When I first traveled overseas, I was the proud owner of a Texas: It’s Bigger than France t-shirt. A few college friends and I were studying at Cambridge for the summer, so naturally, I wore that shirt on my first day in the program. For whatever reason, I acquired a fan club of three American guys who thought my shirt, therefore me, was amazing. They would randomly pop up to help me finish my daily crossword puzzle, which I took up for one whole summer and then moved on to Sudoku, or seek me out for my thoughts on the best places to eat in Cambridge. Unfortunately for them, my top recommendation was the Pizza Hut buffet. If my bank statements went back that far, I’m sure I would be embarrassed by how often I went there.
You can take a Texan out of Texas…
In college, my friends noted that all of the food I ate was white. Rice, pasta with no pasta sauce (for reasons unbeknownst to me now, I did not eat pasta sauce growing up, just plain pasta with salt), mashed potatoes…anything I could put ranch dressing on. Sadly, my refusal to branch out into new cuisine lasted all four years of college, encompassing several of my first trips to other parts of the world—Spain, Greece, and tragically, Italy.
If you don’t count the trip to Montreal in college for Model UN, where I begged the customs agent at border crossing to stamp my passport so I’d have something in there, my first real adventure outside the U.S. was to Spain. We spent the first few days in Madrid and then took the train to Barcelona. When the lunch service came around, they offered us veal in a tin foil container. I’m not sure if I was more horrified by the baby cow or the fact that it was being served to me in tin foil. Thankfully, I had taken 7 years of Spanish by this point in life and knew how to say “more bread, please.” My friend’s father thought this was hilarious so every time train staff came by, he stuck out his hand to say “mas pan, por favor.” I ended up with a pile of bread and then decided I would eat the sugar packets that came with the coffee with my bread as my sustenance for the afternoon. A mound of granulated sugar and bread was horribly unsatisfying and I probably requested a stop at McDonalds as soon as the train got in.
That’s how my first few international trips went. Spain: sugar packets and bread. Italy: pasta bolognese. Greece: Hard Rock Café (twice). I’m fairly sure the Pizza Hut buffet was also a staple of my semester abroad in Scotland (by fairly sure I mean fully certain and any friend from that time would corroborate). Once, many years later, on a work trip to Ogdensburg, New York, I dragged my colleagues to a Pizza Hut that turned out to not even have a buffet anymore. How I successfully convince people to go to Pizza Hut with me all the time remains a mystery of my persuasive powers.
One day…at age 25…someone convinced me to try hummus. It was delicious--who knew? Well, a lot of people knew, just not me because I’d never tried it. It seems it would have fit into the color palette of my acceptable foods, but I was thrown by the main ingredient: the elusive chickpea. What is a chickpea? And why would I eat something made from something called chickpeas?
But there began my venture into the wonderful world of cooking and food. I recently re-visited Rome for the first time since the Pizza Hut era, and this time I sampled artichokes prepared in two different traditional Italian styles, had a seven-course meal at a Michelin starred restaurant overlooking the Colosseum, enjoyed chestnuts roasted on an open fire from a street vendor, and ate all of the cheese and cured meats I could find. Prior to the trip, I researched best dishes and kept a list of the dishes people like Anthony Bourdain and others recommended as a must try – artichokes, porchetta, cacio e pepe pasta.
What I’ve learned from all this exploration is that food—the experience of eating—is much bigger, and more wonderful, than anyone who limits themselves to Pizza Hut could ever guess. And that I really like to eat. A lot. When people ask “oh what are your hobbies?” I usually reply, “does eating count?” My trips now revolve more around local cuisine than museums or other attractions. I cook on my own regularly. And I absolutely love passing the time at wineries and bringing home bottles to enjoy with good company.
So now you know a little about me, and what will follow are my must-sees, must-smells, must-drinks, and must-eats from years of life on the road.