More than the rush of excitement that greets us when we near a port, more than the thrill of sitting in a winged torpedo on the tarmac waiting for clearance, more than a sunrise on the horizon that signals another day in another place — what surpasses all of that, in my mind, is the variety of food that traveling allows us to experience.
The colors and flavors of foreign treats — whether a great meal, an after dinner “digestif,” or a perfect little chocolate on the pillow — these are the pieces of the travel experience that are hard to duplicate at home. The thrill of a new taste in an unfamiliar place is hard to describe. If you’re traveling close to home, it’s really no different. Keep your eyes open for the unexpected — we have discovered some of the best food in the unlikeliest of places — sublime fried catfish at a general store in back road Arkansas, for instance, an unforgettable steak dinner at an aging saloon in Ingomar, Montana, for instance, and the best fried green tomatoes ever at a ramshackle marina in the Florida Keys.
And, one lucky summer, an absolutely wonderful lobster roll at, believe it or not, a McDonald’s in a small Maine village. The only thing better than the taste was the price!
Traveling lifts us out of our ordinary existence into a realm of wonder that we want to repeat again and again. The cities, the food, the people, the monuments and the history, the natural beauty of different locales, the promise that no matter how many times we return to the same place, each experience will be different — that’s why we travel.
But, when we travel, the simple acts of sampling unique foods and sharing distinctive experiences with fellow travelers and with strangers destined to become newfound friends is an immense pleasure. Yes, we enjoy visiting renowned restaurants and seeking out special taste treats from unique cultures. “Peasant food,” however, the everyday fare of real people in diverse destinations, is what truly draws us, as do street fairs, farmers markets, food trucks. and Ma and Pa eateries.
People, of course, are always a part of the best food experiences, whether we’re ordering something from a food cart or a market stall, or struggling to make sense of a menu in a foreign language. We have perfected the art of pointing with a questioning expression — it always works! Being just a bit unsure of what it is we have ordered is truly part of the fun. And we have found locals typically quick to help translate and interpret.
Another aspect of the fun, for me at least, is my attempt to recreate some of the dishes we have enjoyed on our journeys once we return home. On a trip through Portugal in 2019, I was enamored of that country’s tomato soup in all its regional variations. I discovered an infinite variety of great tomato-based broth during our three weeks there. From the coasts to the cork forests, and from north to south, Soup de Tomate is a Portuguese staple on nearly every menu. It can be a hearty, filling stew with sausage and beans or a richly-flavored broth topped with poached eggs.
Other versions range from a nicely-spicy dish of seafood and rice to a simple, creamed tomato puree served as a starter course for a family dinner. Made with fresh, flavorful tomatoes, the various tomato soups were always tasty, filling and uniquely satisfying. Accompanied by crusty bread, cheese and olives, those meals were often “write home about” memorable. I asked for recipes whenever it was possible, and I am still trying to decide which is my personal favorite!
Global versions of “fast food” have their own kind of appeal — not the golden arches sameness or “choose your own filling” sandwich shops that Americans seem to favor — but the traditional, quick and easy street foods that sustain busy people throughout the world. One can get a slice of pizza, an empanada, a taco, a burrito, an egg roll, or a gyro in great cities around the globe; roasted corn, hot roasted chestnuts or fries with unique dipping sauces in European capitals and isolated villages. Ice cream, gelato and fruit smoothies are staples at casual stands and walk-up windows in warm climates, and open-face sandwiches and pastries are almost magically available from a world-class airport to an isolated beach along the Mediterranean. Food is a universal need, as well as a treat that brings people together to experience the joys of life.
So, I hope to lure you into the habit of sampling local fare wherever you may roam. It takes little effort to seek out distinctive food experiences, whether you’re in a world capital, visiting a charming small town, or traveling a country lane. Usually, these delightful destinations have no neon signs. Instead, a hand-written menu on a chalkboard may offer the only clue to treasures that lie within. Put aside the guidebooks and pay little heed to online reviews.
Peek through the windows of a diner, or step inside a tiny bistro. If seats are full, and people are smiling, join the crowd. On a road trip, we often pull into the parking lot of a local diner filled with local pickups and a smattering of 18-wheelers. Eagerly embrace your personal spirit of adventure, and you’ll likely reap the rewards of good, wholesome food served with a smile.
In the same way, wherever you may live, pay special attention to the push-cart vendors, the food trucks and the out-of-the-way lunch counters and snack bars. You may not always be delighted. There’s no guarantee.
But, if nothing else, you’re likely to have great stories to tell. And the best travel souvenirs, by far, are the stories you can repeat over and over again.