Culture / Food / Travel

The persistence of (food) memory

Whenever I want to take a trip back to my roots, I think about my grandmother’s kitchen. I inherited a dog-eared cookbook from her; it’s got Cajun recipes galore and looks pretty good; however, I doubt she used it. Not even once. Someone probably gave it to her. She cooked from memory mostly, or from scribbled notes on little recipe cards. My mind can still find a comfy place that evokes the memories I have of eating with Grandma. I can thank her for my coffee addiction. An honestly won habit earned by hundreds of sweet cups of coffee milk – a seemingly forbidden elixir to my young self. But the bigger point is that my grandmother taught me about her food culture by sharing it and that tradition is universal.

Food is the great connector, bringing people together. Breaking bread is the ultimate communion and signifier that we can share something that is pleasurable. But you knew this. We all do. I’ve been staying in hotels in Europe for several weeks now and  without exception, we are offered a full breakfast, often including fried eggs with iridescent orange yellow yolks. Much more “real” looking than many US eggs and besides: not powdered eggs at a hotel buffet. Winning.

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If you came to Detroit, where I now live, I would not let you leave without experiencing the following tastes: a Coney dog from Lafayette Coney, something baked along with coffee from Astro Coffee or Great Lakes Coffee, a cocktail at the Sugar House, an interesting salad at the Traffic Jam and Snug, yam fries at Seva, tea at Socratea… I could go on, but then you’d be too hungry.

Food means hospitality and we’ve experienced that beyond any measure on our trip.

Let’s take a brisk journey of tastes through the cultures I’ve experienced to date on my Marshall Memorial Fellowship. I have eaten mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly when in southern and eastern Europe. More cake and fried foods in northern Europe. All delicious and not a lot of processed anything. Mostly local. Grandma would approve.

In Brussels, there are five tastes: beer, fries, mussels, chocolate and waffles.

But Belgium will always now be to me about bananas arriving in the port of Antwerp and being unloaded in the Banana terminal and then taken via train or truck throughout the “blue banana” logistics region of Europe.

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Lübeck is all about the marzipan and the fresh local fruits and vegetables like white asparagus and fish caught from the Baltic Sea. Germany is also to me about sweetness and sharing cake. The generous offerings of people who have much to give and who freely share all they have. Really. I found Germany to be superbly hospitable with top-notch food, beer and wine, but mainly: sweets.

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Thessaloniki is known for its mezedes, small plates of delectable morsels that include octopus, tomato balls, greek salad with Cretan bread (croutons!), and more.  If you walk through downtown Thessaloniki at night, you can’t help but smell meat cooking, people smoking. Young Thessalonikans sit at outdoor cafes and talk and talk and talk over endless cups of caffe frappe (nescafe whipped with ice and sweetened to taste). Caffe frappe is bitter but it does the job. If you’re feeling more refined, ask for an espresso fredo for real coffee on ice.

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Skopje also follows the small plate approach with ripe salads bursting with flavor and color composed of tomatoes, peppers, onions, parsley.  Ayvar is a red pepper spread that I’ve fallen for… hard. Skopje has a serious café culture, too. But mainly, imagine the smell of tomatoes in summer; the good kind. They will guide you where you need to go. The entrees are almost unnecessary after a nice round of salads here in Skopje. Tonight we toured, tasted and ate at  a very modern winery. We tried two white varietals and two red kinds. My favorite, the Vranec Veritas, resembled a jammy but mature Oregon red wine, but different.

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We head to Warsaw next and I can only dream of what tastes await me there. Will there be cherries, something with beets, delicate crepes with sour cream, cabbage and potatoes?

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3 thoughts on “The persistence of (food) memory

  1. We are so going for yam fries when you get back. Great food and reminds me of my grandpa’s acre of sweet potatoes, because he knew I liked them. Love reading your posts at the end of the day.

  2. One kid in my high-school youth group once asked a family with one of those -ski names what Polish food consisted of. They said it was mostly meats. When he asked “What’s for dessert?” the other guy said, “Antacids and prune juice.” Quite sure they have more than just those two though.

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