So how many of you tell your children to never take candy, or food, from strangers? I’ve said the same thing…many times. The thing is, when I’ve said it, I wasn’t really thinking about the food. I was concerned about some deviant using food as a bribe to get my child to do something he wouldn’t otherwise do. Now that we’re all adults, I say, “Going on a trip? Forget that old rule. Take food from strangers”!
I realize some of you are thinking I’ve lost my mind, so give me a moment to explain. I am not encouraging you to eat off a stranger’s plate, drink out of the same glass, or consume any item you do not feel complies with your necessary medical restrictions. With that in mind, let’s explore some of the opportunities travel offers for a change in menu.
When traveling to a foreign country, you may have no choice but to vary from your eating norm. If this is the case, there are many treats in store. First there are local people who may want you to sample their dishes. While they may be strangers, please consider the offer. This is the absolute best way to experience local food.
Next are the grocery stores or markets. Shopping in a different environment with unfamiliar products can be an adventure in itself. I often browse the aisles taking in the packaging and shelf arrangement as if perusing an art display. I spend a moment contrasting the number of items that look familiar from the number that seem different. I watch the shoppers. I try to grab a sense of their lives and develop a list of questions I may want to research about local eating habits or food culture.
In Australia, I find the packaged foods more familiar than foreign. Many of the brands are the same as those at home and the boxes vary only slightly. In the Netherlands, I am struck by the abundance of dark, heavy breads and the frequency with which our hosts offer us a stop for food. In New Zealand, I find the roadside fruit and vegetable markets a delight!
Bakeries and restaurants offer yet another view of both food and culture. There is nothing more beautiful than the fruit tarts displayed in the window of a bakery along Champs-Elysées in Paris. Sometimes I browse the shelves of a bakery even though I recognize I probably won’t be able to eat any of the products. I love to see the offerings, take in the aroma of freshly baked bread, and bask in the warmth of the room. When I can do this with a cup of rich, dark coffee in hand, I am happy to wait for my gluten-free snack.
After browsing, you’ll be ready to consume. Here’s another opportunity to engage a stranger. Ask some locals to tell you what or where to eat, then trust your instincts. If you don’t feel comfortable with a particular person’s advice, ask someone else. If two or three people mention the same hole-in-the-wall, it’s probably good.
When traveling closer to home, the same rules apply. Keep in mind that any time you enjoy a meal at a new restaurant in your city, you are accepting food from strangers so there’s no reason to be hesitant to try something new in a neighboring borough. I ate some of the best hummus I’ve ever tasted at a cigarette/gift store/restaurant with a sliding cage door in Memphis. My son recommends tacos served on the porch of a make-shift operation at a man’s house in Little Rock. A friend’s favorite barbecue sandwich ever was sold out of a Hot Springs man’s back door. People drive for an hour or more for a weekly fish fry on the grounds of a Stuttgart farm. None of these locations employ advertising other than word of mouth and none are to be missed.
Search online, look at reviews, and get an eating plan together, but don’t be afraid to ditch the plan on the advice of someone you just met. When you’re wiling to embrace the food offered by a stranger, you increase your chances of being pleasantly surprised.
Have any surprisingly good dining experiences you want to share? We’d love to hear them.