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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Meals Ready to Eat

Breaking bread has long been a traditional way of celebrating friendships and family. So it stands to reason that it’s also a dynamite way of learning about cultures and truly immersing yourself in a place when traveling there.

A weekend or so ago we had our friends Mark and Karen in town, who were passing through while catching a cruise ship from Long Beach down to Mexico. We spent our day together driving down the coastline to Laguna Beach – tasting and shopping our way through each of the coastal towns as we wended along the Pacific Coast Highway.

What has this got to do with breaking bread? Along the way we stopped at several places and shared generally excellent meal – but the capper was a simply terrific dinner at Café Piccolo here in Long Beach. It’s one of our favorite restaurants, and certainly a great place to take out-of-towners on their way through. This is the value of the place -- it's a wonderful spot to connect with friends (or loved ones) and spend a beautiful evening among favored company, excellent food, and a warm and comfortable ambience. Precisely what should be the best example in any town you visit. Mark described it best when he named the meal (and conversation) as one of the ten best in his lifetime -- a sentiment with which I heartily agree.

The point of all this? Mark and Karen’s visit reminds me of what I believe to be two fundamental goals for any traveler: 1) Learn about a place. Get IN there! Don’t just pass through and whisper “ooh pretty” as you stare at the Grand Canyon from the windows of your tour bus. Get your hands dirty, your feet wet. (Metaphorically, that is. I don’t want to be responsible for any epidemics out there). And 2)  Food is one of the best ways to learn about a culture. THAT is the purpose of traveling, in my opinion. Food can tell us an amazing story about the local environs, the history, the culture, and the values of that society. Taking the time to sit, eat and enjoy is a basic right of the traveler. (Even for those making the trip for business. I am saddened by the number of businesspeople who travel for their companies and feel they don't have the time to explore each new destination. It's a loss, for their minds as well as their souls.)

Looking back on all of the journeys I’ve made, which by now number in the hundreds, food plays a major role. It seems to be a terrific guidepost to formulating those things we can recall later. It’s not really surprising, in that eating appeals to more than just one or two senses. There are the aromas and tastes. The look of the meal. Sometimes the tactile nature of a particular element – there’s nothing like the soft, warm texture of freshly baked rolls as you break them apart to butter and then consume them. Or the stem of a glass as you lift it to sniff and taste the meritage, cabernet or other favorite wine.

There are circumstances that require the expediency or convenience of a chain restaurant, but to opt for the nearest Olive Garden (or “Salt Central” as I like to think of them) when there are a handful of local favorites just seems to be a shame. Can you really say you’ve experienced New Orleans if you dine at the nearest Bubba Gump Shrimp Company instead of, say, Chartres House Cafe, or The Court of Two Sisters? You may have visited the Crescent City, but have you truly experienced it?

Or, more pointedly, if you’re fortunate enough to find yourself in Paris, do you really want to opt for a meal at McDonald’s? There are people who do that and it astonishes me – yes, there’s a comfort factor, and I understand that. But the whole reason you’re traveling, I would naturally assume, is to enjoy being somewhere ELSE. It doesn’t need to be fancy, it doesn’t need to be expensive. Grab a hot dog on the streets of Manhattan, or a slice of pizza at the nearest Ray’s. In San Francisco go for the sourdough bread. New Orleans ask the locals for the best jambalaya – you’ll get a dozen different suggestions, but my bet is that not a single one would be Macaroni Grill.

Looking back at all of the various trips, finding the local place and hanging out for a while is a fabulous way to absorb the local culture (pun intended). Eat what the locals eat, where they eat, and whatever you do avoid the tourist traps. Some of the biggest disasters have been when I forgot this very basic rule.

(There are exceptions. The late, lamented Tavern on the Green provided for a wonderfully memorable meal some years back. Ditto for the Sky City restaurant high atop Seattle’s Space Needle. But these tend to be exceptions which charge a lot more for their ambience and still manage to give you terrific food. If money’s no object, knock yourself out. For the budget minded I’d much rather pull up a table at Arturo’s Pizza in the Village and at Ivar’s for clam chowder in Seattle.)

With few exceptions, following the rule of “eat local” has served us well.

(This is not to suggest, of course, that we haven’t made some serious errors in judgment -- things like going to a cheesy “local” French restaurant in London’s Piccadilly neighborhood. “Tourist trap” should have been emblazoned on its windows in great big Times New Roman bold. One of the worst meals we’ve ever eaten – but it was followed the next day by a spectacular fish and chips place in the Strand district.)

By patronizing the local places as opposed to the chains you not only contribute to your own enjoyment, you also ensure that the people who are most passionate about the local cuisine can afford to stay in business. If you honestly, truly, completely want to dine in the chain restaurants have at it I guess. But why travel any kind of distance if you eat in a place you can find right around the corner, right back at home? It's one thing if it's a localize chain or even fast food place -- just try prying the In-and-Out Burger from peoples' hands. Likewise The Waffle House is a regional wonder. But the big, national chains? International? You might just as well stay at home as to wander into the Key West Denny's.

For the rest of us -- the people who travel for the purposes of seeing new places, experiencing new things, enveloping ourselves in things we cannot find in our own neighborhood – heading for the bistro across the street, or the patio-dining restaurant on the main square, are simply part of the deal and –oftentimes – the stuff of which memories are made.

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