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Eating Abroad: The Cultural Resonance of Food

Wherever you go, there you are, as the saying goes.

You and a McDonald’s, that is.

We’ve all seen it — a group of Americans traveling abroad, new foodstuffs everywhere you look, and they turn tail into every McDonald’s they see.

While I am adamant that commerce is not necessarily culture, and that a piece of junk from Mexico is no better than a piece of junk from South of the Border in South Carolina, things are a bit different when it comes to eating abroad. Food fully engages two of the five primary senses — taste and smell — and could be said also to arouse touch and sight as well. While I’ll admit that a cheesy trinket appeals to your postmodern irony and fulfills a deep desire for office cubicle artifacts, a giant meal at 11 p.m. in the hills above Porto is another thing entirely.

Changing Your Eating Rhythms

What if a distant cousin from Italy came to your house, and you offered to take him out for Saturday morning pancakes at the local mom and pop pancake joint, the best pancake place within two time zones, and he asked for a shot of espresso and a roll because that’s what he always has at that time of day?

You’d be appalled that he’d miss out on this American feast; nay, let’s call it a cultural touchstone. You might even be offended.

Now, I didn’t disagree with a traveling pal recently that a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder at 11:05 a.m. helped take the edge off a sangria hangover as well or better than the local samplings I found around the block. He knew how to deal with a hangover, and got the job done at the Golden Arches. But to his credit, when we later sat down at 10 p.m. to a massive meal, he was right back on the local meal schedule.

In my own eating rhythms at home, I go big at breakfast and lunch, and eat very lightly at dinner. While this works out nicely in the British Isles, where breakfast is king, this isn’t the case in many other countries worldwide.

In places where the “Continental breakfast” of one ounce of coffee and two ounces of bread reigns (France, Italy, Belgium, as well as Spain and Portugal with a slightly different approach), and the biggest meal of the day takes place at 11 p.m., I’m a bit out of things. How do you get on track? I’ve found the best way to reset your gastronomic clock is to eat a big meal as soon as possible at the time that local custom calls for it.

For example, in my own situation, if I arrive in a country in the afternoon, and eat lightly that night, the next morning I’m starving and need a hearty breakfast. But if on my first night in town I join the locals in a huge meal after dark, I’m not so famished the next morning, and am content to throw back an espresso and roll with the rest of the country.

Try Anything Once?

Many folks say they’ll try anything once. I recently tried one interesting dish twice (actually thrice, as you’ll read later).

On a trip to Spain with a group of people, I was raving about a meal I had nearly 15 years ago when some new friends took me into their home and served the local delicacy — squid cooked in its own ink.

So when we went to a restaurant, I ordered the local delicacy — squid cooked in its own ink.

We were sitting next to a couple waiting for their food. The angular features and striking eyes of the woman at the table reminded me of a Picasso painting: all straight lines, very few curves, round, inquisitive eyes. We were stealing glances when her food was delivered — a pot of dark brown lumps in a thick dark brown sauce.

I’ll admit I stared it. Who would order something that looked so unappetizing? Mimicking someone placing their order, I joked, “Yes, I’d like the pot of filth, please, thank you.” We had a stifled laugh, and that was that.

A few minutes later, the server arrived with our meals, and placed my dish down in front of me.

There was a silence of two beats … then it came. “HAAAAAAAA!!!” My friends were beside themselves with laughter. In front of me sat a steaming “pot of filth in its own sauce,” as it’s now been immortalized.

Of course, I ate the whole thing, even sopped up the filth sauce with bread, and it was superb (though not nearly as good as I remembered it when it was cooked especially for me in her own kitchen by my friend’s mum, a Basque grandmother with a six-generation-old recipe).

Be Ready for Some Real Taste

You may find that even some familiar foods are far more pungent and powerful abroad. For example: Cheese in the United States is processed to the point where one cheese tastes pretty much like another, and pretty much like nothing. Not so around the world — with less aggressive processing, cheese will retain the taste of the dirt that grew the grass that fed the cow that gave the milk that made the cheese.

Be Ready for Unusual Sights

As with the pot of filth I had in San Sebastian, you might be surprised by what your food looks like when it arrives. Strange colors, unusual garnishes, odd textures, heads and tails left on fish — try not to sweat it. Just buckle in and pick up your fork.

Who knows, the look of a Philly cheese steak might turn the stomachs of some visitors to the U.S.

Changing Your Taste Buds

In the extreme, this is tricky, and perhaps not even worth doing — the day I eat a dog I’ll have to be damn hungry going in.

But in most cases, the rewards of forgoing a search for “someone who just sells a bagel, for cripe’s sake” are worth it. Over a few days’ time, you’ll figure out what you like and what you don’t like, and by the time you get home, your own daily breakfast will seem pretty boring.

The Dangers of Going Too Big

I know there are some gastronomic adventurers out there who want to sample everything and anything of the world’s cuisine.

There’s a bit more to the squid story. After the first time I ate squid in its own ink back in the 80’s, I tried to get the same thing at an “authentic” Spanish restaurant in South America a few years later. Although I speak a fair amount of Spanish, the usual language barrier problems applied — especially since I didn’t know the words for “squid” and “ink” off the top of my head. When I had finished ordering, I thought I knew what was coming my way.


When the dish arrived, it was a plate of barely scalded octupi — no sauce, minimal garnish, stiff, off-white, rubbery, quivering on the plate. Ugh. Going against every signal my gut was sending to my brain, I stabbed one, popped it in my mouth and closed down. When it crunched and sprang back against my teeth, I wasn’t having any fun, to put it mildly. In fact, it felt like the octopus was doing everything it could to get back onto my plate.

I didn’t finish that meal, but it still comes up when talking about it.

Even after the octopus tried to climb out of my piehole, I still say go for it — at least you’ll have some stories to tell. But if you’re not the adventurous type, be careful about what you order — jellyfish, for example, might not be your speed.

The Cultural Resonance of Food

I’ve been told that the eating of jellyfish at the start of a meal in some Asian countries is rife with symbolism; the gesture of eating just a small portion of jellyfish acts as a remembrance of leaner times when the population was forced into a subsistence diet of which jellyfish was a staple.

Examples of this type of cultural memory abound in food traditions. The Australian Vegemite is an example of this type of the longevity of an abundant and inexpensive foodstuff. And this is not unheard of in American culture — the Hawaiian love of Spam comes out of the same type of tradition, as does continued regional embracing of scrapple, grits and many other treasured regional staples with a not-so-glorious history.

Do some homework in this regard so not to offend your hosts, and if the time is right, by all means feel free to ask; learning these things is part of what travel is all about, and I’d rather learn by living than by reading an etiquette book.

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