The power of food in travel

01:43, Jun 24 2013

Meals are the building blocks of travel. It's something that LP and I agree deeply on and it makes us very suitable travelling companions.

LP scours newspaper articles, Chowhound message boards and blogs to come up with good restaurant recommendations. It's a much more developed system of research than my Yelp-and-out routine.

It makes for simple travel algebra: choose breakfast or lunch spot in neighbourhood x, dinner spot in neighbourhood y and draw a line between the two points, somewhere in which is the outline of your day.

Certainly, there are times (especially with me) when nature calls and you've just got to eat at the closest available place. Like when we arrived hunger-weary in Napa on Saturday afternoon, a 45-minute drive having taken well over two hours in long weekend traffic.  

My hotel-bought chicken sandwich and fries will be quickly forgotten, but they served a useful purpose.


During our weekend in Napa, I widened my theory about the power of eating and travel. Not only are meals the building blocks of travel, but they also serve as vivid placeholders in our memory of particular moments in time.  

If I want to draw in on some of my crispest travel memories throughout the years, I only need to draw in on the food.

I was thinking about this on Sunday, when LP and I journeyed up from Napa to Calistoga to eat at Solbar. The restaurant was attached to a modest, if chic, hotel and it has a Michelin Star, which LP swears is a huge deal. LP had heard big things about one particular dish (pictured right), the Lucky Pig, which amounted to a pound and a half of slow-cooked pork shoulder, served with a stack of crepes and a bunch of fixings. We took it down in the restaurant's shaded, breezy courtyard, savouring one of the best meals I'm sure I'll eat in a long while with a nice glass of wine.

While I was eating the pig itself I was already reflecting on how much I would remember this scene and by turn the fun, meandering crawl we'd taken through the Napa towns up to Calistoga that morning and probably the one we'd take back too.

It felt pre-emptively vivid, if that makes any sense.     

In the car, I caught myself reflecting on the for-the-ages Reuben I'd had at Kenny and Zuke's in Portland and how the impression that sandwich made on me (I didn't eat for hours after it, which is no easy feat) seemed to set other details around the meal in concrete in my head.

I soon found myself mapping out an edible history of my overseas adventures.

On my first trip to the USA in 2004, which was also my first time travelling alone overseas, I backpacked around California for a month. I was 19, with much less of a taste for the finer joys of life. My culinary expeditions involved scratching off more juvenile curiosities, like making sure I went to all of the fast-food restaurants that we don't have in New Zealand, such as Jack in the Box and Taco Bell.

The memories this jogs, like taking a perverse joy in a morning meal at Hooters before I took the boat to Alcatraz, make me sound a little less awesome in retrospect than I felt at the time. But they're there, nonetheless. And hey, I was 19.   

My next major trip, to Buenos Aires for three weeks in 2007 with my sister Rebecca, was filled with a run of indulgent meals and evenings out as the two of us lived like, well, privileged Western tourists having a ball with the most favourable exchange rate I've ever encountered in any country I've been to, ever. Barbecued meat, often served on its own, dominates Argentine cuisine and the memory of any one of these meals brings with it a host of smaller moments: the time I was mistaken for a Hasidic Jew, epic walks around the city, the wait staff's endless confusion at our attempts at speaking Spanish, how every time we'd be waiting for a dinner invitation from a friend who lived locally it'd come so late we would have almost given up on it.

I thought to escapades from when my friend Jon, LP and I tripped around much of America later in 2007, like the one evening, when we were all tired and tense in Seattle and couldn't agree on a place to eat and when we finally settled on a restaurant, how the tofu dish that Jon (a disciplined vegetarian) ordered came with a surprise dosing of salmon inside it; or the impromptu, drunken, mouth-only tortilla-tossing contest we had in a Mexican restaurant in San Luis Obispo.

My sister and her husband, who live in Sydney, are famous eaters (he runs a successful catering company) and on trips to visit them in 2009 and 2010 there were all-time meals at Sean's Panorama in Sydney and the Spirit House in Brisbane.

My mind even wandered back to Wellington and a couple of fun, slightly boozy evenings with friends Ollie and Lily over a large plate of duck at Peking House on Kent Terrace.  

I could go on for a long time.

I can't remember what I did when on trips to New York in 2010 and 2012, but if I think back to meals at The Spotted Pig in the West Village or Fette Sau in Brooklyn, I can slowly jog my memory.

The memory of each memorable meal carries with it the DNA of a particular trip, the locals, the movement and the mood.

Eating on the road is when we sit down and engage directly with the locals and, by proxy, our own companions.

Are you on board with this idea?

What are some of your favourite food-related travel memories? What made them special? What other memories do they bring out?

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