Last week I shared the worst meal I’ve ever had while traveling: a cast-iron skillet filled with a seething potato mass and rapier-sharp fish skeleton, accompanied by a noxious yuck-berry soda administered only to keep from choking. Here’s the best meal I’ve ever had:
It was 1999, and we were on the dusty road from Cordoba to Granada, heading for the Alhambra, a 14th-century Moorish stronghold that’s an endless showcase of pools and patterns (mesmerizing arabesques). My father, brother (who was studying at the University of Cordoba) and I were in a rented Peugeot five-speed, flying past olive and grape vineyards, when the rumble of three stomachs jolted the little auto. As is the norm when driving through the southern part of Spain, we pulled over at the first cafe we saw.
It wasn’t a complicated place — red and white checkered tablecloths — and it was nearly empty. “Que quieren?” the waiter asked.
“Puedo tener una plata con queso y otras cosas,” I said, blushing, in mangled Spanish. What we got was an antipasto plate filled with Manchego cheese (kudos to the La Mancha goat, who lives a couple hundred miles north of where we were), olives from the nearby vineyards, roasted red peppers and little slices of piquant chorizo. In between swallows, we drank wine made from the vineyard connected to the cafe. The combination of Spanish cheese, wine and sausage can often prove too much to take for excitable Americans, and sure enough, someone tipped over the wine carafe. The waiter mopped up the red and brought us another. What a waste. I would have slurped it up off the floor.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever had on the road?
– written by Dan Askin
I once examined a meal on the road as a scientist would an alien life form: with extreme care, a sense of awe and absolutely no intention of consuming it.
The setting was Moscow, 1997. Outside, old women who’d lost their pensions hawked cigarettes amid the Soviet gray of sky and concrete. We were in a “three-star” hotel dining room in a dingy, slightly bug-ridden hotel. Was there a menu? No, just a cast-iron skillet filled with lumpy white plasma.
The first taste was reminiscent of potatoes. A gooey, glue-like consistency left the food sticking to the roof of my mouth. With each bite, my oxygen intake was further diminished. (Was this an espionage tool to asphyxiate foreign dignitaries during State dinners?) The beverage to wash it down was a steaming carbonated liquid with an unidentifiable berry-like fruit on the label. The berry seemed to be glowing. Birds, which we all know can eat things humans can’t, were swarming the berry bush.
Thirteen years later, the acid-aftertaste still clings to the back of my tongue.
After a few bites, I could no longer swallow. So I explored with my fork, scalpeling through the membranous top layer and delicately separating glob from chunk. The consistency was creamy in places, milky in others. After some careful rooting, I exhumed … a fish skeleton. The whole thing struck me as a morbid version of the Kinder egg sold at the nearby souvenir kiosks. But instead of a plastic toy inside a chocolate egg, I got a rotting fish skeleton inside a noxious blob of potato-matter.
This was in the early days of digital photography, so no one thought to use their 35 mm or disposables on a food shot. Hopefully the prose picture was enough.
I’ve vomited up mine, so now it’s your turn: What’s the worst meal you’ve ever had while traveling?
– written by Dan Askin
Egg nog at a holiday party … Grandmom’s homemade sugar cookies … those can’t-eat-just-one gift chocolates from a client at work … is it any wonder December is the hardest time of year to stick to a diet?
For travelers trying to count calories on the road, it can be even more difficult — especially since most food served on airplanes is salty and fattening (and it often tastes lousy, to boot). However, there are some healthy options out there for air travelers who are watching their waistlines.
DietDetective.com recently released its annual airline food survey to spotlight the most — and least — nutritious menu items on a variety of U.S. carriers. The survey included both small snacks and meals, whether given out free or available for purchase.
According to the survey, United and JetBlue top the list for the healthiest choices. United earns kudos for its Lite snack box; featuring lemon pepper tuna, pita chips, chocolate-covered pretzels and unsweetened apple sauce, it adds up to just 430 calories (the equivalent of 112 minutes of walking). DietDetective.com also likes JetBlue’s 484-calorie Shape Up meal box, with its nutritious combo of hummus, pita chips, almonds and raisins.
Weighing down the bottom end of the scale is US Airways, for its “poor overall choices and not much variety.” If you’re traveling on a morning flight, for example, you’re better off packing your own breakfast than buying the French toast sandwich box (a diet-busting 705 calories).
For more help maintaining a healthy lifestyle on the road, see Eating Well and Staying Active.
–written by Sarah Schlichter
Airline meals have a well-deserved reputation for being mediocre and bland (that is, of course, when the airlines bother to feed us at all). But instead of blaming high altitude, dry air or cheap ingredients, researchers are now offering a new explanation for why that rubbery chicken on your transatlantic flight is so lousy: engine noise.
A recent study conducted by Unilever and the University of Manchester shows that the more background noise you hear while you’re eating, the less able you are to distinguish salty or sweet flavors, reports ABC News. In the study, participants were blindfolded and asked to eat various foods while listening to different levels of white noise (or no noise at all). Participants who heard higher volumes of noise noticed less intense sweet and salty flavors, and were more sensitive to how crunchy their food was.
According to the researchers, it’s not just the volume of noise that matters but also your feelings about it. If you like the sounds you’re hearing, even if they’re loud (such as music and chatter in a trendy restaurant), you’re more likely to enjoy your meal. But in the air, the constant noisy whine of the plane’s engines could make your dinner significantly less palatable. Add to that the fact that airline food rarely looks all that appetizing either, and it’s no wonder most of us are scowling into our trays.
So what’s an air traveler to do? Andy Woods, one of the researchers who contributed to the study, recommends wearing noise-canceling headphones as a way to overcome the effects of engine noise. Bon appetit!
–written by Sarah Schlichter
It’s official: we’re blogging! Welcome to “Have Tips, Will Travel,” where we’ll bring you quick takes on travel news, need-to-know info for travelers, and discussions on travel-related controversies and issues of the day (click here to read more about our new blog). Let’s get started.
On IndependentTraveler.com, we have travel deals, trip planning ideas, community forums and packing tips galore. But did you know we answer travel questions as well?
Our readers can send their burning questions to travel wizard (and Editor) Sarah Schlichter at firstname.lastname@example.org. While we’ve been asked about everything from passports to pet travel, the most popular questions we’ve received, by far, are about which foods can be carried through airport security. Ever since the TSA declared that all carry-on liquids and gels must be in 3.4-ounce containers within a single clear, quart-sized zip-top bag, countless readers have been e-mailing us to ask what kinds of foods they can bring on a plane. Is tuna salad a “gel”? (It’s close enough that it could be confiscated.) What about a mushy banana or a slice of cheesecake? (Probably ok.) Here’s a question we received last fall:
“I’d like to take Thanksgiving dinner to my son. I thought I would take cooked turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing, but a friend said I probably can’t take it on the plane. Please let me know.”
These kinds of questions make us hungry for lunch. They also make us chuckle at the bizarre issues that come up in trip planning. Here’s Sarah’s answer:
“Thanks for writing to IndependentTraveler.com. You’d probably be okay to bring the turkey and stuffing, since those are both solid, but because the mashed potatoes are a gel-like substance, they would be subject to the 3-1-1 rules. That means you could only bring 3.4 ounces or less, and the container would have to fit inside a quart-size plastic bag. I’m sure your son will appreciate two out of three!”
Did our reader bring her son a zip-top bag filled with tiny containers of mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and gravy? We’ll never know. But we do hope that her Thanksgiving bounty wasn’t confiscated by some hungry TSA agent. After all, checkpoint clearance is always subject to the discretion of individual TSA agents, and the TSA’s lists of approved items are not set in stone.
Those of you struggling with similar questions should take a look at the TSA Helpful Hints for Holiday Travelers page, which has a list of foods that can be taken on a plane. Or you can post your travel questions or comments below — we’ll be happy to answer!