Noteworthy Meals of 2016: Part 1
Food as Source of Social Change and the Importance of Complaining
For a travel writer, there are a surprising number of travel-related things I’m terrible at—foreign languages, reading maps, relaxing on beaches, and enduring other tourists. But I know how to do one thing exceptionally well: eat. I not only eat well, I’m a pretty good cook. Most important, I know how to identify good food. Eating has become the single most important part of my life over the years and it’s one of joys that’s gotten me through the dark days of 2016.
Food has the power and capacity to help people better understand foreign cultures. Do you love Trump’s idea of a Mexican-American wall, but you still love tacos and margaritas? Think about that for a minute. A love of a nation’s food is the entryway to understanding its people. It’s a portal to compassion and empathy.
Back in the late 1980s when I was 17, I remember going to my first Thai restaurant in Daytona Beach, Florida, close to where I grew up. It was called Songkran and it occupied a shuttered Taco Bell with its trademark quasi Mission architecture and neo-colonial arches. But inside were fountains strewn with Buddhas, potted bamboo, portraits of the Thai King, and walls painted saffron.
Unlike many of my American friends who grew up eating meatloaf and mac ‘n’cheese, we ate relatively well at home because my father was a former chef and culinary school graduate while my mom was a health food nut. But we ate like WASPY New England transplants with a very limited range of Franco-Anglo flavors—fish sautéed in butter, steaks and roast beefs, chowder, chicken, and the occasional Italian dish. Our spice game was weak. A tin of paprika circa 1976 lasted my entire childhood. We ate out a lot too, and by age 15 I was pretty familiar with Mexican, Chinese, Greek, Japanese, Swiss, German and Indian food, but those cuisines were definitely not prepared on the avocado Kenmore range back at 70 Alberta Avenue in Ponce Inlet where we lived. Once for Christmas in 1989, we ditched our normal chowder tradition for stuffed shells (pasta shells filled with ricotta and topped with marinara sauce) thinking we were renegades encountering the exotic!
My Jewish/Puerto Rican friend Alicia was a much more adventurous eater, and had a real love of Mexican, Hungarian, and several other cuisines that never made it to the Graham kitchen. When we were old enough to drive, Alicia suggested we go to Songkran, and my first whiff of Thai food was a revelation. A Thai iced tea—perfect for the humid Florida climate—kicked it all off. The woody flavor of the tea combined with the sweet richness of condensed milk was a wake up call to my WASPY western palette. Next came a papaya salad—tangy, slender and tender slices of sweet and spicy all at once. I’d tasted fresh papaya growing in my neighbors’ gardens, but never imagined it like this. The salad was followed by a pot of fragrant Tom Yum Gum, with the heady scent of lemongrass, kaffir lime and galangal and bolstered with delicious knotty nuggets of shrimp to absorb the chili’s heat. And finally, a beef green curry, the most complex of Thai dishes, with more lime and galangal, but also flecks of green chilis, shallots, basil, cilantro and a symphony of earthy flavors I’d never imagined. Bursts of lime paired with the creaminess of the coconut milk, laced with the heat of the chili, and contrasted by the unctuousness and leathery strips of beef was so different from anything I’d ever encountered. All of it was ladled atop a bed of fragrant Jasmine rice. Green curry was profoundly intoxicating to me and remains a favorite to this day.
The Grahams were not at all a racist or hateful family. We were quite liberal and very tolerant. Unlike some of my friends, we were not religious at all so we were especially open to all cultures and religions (until we were judged by them.) We had close Italian, Swedish, Korean, Costa Rican, Puerto Rican, and Greek friends. They were Catholic, Jewish, Hindu and Baptist. Still, as a white family we subconsciously valued Western European foods and cultures more than Eastern, African, or Latin ones. We ate Chinese and Japanese food occasionally, but as a kid I had zero desire to actually go to Asia, a sentiment my parents—who had only traveled to Europe—shared.
After Songkran, a tiny curiosity for Thailand began to grow inside of me. My meal there gave me new talking points and discussion material for a foreign country. I began to look it up in my worn atlas. I became interested in its royal history, its mountains and islands and its religions and customs. I began to see Thailand as a three dimensional place. That curiosity blossomed and eventually took me to Thailand, ironically enough with Alicia multiple times. I didn’t realize it then, but Songkran helped me love Thailand. Food transformed the way I felt about a place, about the world.
As we enter 2017, I’m reminded of the importance of food and its capacity to make us grow and evolve. It’s important to remember, while we begin our descent into the long dark tunnel of 2017, that prejudice is not always overt. Sometimes its dormant and is quietly passed down from generation to generation without it ever once being discussed or even realized. Sometimes, silence is more damaging than hate. I hope in 2017, more Americans can open their hearts and minds via their stomachs.
The flip side of this story is something else I’m reminded of. As an immigrant living in another country, I often hear the phrase, “If you don’t like things here, leave.” It’s such a nasty notion and one too easily uttered by folks who feel defensive of their homeland. The not-so-subtle message of this is that if you move to another country (or even another region within the same country), you must be eternally grateful. Complaining is for locals only. But complaining, or kvetching as New Yorkers are fond of calling it, is not only important, it’s vital. Without complaints, the world would be a boring place and Americans would be eating meatloaf and McDonalds, not green curry and papaya salad, and Europeans wouldn’t have coffee, pasta, chocolate, tomatoes or potatoes—all foods that come from other parts of the world. Complaining has helped us discover new foods. It helps us evolve as cultures. It pushes us to change and grow. So I want to remind all expats and immigrants that you should never stop complaining! It’s important that the world not only tolerate different perspectives, but help find solutions too.
En Guete, Bon App, and Itadakimas!