You never forget your first time. Furtive and fumbling, painful or sometimes (should we even admit this?) disappointing, that experience gets seared on your brain like grill marks on a prime steak.
The memory is absorbed by every cell in the body and replayed throughout your lifetime just when you need to be reminded how great it is to not be groping your way through high school anymore, even as social media makes life seem a perpetual school dance and you’re the least popular kid in the weirdly decorated gym. A song plays on the radio, a scent gets carried on the breeze, and you’re transported out of a lousy day, back in time to that sensual moment: your first time.
Dude, eyes up here. I’m speaking about food.
A reveler in all things edible (well, most things anyway) I’ve had some first-rate first times. Like any avid traveler, the food (and beverages!) I’ve consumed while roaming the world top my list of first times. Food is one of the best, most spectacular things about travel. People (including me) claim other awesome reasons to hop on a plane or ship of course: history, culture, people, blah blah blah. But food gloriously combines all of those into one delicious bite-sized memory that can last you a lifetime. Eating and drinking take on layers of meaning when you’re traveling. Meals are stranger and more festive. Food connects you with a culture, even when you skulk into a McDonald’s in Istanbul, claiming you’re only there to try the lamb burger.
What other experiences in life whisk all of your senses into a single vivid memory to savor again later?
Case in point:
Quiz me. Ask any question you want about Chartres cathedral, which I last visited in November, 1991. I’d work flying buttresses and maybe French Gothic into the answer because, despite spending an entire day with an English historian in one of the world’s best preserved cathedrals, that’s pretty much all I remember. Malcolm Miller’s hour-plus-long tour was smart and funny, filling my brain with all sorts of cool facts and behind-the-scenes medieval gossip they don’t put in the brochure. As fabulous as Chartres and Malcolm were, the details are fuzzy.
Now ask me what I ate for dinner that day in 1991. No Wikipedia needed, my recall is perfect. I can smell the spicy jambalaya with sizzling, garlicky saucisson à l’ail cooked on the tiny stove of our VW camper van, washed down with a bottle of apple-scented calvados picked up in Normandy. Rays of the early evening’s sunset reflected off the jam jars we drank from as we toasted those 13th century stonemasons and their flying buttresses. Just add food to any activity and my ability to remember increases. Thanks to the interwebs and my old travel journal I can remind myself about Chartres any time I want to, but those sources lack the visceral punch of my food-based memories. If only Malcolm Miller had served snacks.
I’ve been a late bloomer about a few things in life: the appreciation of puns, and learning to drive a motorcycle. I did not bloom late where food is concerned. Food memories go back further than my high school dance miseries: my grandmother’s pucker-inducing lemon meringue pie, my mom’s spaghetti sauce—homegrown tomatoes simmered for hours—warming a cold Minnesota evening, and the soft serve ice cream my dad and I shared that spring afternoon I was suspended from school in 5th grade for slamming the spine of my Social Studies book into the nose of a boy who sat next to me. (Note to boys who tease girls: think twice when she’s holding a hardcover. Note to girls: noses bleed a lot and break easier than you might think. Note to Mike: sorry about your nose. Note to Dad: thanks for not telling Mom.)
If you’re the kind of person who arrives in a new place armed with a vocabulary involving mostly words about eating, and barely clears customs and immigration before asking, “Where should we eat?” you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. Food rocks your travel world.
Recently I endured a month-long food experiment. I voluntarily renounced sugar, sweeteners, grains, dairy products and alcohol. The stuff that makes life worth living. Normally I would not participate in these sorts of abstemious shenanigans but to be honest, I’d been overdoing the food and alcohol activities—friends in town, a family wedding, trips centered around eating and drinking (naturally)—for months. I’d left my self-control in the hip pocket of my other (smaller sized) pants and needed to find it.
What I learned from my experiment are the facts of life:
- I’m happier when I begin my day with a cappuccino and end it with a glass of red wine.
- Other people are happier when I begin my day with a cappuccino and end it with a glass of red wine.
In the end, I lost a few pounds and gained a new appreciation for my food memories. So I made a list of some favorite times when I went all the way with food (and drinks.)
Here are 5 of my First Time food seductions:
#1 The Fumbling in the Dark (How Does This Work?) First Time:
So many street foods, so little time. This first goes to eating phô bo on a backstreet in Saigon-Ho Chi Minh City moments after dumping our bags in a rented room and diving out onto streets teeming with bicycles and autos, rickshaws and motorbikes, plus thousands of scurrying people.
On a passably quiet lane just after dusk we found an elderly woman, wearing a conical Vietnamese leaf hat—the nón lá,—sitting just off the ground on a three-legged stool, stirring her pot of phô with a come-hither look. I pointed to the pot, she pointed to a couple of extra wood stools squeezed between a concrete building and the legs of workers rushing home. Juggling chopsticks, a bowl of hot broth, and cultural etiquette while squatting with my knees crushed to my boobs, I slurped noodles, beef, and bean sprouts, and fumbled my way to ecstasy. Lesson: Ignore whiners who warn you to avoid street foods. Combine street food with travel and you’ll never forget it. You’ll be able to reproduce your favorites when you get back home. Also, practice yoga in case you need to squat on a stool eating dinner during a Vietnam rush hour.
#2 The Furtive, I Hope No One Can See Us (and Can I Get This to Go?) First Time:
I’m not a complete barbarian; I observe cultural norms on my journeys and read a lot before heading out on a trip so I don’t end up being culturally incompetent out of ignorance. While traveling in mostly Muslim Morocco during Ramadan, Brian and I thought we should be respectful of the tradition which dictates Muslims ingest no food or drink from sunrise to sunset. Since Muslim travelers get a bit of a pass on the rules themselves, we knew that we could eat and drink in moderation and not offend anyone. It was often difficult to find a café or restaurant open during daylight hours during Ramadan, but when we came across one we’d sit in the back so that our plates of tajine and couscous wouldn’t tempt passersby.
As for beverages, the water available to us at public wells and cafés was chlorinated to roughly the equivalent of a YMCA swimming pool, so we drank that in moderation. What’s a traveler to do? Search for beer or wine with all the enthusiasm we could muster, which is considerable. The problem was that in 1992 beer and wine were difficult to find in Moroccan towns. While not technically a dry society, public markets did not sell alcohol. Some hotels would serve alcohol and instruct guests to drink privately in their rooms, but we were traveling in our VW van, camping on beaches and in oases, so the hotel option wasn’t open to us. It wasn’t until we chose to stay for a few days at an official campground near the capital city of Rabat that we discovered a tried and true source of alcoholic beverages: campground shops. The logic is this: only visitors (predominantly non-Muslims) stay in campgrounds, these visitors like to drink, and they will spend money to do it. Voila! The market economy wins. As do the happy campers.
We soon noticed a steady stream of djellaba-wearing Moroccan men enter the campground shop and exit moments later, slipping a single bottle into their robe’s side pocket. It turns out that Moroccans occasionally like to have beer or wine after work (or play) too. Often, a guy would take his newly purchased liquor, walk over to the 10-foot wall surrounding the campground, stand with his nose 12 inches from the wall and drain his bottle before quietly departing for home. We never observed this ritual during Ramadan, mind you, but it did give us an idea.
From then on, we worked a campground stay into our Moroccan sojourn every few nights. We had a solid supply of beer (palatable) and wine (pretty awful) that we drank furtively under cover of darkness or in our van. My sources tell me that wine production in Morocco has vastly improved since those days with French investment and expertise, and, although public consumption of alcohol is still frowned upon, visitors no longer have to hide behind the confines of those campground walls, covertly drinking their hooch.
# 3 The Sensual, Holy Moly, I Just Figured Out What to do With My Life First Time:
This one was a toss-up between the ripest of mangoes in the British Virgin Islands and the richest, most thrilla in vanilla ice cream I ever ate, in Cartagena, Colombia. The luscious mango memory eclipses those annoying high school flashbacks, which makes it the winner in my first time book.
I ate my first mango standing knee-deep in the Caribbean sea under a cloudless, sun-smooched, spring afternoon at the Baths, Virgin Gorda, BVI. A local kid, about 10 years old, heard me tell my friend that I’d never eaten a mango, so he just shinnied up a tree at the edge of the beach and picked one for me. The kid tossed it to his older brother, who unsheathed a knife, sliced one side off the mango, cut a grid pattern of perfect bites into the flesh, flipped it so the inside was now the convexly curved outside, and served it to me on his outstretched palm.
With his knife, he pointed to the water crashing against the beach. Half a mango in my hand, I walked thigh deep into the ocean and began to eat. The taste: as if the ripest peach had had relations with a pineapple in a soft rain on the day the sun was born. Juice exploded with every bite, dribbling down my chin and snaking down a forearm. What my tongue couldn’t capture slipped into the sea. Afterward, I swam among the giant boulders and decided to live in the Caribbean. Forever. Forever lasted more than a decade, which for me is the same thing. Springtime will always mean mango-time.
#4 The Painful, Come On Curry Make it Hurt so Good First Time:
Late autumn in England means rain. Englishmen and women devised a brilliant solution for coping with those wet, cold blocks of time that stretch endlessly before a traveler exploring the sea ports and villages of Dorset wearing soggy shoes and chafing trousers while holding a collapsed umbrella: the pub. Bless their hearts. English pubs are best appreciated when the weather outside is crap and your mood needs brightening.
The ideal, wicked-good pubs have a cozy fire in the hearth and a dog curled up in a corner. Nobody pays you any mind no matter how waterlogged you appear as you squish your way to a bar stool. The publican welcomes you, takes his sweet time pulling your porter, and says the special of the day is Burmese curry. He strikes you as a decent sort so you answer, “Sounds lovely. I’ll have that, then.”
Here’s my take on spicy foods: I’ve got a passion for them, but they also need to taste great, not simply singe the hair in my nostrils. Hot pepper-eating contests sound like fun until you end up in a foreign hospital with a hole burned through your stomach, trying in vain to reach your insurance company.
The Burmese curry one afternoon in Bridport was tasty; rich with flavors of ginger, turmeric, cumin and roasted pork. Those first few bites were heaven. I began to warm up on the inside from the curry and on the outside from the pub’s fireplace.
’Twas then I realized that I was going to die in that wee Dorset pub.
The gentle warmth of my curry became magma in my belly. The kind of magma that makes up lava. The kind that can kill you dead. And here’s the thing: I could not stop eating; it was just too good. That Burmese curry might be one of the finest lunches I have ever eaten in a pub and it was also one of the most painful. I didn’t exactly finish my meal, I survived it.
#5: The When is a Non-virgin Still a Virgin? First Time:
We all have a soft spot for a special food; a seasonal one that we pine for as wait for it to come around on the calendar again. We nearly forget about it as the months roll by. We’re unfaithful during the rest of the year, playing around with frozen or canned versions or philanderer’s forgeries we use to fill the emptiness, but those pale in comparison to the object of our desire.
For some people, it’s the release (at the stroke of midnight on the third Thursday in November) of Beaujolais Nouveau. Others wait in line for pumpkin spice latte.
For me, it’s biting into that lightly peppered, barely buttery, first-of-the-season ear of sweet corn. I feel the flesh of virginal, lightly steamed kernels give way to front teeth designed for that very act, hear its delicate crunch, and taste a burst of sweetness made from sunshine and farmer magic. Every year, it’s as if I’ve never before had corn in my damned life.
Seriously, I could on for days with food first times. Cafécito in Habana Vieja, goat rôti in Tortola, paté in the south of France, buss-up-shut in Trinidad, imam biyaldi in Istanbul. Instead, I’ll just run and grab a barbacoa taco at an Austin food truck and soak up the sunshine.
Got a food or drink first time of your own?
Share them in a comment below or on Steal Just One Day’s FB page, or tweet them with the hashtag #foodfirsttime and tag me: @stealjustoneday.