Bess and I have been lucky to travel quite a bit. Well, lucky may not be the correct word. Planned, might be better, we planned and we did without at times so we could travel quite a bit. Because of our types of businesses, with an odd exception or two, we travel in January or February. This allows us to enjoy many benefits such as lower costs, smaller crowds, cooler temperatures and, perhaps the primary just as it's needed most after our busiest months, refilling our creative fuel tanks. You see, even people who do food and events for a living can get in creative ruts. This past year, it's been the salmon, caper crostini. I know it's tasty but I'm just plain tired of it. Even the heavenly aroma makes me want to board the next plane for anywhere! In the last eight months, my centerpieces went from inspired – 6 ft long spans of lawn grass with inserted white roses and floating candles – to yawners like a vase of carnations by the end of the year. Yes, we get in ruts and we get tired.
This is the sure sign it's time to hit the road, tracks or skies. It's time to learn from other people and other places. So, we travel. We transport ourselves to places we can savor unknown foods, fruits, spices and techniques and gaze on spaces, centerpieces and table settings. We take notes on pricey prix fixe menus as well as the chalkboards of corner food shops selling sandwiches, calzones, tamales, empanadas or pierogis. We attend classes we don't necessarily need, to see not only what they teach but why, where and how and we always learn things. We do not tell restaurant owners we meet that we owned a restaurant. We don't tell innkeepers we had an Inn. And we don't say we are caterers or even that we know how to cook. In essence, we go incognito. It's not about us. We are there to absorb their experience, knowledge, and methods.
Food is very much an element of the grand adventure of travel. I am afraid that one of the errors made so often by travelers is that they want their food to be like home. We once had friends who traveled all the way to Bangkok and only ate in the American restaurant in their American hotel…for 5 days! Ok, I say to myself, that's ok…I'm sure there is something a little more adventurous but they were busy and even I don't need to eat an insect to prove my gastronomic bonafides. Then one of the couple complained that "the hamburgers just didn't taste like hamburgers." At this point, I just sighed and went to get another glass of wine. Of course, the hamburgers didn't taste like 'his' hamburgers in his town because the cows there eat different food, breathe different air and drink different water. A cow is not a cow is not a cow. They, just as we, are what they eat.
When we were in Greece, frankly, I felt I'd never actually eaten a Greek salad before in my life when, in fact, I've probably had hundreds. Some with fresh ingredients, even from my backyard garden but, most, from restaurants and made with tasteless tomatoes, lifeless cucumbers, mushy black olives and feta so cheap it could have been used to retread a tire. However, when I first tasted it, even early in the season, in Greece, I was literally dumbstruck by the tastes. It was, honestly, entirely different than any Greek salad I had ever had. Why so different? I had to remind myself…because the soil is different, the seeds, water and air, everything. I must assume I was not the only one, as on the very early morning a friend of ours was to depart for the airport, I found her eating, literally, out of the bowl, the leftover Greek salad from the dinner we'd all prepared the previous night. I think it was around 7am. Breakfast of champions! I have had these same local epiphanies over ricotta ravioli in Florence, a chorizo omelet in Madrid, lamb in Tangiers, the sausages on a Lyonnaise Bouchon platter and a simple, but not, baguette in Paris.
I will often ask, at our lodging establishment, as best I can in the language of the area, "where is the food like mama would make." You see, Mamas don't do fusion. Mamas don't vertical or deconstruct or flash freeze or torch or any other such foodie magic tricks. And, for sure, Mamas don't overcomplicate. A universal truth is Mamas make the food of their Mamas. This is invariably with the most local ingredients because those are the best while simultaneously being the cheapest and they are prepared in the most straightforward fashion because Mamas, especially, don't have extra time. We have been directed to some of the most amazing restaurants and eaten the best meals in this manner.
We have had wonderous foods in astounding places but they were all guided by the same rule of thumb…to eat where we are. In ten minutes with a book or internet searching, we'll find out what is grown, raised, caught or shot near our travel destination. We search these out when we eat. We try to find the places that do the best of their local foods and order their specialty. Eat where we are. Eat what they do best. It's that simple and it's the first of our ten commandments when we travel:
- Eat where we are.
- Drink where we are. There is always a local favorite!
- Relax, Smile and Enjoy. We managed to get there, whatever likely unpleasant travel experience was involved. Now, it's time to sit back, enjoy and smile ear to ear.
- Do not be rude. We always remember we are guests in the country or the town and we behave as we would if were guests in your home. I guarantee you that if this Greek and Italian lesbian couple can travel the world with relative ease, it is because, first, people are basically good and second, we remember that we are guests.
- Do not tolerate rudeness. If a waiter is rude, just leave - without fanfare or spectacle – see #4. We should have done this once in a restaurant where we were trying mightily to understand a Catalonian menu with our Spanish language book. The waiter refused to help at all or to speak to us in either Spanish or English, though we could hear him speaking English to the other wait staff. We should have done our homework and then we should have simply left. We did not do either and we had a horrid meal and experience.
- Try, as best we can, to order in the language. Most wait staff are lovely people. Even if we mush-up the pronunciation, we try. They, at least the vast majority of them, are highly appreciative and not at all offended by our errors.
- Be Vulnerable/Be Scarlett/Depend on the Kindness of Strangers. We are always amazed by the kindness that comes our way. We ask about the menu and what the specials are. We ask our server's favorites and opinions. We have learned: care about their restaurant, their advice and they will care for you. For that matter, we ask about the neighborhood, the town, anything we want to know. They are a font of knowledge and they actually do want to share.
- Know how to say the following five words/phrases: Thank you. Please. Excuse me. Bathroom. Beer. Ok that fifth one might be just for us but…the first four for sure.
- Tip well. Another universal truth is, no matter where we travel, wait staff are never paid enough. If they are good to us, we are good to them.
- Do not return. We are there to experience everything we can. Go on to the next place for the next meal. Rinse and repeat.
As we have awakened in the spring, toiled happily in the summer and move through the break-neck speed of fall in our business, the battery cells are low and it's time to travel, to learn, to be in the unknown and be inspired. I'll keep you posted.