Food is an integral part of travel, not only on a practical level to keep us going, but to enhance camaraderie and experience the hospitality and customs of an area. In every culture, food is associated with celebrations, life passages such as birth or marriage and with social interactions and gatherings from formal to casual.
No matter what country you visit, including your own, there is much to be learned from experiencing regional cuisine. The rural diners of the southern United States feature multi-course breakfasts that include home-made biscuits and gravy, eggs any style, pancakes, bacon or sausage and hot coffee. Traditionally served to farmhands before going into the fields for a hard morning’s work, now the diner patrons are often local farmers who gather to discuss politics, prices of produce and what’s happening around the area.
Some of my most vivid memories of travel center around food: the trays of fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese submerged in whey and brine in neighborhoodalimentari in Rome, the geometrically arranged, colorful displays of fruits and vegetables in street-side stalls throughout India or the array of breads laid out fresh early each morning in bakeries in France.
A home-stay at a farmhouse in southern Italy allowed me to join the women of the village who gather together each August to put up the summer’s crop of tomatoes. Bushels of tomatoes are submerged in huge cauldrons heated on open fires, peeled, packed into jars with olive oil, salt and basil and stored for use for the winter season. I also watched experienced hands produce an assortment of fresh pasta that we were served for lunch soon after it was made. The family gathered around the large wooden table to eat a multi-course lunch, the main meal of the day, then took a siesta to escape the heat of the summer afternoon.
In south India, feasts are served to celebrate auspicious days. Cooks stay up all night to prepare as many as 40 individual dishes that include an assortment of pickles, rice, lentils, vegetables curries, sweets, fiery-hot drinks and mouth-cooling beverages. The fare is served on a banana leaf, and each item has a particular spot where it must be placed. Although hired help serves large public feasts, in a private home it is often the host himself, who considers it his honor and duty to make sure his guests are properly cared for.
In many European countries, particularly Italy and France, each region produces its own wine. In Italy, each village has a local variety usually not found for sale outside the area. Some tour operators offer food and wine tours of specific regions and countries. Some include cooking lessons in a chef’s kitchen to learn about local ingredients and methods of cooking. Others include visits to vineyards and wineries to learn about and sample regional wines.
Whether you travel with old friends or make new ones along the way, a journey becomes alive and memorable when food and drink are shared with those we care about. Through travel, we experience the way foods are integrated into both daily activities and important functions. Sharing both the casual and the extraordinary events binds us to one another. Shopping for, preparing and eating food with those we esteem results in memories and associations long remembered and treasured.