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Eating Abroad: The Cultural Resonance of Food

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Wherever you go, there you are, as the saying goes.

You and a McDonald's, that is.

middle east chick pea salad international food exoticWe've all seen it -- a group of Americans traveling abroad, new foodstuffs everywhere you look, and they turn tail into every McDonald's they see.

While I am adamant that commerce is not necessarily culture, and that a piece of junk from Mexico is no better than a piece of junk from South of the Border in South Carolina, things are a bit different when it comes to food. Food fully engages two of the five primary senses -- taste and smell -- and could be said also to arouse touch and sight as well. While I'll admit that a cheesy trinket appeals to your postmodern irony and fulfills a deep desire for office cubicle artifacts, a giant meal at 11 p.m. in the hills above Porto is another thing entirely.

Changing Your Eating Rhythms
What if a distant cousin from Italy came to your house, and you offered to take him out for Saturday morning pancakes at the local mom and pop pancake joint, the best pancake place within two time zones, and he asked for a shot of espresso and a roll because that's what he always has at that time of day?

You'd be appalled that he'd miss out on this American feast; nay, let's call it a cultural touchstone. You might even be offended.

Now, I didn't disagree with a traveling pal recently that a McDonald's Quarter Pounder at 11:05 a.m. helped take the edge off a sangria hangover as well or better than the local samplings I found around the block. He knew how to deal with a hangover, and got the job done at the Golden Arches. But to his credit, when we later sat down at 10 p.m. to a massive meal, he was right back on the local meal schedule.

In my own eating rhythms at home, I go big at breakfast and lunch, and eat very lightly at dinner. While this works out nicely in the British Isles, where breakfast is king, this isn't the case in many other European countries, and many others worldwide. (In fact, it even runs counter to New Jersey, United States of America, where I live and where evening meals are usually substantial.)

In places where the "Continental breakfast" of one ounce of coffee and two ounces of bread reigns (France, Italy, Belgium, as well as Spain and Portugal with a slightly different approach), and the biggest meal of the day takes place at 11 p.m., I'm a bit out of things. How do you get on track? I've found the best way to reset your gastronomic clock is to eat a big meal as soon as possible at the time that local custom calls for it.

restaurant bar meal friends funFor example, in my own situation, if I arrive in a country in the afternoon, and eat lightly that night, the next morning I'm starving and need a hearty breakfast. But if on my first night in town I join the locals in a huge meal after dark, I'm not so famished the next morning, and am content to throw back an espresso and roll with the rest of the country.

Try Anything Once?
Many folks say they'll try anything once. I recently tried one interesting dish twice (actually thrice, as you'll read later).

On a trip to Spain with a group of people, I was raving about a meal I had nearly 15 years ago when some new friends took me into their home and served the local delicacy -- squid cooked in its own ink.

So when we went to a restaurant, I ordered the local delicacy -- squid cooked in its own ink.

We were sitting next to a couple waiting for their food. The angular features and striking eyes of the woman at the table reminded me of a Picasso painting: all straight lines, very few curves, round, inquisitive eyes. We were stealing glances when her food was delivered -- a pot of dark brown lumps in a thick dark brown sauce.

I'll admit I started it. Who would order something that looked so unappetizing? Mimicking someone placing their order, I joked, "Yes, I'd like the pot of filth, please, thank you." We had a stifled laugh, and that was that.

A few minutes later, the server arrived with our meals, and placed my dish down in front of me.

There was a silence of two beats ... then it came. "HAAAAAAAA!!!" My friends were beside themselves with laughter. In front of me sat a steaming "pot of filth in its own sauce," as it's now been immortalized.

Of course, I ate the whole thing, even sopped up the filth sauce with bread, and it was superb (though not nearly as good as I remembered it when it was cooked especially for me in her own kitchen by my friend's mum, a Basque grandmother with a six-generation-old recipe).

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