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The Most Memorable Thing I Ever Ate

December 11, 2011

Fresh vegetable stand in Granada, Spain

I like food.

I know that seems like a ridiculous statement that is almost as obvious as, “I really enjoy breathing” or “You know what I like, having my heart continue to beat.”  But I really like food, and not just in a staying alive sort of way.  I love trying new foods.  I love exploring new recipes.  I love experiencing something unusual or different.

Even before we started Minooka TAP and began exploring the world, I enjoyed traveling.  I was lucky enough to travel all over the United States, and way before shows like Man vs Food and Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives I did my best to find the best food in each city I visited.  Now I’m not talking about some fancy restaurant with white table clothes and snooty waiters and gazillion dollar steaks – I’m talking about the really good food.

About twelve years ago I worked with a guy who had lived his whole life in New York.  One afternoon we went to Portillo’s for lunch, and he told me that he’d never had an Italian beef sandwich before.  I never knew that Italian beef was something you could only get around Chicagoland.  Of course Chicago style pizza and Chicago style hot dogs were ours, but Italian beef – didn’t that belong to… well… the Italians?  It turns out, nope.  It was invented here, and isn’t easy to get anywhere outside of Chicagoland.  It then became my mission to find the “Italian beef” in every place that I visit.  Now, I don’t mean actually find their Italian beef since they don’t have it, but find that awesome local taste treat everywhere I went.  I was Guy Fieri before Guy Fieri – only I didn’t have the spikey blond hair and ridiculous jokes… wait a second… Hey, I think Guy owes me some credit here.

That summer I started traveling the U.S. to eat, and in the next few years I had New York pizza and deli sandwiches, Memphis barbeque, fried ravioli in St. Louis, and pork tenderloin sandwiches in Indiana.  I had a sandwich called a Hot Brown in Louisville, chocolatey chilli in Cincinnati, and stopped at a place called Primanti Brothers to have a fantastic ham, coleslaw, and french fry sandwich in Pittsburgh.  Avoiding the McDonald’s, Chili’s, and Pizza Huts that a lot of travelers stop at just added a whole new dimension to my travels.

So, when we started traveling the globe with TAP, one of the first rule we made was to avoid all those standard American chain restaurants (yes, you’ll see McDonald’s everywhere you go) and experience the real food.  Of course, sometimes we have to step outside our comfort zones and try something different, unusual, or just plain weird, but sometime you wind up with something incredible.  I thought I’d take the time today to share the most memorable thing I’ve eaten on each of our trips. 

Germany 2007
The first thing that pops into my head when I think of food from our Germany trip was a bratwurst I bought from a little stand in the middle of a marketplace in Nuremberg.  We had a ton of stuff to see that day, so we wanted to grab a quick bite that we could eat while we walked across town to Nuremberg Castle, so we all lined up to buy lunch from a small booth that was filled with long chains of linked sausages hanging from the ceiling.  We’d heard that bratwurst was the local specialty, but there were a few varieties to choose from, so I chose my lunch by pointing at what I thought was the coolest looking German word on the menu.  What I wound up with was a sausage as big as my forearm, stuffed inside of this gigantic pretzel, topped with spicy brown mustard.  It was unbelievably good, immediately rocketing to the Top 10 of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had.  We walked across the entire city to get to the castle, and I was eating that thing the whole way, and since the guards at the castle wouldn’t let me bring food inside, I had to split the rest of it with some of the kids.

Greece 2008
The food in Greece has actually been my favorite of all the trips we’ve taken.  Gyros here at home is one of my favorites, but it’s actually nothing like the stuff you get over there.  Real Greek gyros was so good, so cheap, and so fast to get that the boys in our group had contests to see who could eat the most gyros in one day.  Souvlaki was just as good – marinated cubes of meat, grilled up, and served on a pita. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm.  However, the most unusual food experience I had in Greece was the moussaka.  Our tour guide told me that moussaka was like Greek lasagna.  Since I’d loved all the Greek food I’d had up to that point, and I like lasagna, I figured I’d found heaven.  I did not.

Moussaka was the weirdest combination of textures I’ve ever encountered, and maybe it was just a bad restaurant, but that stuff was nasty.  I can’t remember all of the ingredients, but I distinctly remember layers of beef, potatoes, egglplant, and custard – and, everything was some shade of brown.  There was creamy beige stuff, chewy dark brown stuff, slimy cream colored stuff, crunchy chestnut colored stuff.  I tried, I really did, but I only made it through about a quarter of the plate before I had to give up. That night, I wandered about a block from our hotel and found a gyros stand – after that, all was good.

Italy 2009
The most shocking thing I can say about Italian food in Italy is that it’s not that good.  I had some pasta and marinara.  That was okay.  I had a lot of pizza.  That was okay.  I had a whole bunch of sandwiches made from Italian meats like salami and about eighteen different varieties of ham.  They were okay.
However, when we got to Florence, my view of Italian food changed.  We sat down for lunch in this little sidewalk cafe a few blocks off the main street in town, and noticed there was nothing like the stuff we’ve come to think of as “Italian.”  No red sauces, no pastas, no pizzas, nothing that Chef Boyardee had ever added an O to the end of and shoved in a can.  Instead, the world’s friendliest restaurant owner explained to me that the region we were in was called Tuscany, and they’re know for roast pork.
He brought me this enormous place of perfectly seasoned, juicy slices of pork tenderloin, served with these crispy roasted potatoes and bright green peas.  The pork and the potatoes were delicious, but what’s stuck with me is the peas.  These peas were bright green and easily twice the size of any pea I’ve seen back home.  They had a buttery taste, with a little garlic and salt, and when you bit into the pea, it was actually like tiny balloons of flavor popping your mouth.  I’ve never been a huge fan of peas, but to this day, I dream about those ones.  I’m all about trying new things when we travel, but that meal was so good that we ate at that restaurant three days in a row.

Ireland 2010
Irish food was the classic “just like mom makes” kind of food.  Hearty meals of meat, potatoes, vegetables, and more potatoes that filled you up and kept you warm.  It wasn’t uncommon to have two different kinds of potatoes on your plate, and one time we had stew with diced potatoes in it, and a scoop of mashed potatoes dropped right in the middle of the bowl.  As weird as that was, what really had us scratching our heads in Ireland was the soups.
Every single dinner in Ireland started with a bowl of soup. Never a salad, always soup.  And that’s okay with me, because I love soup, but I could not tell you what a single one of those soups were.  There was never a single identifying characteristic in any of the bowls.  Instead, what you got every time was a bowl of thick broth of various colors.  Once there was a dark green broth, as thick as gravy.  Once it was orange.  Once it was a brownish yellow.  It always tasted good, but it seemed that every soup they made was pureed in a blender before service.  There were no chunks of vegetables, just a hot colorful sludge.  A lot of people were complaining about the soups, but I actually liked them.  What I really enjoyed was trying to guess, just by the taste and color, what vegetable they made that day’s sludge/soup out of.

Spain 2011
I’ve already written about the best cookies in the history of the universe that we had while in Portugal, and those were certainly memorable, but the most unique food experience we had during our 2011 trip to Spain and Portugal wasn’t in a restaurant.  In fact, it was in a parking lot.
On the third day of our trip, we were traveling from Lisbon to Evora, and the bus stopped to fill up at a rest area alongside the highway.  No, this isn’t going to be about chips, candy, or even a hot dog from the gas station.  The most memorable thing I ate in Portugal was something our tour guide, Juanito, found in the parking lot.
No, Juanito didn’t scrounge up some discarded food off the asphalt for me to eat, instead, he did what Juanito did at every stop, every single day of our tour.  He found a learning experience or something entirely unique everywhere we went, even a gas station.
While the rest of us stood in line to buy weird flavored chips or unusual candy bars, Juanito wandered over to the other side of the parking lot where he’d spotted some wild cactus.  Borrowing my knife, he cut a pad off of one of the plants and began removing the skin and spikes.  What was left was a crisp, wet inside.  Juanito called each of us over as we left the convenience store, explaining to us that in his survival courses (that he took when he was part of the French Foreign Legion), he was shown how to take a part a cactus and get the food (and more importantly, water) from the plant.
Each one of us had a chance to try a bite or two, and it was surprisingly good.  It had a fresh taste, like a cross between raw green pepper and cucumber, that made me wonder why we don’t eat more cacti.  I guess the spikes and all the work involved in cutting it apart make it more trouble than it’s worth, but, thanks to Juanito, I had probably the most memorable food experience in TAP history.

What does the future hold?  Japan is certainly going to be interesting.  They’ve got corn flavored Kit Kat bars, purple sweet potato ice cream, and something called black eggs that even Sam I Am didn’t try.  England, with all the influences from India and their other colonies, is going to have some food adventures too.  I’m looking forward to every one of them.

What’s the most memorable thing you’ve ever eaten while traveling?

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