Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Measuring the Miles in Meals

One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to visit a local grocery store wherever I am staying. Particularly when outside the U.S., but really anywhere other than where I live will do. The differences (and similarities) are fascinating.

It was the first thing I urged my brother to do when we got to Dublin (his first trip outside the U.S. with a passport). He came back full of all kinds of revelations about where we were--I felt particularly vindicated.

Sometimes it feels like as our supposedly “global” community is homogenizing all the world’s cultures. Is it good that we all have more interest in other parts of the world? Yes. Does being aware of other cultures benefit humanity? Clearly. Do I want to travel and eat only foods that remind me of home? Not even a little bit.

(As a side note, having never lived abroad I can only speak to the vacationers palate. My ex-pat friends all have specific food indulgences that help ease homesickness-the availability of those items in what one friend called the “American grocery store” was a crucial survival tool.)

Part of the appeal of traveling for me is to be somewhere unlike where I live-and a huge piece of that is food. I describe trips by the meals eaten and drinks imbibed. Even when simply traveling back and forth between my newly adopted hometown of D.C. and the concrete jungle I called home for nearly a decade in New York, I still measure the miles in meals.

I love that you can find great ethnic food in most major cities all over the world, it helps fill cravings and exposes people to new foods. But I also love that quality New York pizza is still impossible to find outside the metro-area; that Guinness really does taste better in Ireland; that most local items I’ve eaten in Italy were a revelation. Those differences are to be savored, and provide a great lure to push us to travel.

There is, of course, a flip side. It’s awesome that I can find quality Italian, Greek, Indian, and Japanese food in markets. The level and quality of genuine Chinese ingredients available in Chinatown in New York make you feel like you’ve stepped into another country. The Ethiopian restaurants in D.C. have allowed me to try a cuisine I may never have the chance to try on its home turf. Clearly, the availability of all these different foods is wonderful. I just hope we can strike a balance. If EVERYTHING I can get abroad is available at home, if all cultures resemble each other too much, where’s the fun in traveling?

And beyond just the fun, I think it’s good for us to travel. The physical distance from home, pushing literal and figurative boundaries when we visit new places, is so amazing for the people, the sights, the perspective, the history…. And of course the food. For my part, I will continue measuring the miles in meals, and in the meantime remind myself how wonderful those meals were with whiffs of something similar at home.