"Through all these cities and all these towns, it's in my blood and it's all around…"

by Katie Pizzuto on May 8, 2009

in travel

replace-a-us-passport-main_FullI was asked not long ago, to write a piece about how good food & wine are important to experience in bridging cultural differences. Given that I’m the type of person that begins to scope out potential restaurants and wineries the moment travel plans are even considered, the two obviously rank high on my priority list. Other than through their music, I truly believe that a country’s people most clearly express themselves through what they eat and drink. The meals that you find being served at someone’s dinner table are as important to understanding their culture as the conversations carried over that table—it’s a silent and yet very profound way of experiencing life as they do. To visit another country, or even another state, and spend your money eating meals pumped out by chain restaurants, is a squandered opportunity to taste your way through that region’s history.

While it would be great to knock on a random door when your stomach starts to growl, and invite yourself to someone else’s meal, I’m thinking you’d wind up in a foreign jail—they aren’t usually very fond of outsiders (think Mexico). Being fed local cuisine is important, but certainly not worth doing hard time for. On the other hand, sifting though guides like Zagat and Michelin isn’t usually your best bet, either. Not that they won’t direct you to a nice restaurant with great food, but it won’t necessarily be great regional/local food. If you want to eat like a resident, dine where they dine. Ask your hotel’s maitre d’ where he goes for his favorite meal, or better yet, go into a local wine shop and ask there—because chances are, if they care about wine, they care about food. In fact, I remember doing this in Rome years ago and ending up eating at a communal table with the restaurant’s owners and staff because we had shown up for dinner on “American time” which, for Europeans, is too early to open restaurant doors! The food and wine that we shared and passed from hand to hand, spoke volumes about the people seated next to us. The language of gastronomy is, like music, universally understood.

It’s also crucial, when we travel, to try the native wine varietals if we are going to gain an understanding of that culture. I can’t imagine going to Greece and ordering a glass of chardonnay instead of a local savatiano, asyrtico, moschofilero or roditis. We tend to spend so much time imbibing what we find familiar and comforting that we seldom take the time to discover what is familiar to others. All the mementos and snapshots you take home with you can’t ever fill the space that memories and experiences do. If you want to eat hamburgers and drink chardonnay, by all means, stay the hell home and give me your plane ticket to Turkey…or Japan…or India. Because at the end of it all, when you unpack your suitcase, go through your stack of junk mail and collapse on the sofa, you want to know you’ve been somewhere. And how better to carry the memories of a country’s people than to know the food and wine that is native to them, and understand what their definition of “home” is.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Linsey May 10, 2009

I find visiting another country to see someone special and knowing that that person has a relative who is a really good cook works so well for tasting different foods that one wouldnt have normally had!

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2 The Wine Commonsewer May 11, 2009

…..spend your money eating meals pumped out by chain restaurants, is a squandered opportunity…..

Unless, of course, it’s breakfast time and there’s a Cracker Barrel nearby. 🙂

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3 The Wine Commonsewer May 11, 2009

Came here the other day assuming you had posted something about smokers only to find that I was to be denied my snarky remark about Real Men not using propane for anything except to heat the house when you can’t get to the gas main.

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4 The Wine Commonsewer May 11, 2009

Not people with cigarettes and pipes, smokers for meat.

BTW, I also meant to say that I love the post.

And that works locally as well. Stopped with the Boy at a run down old fashioned grocery store (painted Screaming School Bus Yellow with blue eaves) for some tacos a couple of weeks ago. I was surprised the health department hadn’t shut them down, but lordy those carnitas tacos were the bomb.

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5 Katie Pizzuto May 11, 2009

No worries, Mike…the post on the smoker is coming, as I did in fact, get one as a mother’s day gift. Propane, much to your dismay, but I never claimed to be a real man 😉

Thus, you WILL get your chance to make snarky comments this afternoon, lest I deny my readers a chance to be as much of a wise ass as I am.

As for health department violations, if you ever get a chance to watch the documentary “I Like Killing Flies” about Kenny Shopsin you’ll wonder how anyone would voluntarily step foot in his place, and yet the food is not only soulful, but fantastic.

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6 Eating for Beginners May 11, 2009

As someone who’s been in close to a dozen countries over the last year, and is living in one I’m not native to, I couldn’t agree with you more. When people come to visit us in Berlin, the first thing we always do is talk about what to feed them and where.

As a proud New Yorker, I feel compelled to add that I love Kenny Shopsin and I Like Killing Flies.

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7 Katie Pizzuto May 11, 2009

I’m curious, Melanie, what local delicacies you steer them toward? I’ve never been to Berlin and so I wonder if the Americanized “German dishes” aren’t even eaten there?!?

And completely agree on both Kenny and the movie. His Slutty Pancakes are INCREDIBLE!

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8 Linsey May 12, 2009

i went to Germany for a holiday – to the Rhineland region – the cakes there were incredible … light, layered and basically perfect

the soups were also delicious – clear broths will good flavour

the main courses however … really disappointing … everything was deep fried, no fresh vegetables served with it – sauerkraut only, and the combination layers – pineapple on cheese on ham on pork wrapped in breadcrumbs and fried – too rich and way too much

….

btw the Rhineland beautiful part of the country – worth visiting for the scenery, just not for the food

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9 Katie Pizzuto May 13, 2009

Wow, interesting, Lin…I wouldn’t have thought the whole “everything deep fried” would’ve pertained here, but then, I’ve never been there!

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