my, you brought up a submerged memory of faraway Kansas City. There was a bakery/cafe in the Plaza area called Andre's. I find by a quick search that it is still there and was founded by Swiss bakers in 1955. They had wonderful tortes and this was where I was introduced to this art form.

My other favorite gustatory experience, never repeated, was the Brittany-style crepes (crepes bretonnes) in Quebec. I tried the ones at Cafe Zola once some years ago and while good, they didn't measure up. These were incredibly light, crisp, lacy, and huge, made on a special surface, then wrapped around your choice of savory or sweet fillings.

Jen said...

Buttercup - I agree, crepes from that type of special creperie can't be beat. Andre's also sounds like just the sort of place I'd love.

Jeanie said...

TOTALLY fabulous post! What a life! And how nice you got to discover these things young! (Viva la cheese course! My fave!)

My best food story is traveling to Japan -- my first day and we are dining with friends of Rick's at a restaurant who order a bezillion-course meal. I'm adventurous enough as an eater and also knew I HAD to eat it -- just to be polite if nothing else. And so I gamely savored (not) raw quail egg and something that was wiggling when it went into the soup. While I'm fond of sushi and sashimi and much Japanese food, I don't need to have those again!

Belated birthday wishes -- what a fabulous way to celebrate!

Jen said...

Jeanie - so many cross-cultural experiences about food can be eye-opening and funny in retrospect. Like you, I try to be game. My hardest experiences were certain versions of dairy and meat in Russia, but I'll talk about that another time.

Goofball said...

fried fish brain? delicious? hahaha proofs again that we should mostly eat with our tast and exclude our brain. Then we could all enjoy black pudding, snails, .... ;)

i'll think if I can make a post out of this too. Fun idea.

Jen said...

Goofball, I'd love to hear about your experiences - you're so well-traveled! I'd also love to hear about your thoughts on trying some of the Canadian food for the first time.

Maggie said...

Happy Birthday! Thank you for sharing such beautiful stories. Even though my parents never traveled that far from home when I was a kid they would hunt down the most far reaching experiences nearby. One of my favorites was my first taste of Vietnamese food in a little restaurant over in Windsor. The food was so exotic and different and it made me feel like we'd traveled around the world instead of just over the bridge.

Jen said...

Maggie - that's what we've tried to do with our staycations with C. I travel far less often now. It was great growing up, though.

Vivienne said...

Waidaminute: I just focused - having met you for the first time, can't believe you are 50.

They say 50 is the new 30-now I got it.

Jen said...

Buttercup! Thank you for those generous words. Yup, fifty, and I happily claim all those fifty years.