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You Are What You Can't Eat 

Vermonters discover eating overseas can bring out the burger in you

click to enlarge MICHAEL TONN
  • Michael Tonn

“Is there any nostalgia more powerful than the exile’s passion for the food of home?” That was the question U.K. Guardian writer Alex Renton asked back in April on his blog Word of Mouth. He went on, “Koreans dream of kimchi, East Africans write poems about ugali; Brits abroad get Marmite DHL-ed to them.”

Another blog noshtalgia.blogspot.com is

wholly devoted to the exploration of food as “a universal bridge that we all cross whether it’s to get home, to get to people we love, get back to a memory we so cherish.”

That longing for home cooking home as in place of origin explains why we’ve got restaurants in Burlington serving everything from falafel to pho. Immigrants from Africa, Vietnam and Iraq find their comfort food in a growing number of ethnic markets in the Old North End.

Does American fare if there is such a thing hold the same power over the exiled or traveling Yankee? Renton writes of a New York-born friend living in Scotland who yearns for Manhattan bagels, Jersey tomatoes and “proper Jewish rye bread with caraway seeds.” Visit any U.S. embassy abroad, and you’ll notice they’re grilling hamburgers and hot dogs on the barbecue, not sausages or reindeer steaks. It seems that being surrounded by a “foreign” culture sparks a kind of nationalist pride that extends to eating.

Shorter stays often bring on cravings, too . . . a big leafy green salad in Eastern Europe, for example. Or ice cream in Africa. Espresso is great, but what American traveling in Italy hasn’t wished that little cup were bigger and refills were free? It seems you don’t know what you really want . . . till you can’t have it, even if the deprivation is temporary. The phrase “You are what you eat” doesn’t just sum up the chemistry of nutrition: In a less material sense, what and how we eat defines who we are.

We asked a number of Vermonters to talk about eating overseas and which foods they miss most when they travel abroad.

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ADAM WILSON:

Owner of Adam’s Village Bakery in Westford, where he bakes rustic, German-style loaves for farmers’ markets and CSAs.

Some Countries Visited:

Germany, Switzerland.

American Foods Missed:

The first thing I missed were the all-American microbrews, ales that are so hoppy. But now, within six months of returning from Germany, I have a hard time drinking hoppy beers, because I fell in love with the German Pilsners and lagers.

The other thing I missed was toasters. They don’t have them or use them in Germany; they just eat bread that’s old and stale.

When I would say, “Yeah, I toast bread,” they would picture this white, squishy bread they make that is for toasting. But nobody has a toaster at home, so they obviously don’t eat lots of that kind of bread.

Tasty Travel Stories:

There were plenty from Germany. Everything about working at a butcher shop in Germany was fascinating. I guess, really, the degree to which they use every part of the pig, and then eat every sausage that you can make with every part of the pig for breakfast. Liverwurst and bloodwurst for breakfast was a new thing for me.

Foods We Should Have Here But Don’t:

Dry-cured meats, sausages and ham; dry-cured bacon. I would eat that every day over there, and I don’t have access to that here until I make my own. There’s not local, artisan dry-cured ham and salami being produced in Vermont. I think it could be a great thing once people start doing it.

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DIANA MCLEOD:

Co-owner of Tradewinds Imports with husband David McLeod. Their collection features jewelry, art and crafts from Asian countries.

Some Countries Visited:

India, Thailand, Indonesia, Nepal.

American Foods Missed:

Well, the thing that I crave that I can’t get over there, because it’s not safe, is salad. A lot of the Western food groups are available over there, and I love Asian food, so I’m totally happy eating whatever the local people are making.

But raw green vegetables you just can’t eat them in those countries, because you’ll get sick. There’s one place in India that has a cooked-salad bar, three-bean salad and other things, and we head straight for it whenever we’re there. When we get back, the first thing we do is go to the supermarket and buy every green and vegetable available.

Tasty Travel Stories:

Dave has had a couple of incidents where he’s been fed bugs for lunch. You go out with a family and they order off of the insect menu: Sometimes it can be quite a surprise. David’s had to down a few water beetles and things like that before. I have avoided that so far.

The thing is, when you get invited to somebody’s home, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You have to explain to them that you can’t eat anything that has water. You always take your chances when you eat with a family. We were in Rajasthan and met these street musicians, and they kept trying to invite us over for dinner. They were charming people.

We tried to beg off because we were worried about getting sick, and their English wasn’t good enough for us to explain what we couldn’t eat. And they were very poor people, and we didn’t want them feeding us. But then we took this camel trek through the desert, and the thing dumped us out right at their back door, in a pup tent on the edge of town, at dinner time. They said, “Oh, you came.”

They cooked us a wonderful aloo gobi, a cauliflower and vegetable cooked dish, over a camel-dung fire by moonlight, and played music while we ate. It was delicious and didn’t kill us. I had to give a gift, and I gave her my pop-up umbrella, which was a huge hit in the desert you can use it as a sun shade and some sewing needles which I had in my pocket for some reason.

Foods We Should Have Here, But Don’t:

So many. I love Thai food, and I can get Thai food here: There are a couple of credible local restaurants, especially Tantra. We miss Indonesian food.

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MATT HOWARD:

Youth Empowerment and Military Education Project Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee. Howard visits high schools around the state to counter military recruiters with sobering accounts of his own personal service as a U.S. Marine in Iraq, while at the same time offering students viable alternatives to serving in today’s armed forces.

Some Countries Visited:

Iraq, Kuwait, Japan, Germany, Canada, Austria each for more than six months.

American Foods Missed:

In Japan you can’t really get cheese, and a lot of countries aren’t into peanut butter, and I love peanut butter. But when I travel, one of the things I look forward to most is discovering and tasting new foods, so the answer is I don’t necessarily miss anything.

Tasty Travel Stories:

I made an extremely conscious effort to eat off base, because the meat they serve, it’s stamped right on the package: “Acceptable for use in schools, prisons and the military.” Ask anyone who has eaten [Meals Ready to Eat] for an extended period of time, and they will tell you the havoc it wreaks on the digestive system. The human body is not meant to eat food that is shelf-stable for 10 years.

In Iraq, because I was there in the invasion, they didn’t have the food facilities set up that they do today. We were living only on MREs. It had been about two months, three months, and we literally had had no fresh food, nothing with natural enzymes in it.

At one point, after Basra, an Iraqi man came up to our convoy and had some pita bread that he was clearly trying to sell us. People were trying to drive him away, and some of the other Marines were getting really aggressive with him. I called him over to our truck. He was eating some to show us that it wasn’t poisoned; he was smiling and eating and smiling and giving a thumbs-up.

I was desperate for real food, and I felt bad because I didn’t have any money to pay him; I just had a $20 bill. So I gave him $20 for some pita bread, which was probably a month’s salary [for him]. We said we were going to make it last for, like, two days, and within the hour it was gone. It was probably the most amazing pita bread I’ve had in my life.

Foods We Should Have Here, But Don’t:

That’s a tough question. Well, in the Marines we’re taught to “adapt and overcome,” and I certainly keep that mind-set when it comes to eating out locally. When in Rome . . .

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BILL TECOSKY:

Owner of Rainbow Sweets in Marshfield. The eatery is the home of a sensual pastry dubbed “Johnny Depp on a Plate” and lots of other sweet treats, as well as savory specialties from around the world.

Some Countries Visited:

Turkey, Italy, Portugal, Hungary.

American Foods Missed:

Marinated, grilled flank steak that’s definitely one thing I didn’t find over there. And Tastykake Jelly Krimpets. I guess I hanker for this in Vermont, too. They’re pre-packaged cakes from Philadelphia that are really good.

Tasty Travel Stories:

In Turkey we had great food all the time. We had local specialties that were served on terraces that were right over Russian creeks and small rivers, so the water was a foot below you. You lay down on cushions and ordered food, and lounged over the waterfalls. There was very tasty beer Ephesus, named after the ruins. A typical Turkish breakfast is a variety of olives, flatbreads and cheeses all drizzled with honey and pomegranate molasses sort of salty, sweet and olive-y.

Foods We Should Have Here, But Don’t: A lot of them. I miss the seafood from Portugal, fresh giant sardines. The goulash from Hungary and some of the pastries they make in Budapest that I can’t make.

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LAURIE ESSIG:

Assistant Professor of Sociology at Middlebury College, she teaches courses on freakishness, heterosexuality and the sociology of pleasure.

Some Countries Visited:

Russia, former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe. She goes to Western Europe a couple of times a year.

American Foods Missed:

Maybe I just don’t eat American-type food that much. What I used to die for in the Soviet Union was coffee. They had this stuff with chicory. You just had to drink massive quantities of black tea.

When the Soviet Union started to fall apart, you could get coffee on the black market. You’d call this guy and you’d ask him for kilos of Colombian. He’d literally have your coffee in his overcoat, and he’d open up his overcoat. Obviously you can get a good cup of coffee in Moscow these days.

I’m going to London next week, and because the dollar is so weak, you have to ask yourself if you want to pay $8 for a cup of coffee. It would be $1.50 if I got a pint of beer. Even though it’s 8 a.m., I think I’ll get a pint of beer.

Tasty Travel Stories:

Well, once when I was in Armenia working as a tour guide, I took some Americans to what is claimed to be the oldest Christian church in the world. It’s in the caves, and you climb this mountain path to get there.

They sacrificed a goat for us, drew the sign of the cross on our foreheads, and made us goat wraps. It was the most gut-wrenching meal ever. I felt obligated to eat it because the goat had been killed in our honor.

And I’ve certainly eaten my share of bad Indian food in Leeds, England.

Foods We Should Have Here, But Don’t:

Khachapouri. It’s street food sold in Moscow that’s Georgian. It’s a sort of pizza without the sauce, with a certain kind of cheese you can only get in Eastern Europe. Here you can’t get pizza on the street. I always miss that, and will attempt to make that myself. We don’t really have a comparable cheese.

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JONATHAN HOFFMAN:

Chef-Instructor at the Center for Technology Essex’s culinary program. Also the founder of an NGO called Direct Aid International, which raises funds to build schools and libraries in Afghanistan, then continues to support them over the years by donating money for notebooks, pencils and the like.

Countries Visited:

Twenty in all, including Afghanistan, France, Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Dubai and Germany.

American Foods Missed:

Everything, but I think the first things I go for [on returning home] are meat products in a big way: Steaks are on the menu right off the bat. I do two or three days of steak, or a pork or pork sausage product. The first thing I do when I get back to Dubai [from Afghanistan] is go to McDonald’s. Wherever I go, I know where the McDonald’s is. I’ve walked a mile past many restaurants in Turkey just to go to McDonald’s.

I can eat meat over there, but it’s boiled to death in a pressure cooker, and then you put it with naan [bread] and broth to make gruel. There are restaurants in Kabul I can get take-out from, like pizza, and there are various degrees of Italian fare, but I have to stay away from the Chinese restaurants, because they’re also known for prostitution.

And greens, I’m not a big salad eater, but halfway through the trip, what I’d do for a mesclun greens salad . . .

Tasty Travel Stories:

Food is one thing that always brings [people] together wherever we are. The [Afghanis] started to know that I taught cooking for a living. We were sitting down to a fairly meager dinner one night I wasn’t sticking my nose up; I was eating. One man just looked up; he didn’t apologize for the food, but he said: “Here in Afghanistan, we eat to be fed.”

Foods We Should Have Here, But Don’t:

I miss a good Kabul kebab. Everybody talks about the naan, and when it’s fresh out of the oven it’s good, but I’m not a big bread person.

Most of what I miss from those countries I can cook here. We are fortunate in that we’ve been inundated with foods from these cuisines all over the world. I’m not a chef if I can’t bang out something Thai. Chinese should be basic by now. The thing I miss most from anywhere is being able to eat in Paris. The basic food is really good. I miss the Parisian style.

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COLIN CLARY:

Singer, songwriter and member of numerous local bands, including The Smittens, Colin Clary and the Magogs, and Let’s Whisper.

Some Countries Visited:

Portugal, England, Ireland, France and Belgium.

American Foods Missed:

Sometimes I used to crave things. There are some places where you can’t get pizza. But [while studying abroad in London] I didn’t have much money . . . I lived on beans and toast. The toast is awesome there.

And there was fast food. They had a really good chicken sandwich at the Burger King around the corner that made you feel at home. So I don’t know that I missed stuff then; it was just life somewhere else.

This summer I have a farm share, and I’m gonna miss two weeks of it [when The Smittens tour England]. I won’t have beets like we’ve been getting. I love beets.

Tasty Travel Stories:

I was traveling in Portugal with my friend Isaac, and we sort of were doing this thing where we’d live on coffee during the day and go somewhere awesome every night. You don’t go to dinner until 10 at night; it’s like you can’t go early you’re supposed to go home and sleep for a while so we would starve half the day.

Isaac didn’t like seafood, and the main awesome thing they have is seafood. He wasn’t happy with anything he was getting. Finally we went to this one place, and they had Cordon Bleu on the menu. He was gloating over it, but it wasn’t chicken Cordon Bleu at all. It was ham, cheese and bacon stuffed into beef and fried. It was like a chicken-fried-steak-beef thing. He was disappointed.

Foods We Should Have Here, But Don’t:

Some of your favorite foods you just can’t get anywhere. I love Maryland crab, and I’m not getting that.

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PETER CLAVELLE:

The former mayor of Burlington is now a senior associate with ARD, Inc. He works in developing nations around the world.

Some Countries Visited:

Lived in Grenada. Most recently visited Jordan and Uganda.

American Foods Missed:

I love cheddar cheese. They have cheese, but not cheddar. Nothing beats good old Vermont Cabot cheddar. It was hard being away for peak strawberry season. And there’s nothing like a Magic Hat on a hot summer day.

Tasty Travel Stories:

Living in Grenada I ate some pretty weird stuff. Something called manicou, which is a version of possum [the meat is typically smoked and stewed], and iguanas. We also had turtle, but I tried to stay away from that. Oh yeah, and there was oildown [starchy vegetables and meats cooked in coconut milk until almost all the milk is absorbed], which was just a big pot of oily stuff.

Foods We Should Have Here, But Don’t:

Hummus: Anything that’s produced here doesn’t cut it. And Mansaf: It’s a lamb dish with rice and yogurt dressing, and you eat it with your right hand. You’re supposed to keep your left hand behind your back.

I just love eating, so it’s nice in my job to experience the diversity and variety that not everybody has the chance to do.

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MOLLY STEVENS:

James Beard Award-winning author and culinary educator.

Some Countries Visited:

France, Italy, Greece, Spain, Mexico. Most recently, the Republic of Georgia.

American Foods Missed:

When we move some place we miss our foods, but when I travel, I’m just hungry for anything new and excited about tasting what’s there.

The one thing I find when I travel is that it’s really hard to get a good cup of coffee, and it’s the same with bread.

Tasty Travel Stories:

The most recent outrageous thing was . . . supra in Georgia, which translates as “the laid table.” Before you sit down, the table is just filled, and they never take anything away; they just keep bringing plates . . . and you just stack [them]. By the end of the evening there’s this precarious pile; they’re not stacked evenly, they’re just layered on: There’s still food on them. There’s more food on the table when you’re done than when you started. I kept taking pictures.

There are also really interesting toasting rituals. There’s always a toastmaster of pretty much any meal, and there are toasts that have to be said: You toast the country, your friends, the food and your children. I made a mistake. I got up to give a toast, and women do not do that. And I toasted the women who were in the kitchen. There was silence. Just sort of “We’re going to ignore that you did that, because you’re our guest.”

There was a gentleman on this trip from California. He was all about his salads and fresh foods. He left the trip partway through, and was complaining that if they better understood their guests, they would serve us “better” meals, lighter foods, more salads. I was really offended by it. You may feel like “I can’t eat this,” but you do, because somebody’s putting on a spread. It’s hard on your system to eat this food I can’t pretend I felt good the whole time but it was only 10 days. I can come home and drink only lemon water.

You go to the poorest village or a politician’s fancy home, and the meals are amazing. I’ve never experienced hospitality at that level before.

Foods We Should Have Here, But Don’t:

It used to be cheese, but that’s not true anymore: 20 years ago it just killed me, because we couldn’t get good cheese.

I miss real peameal bacon. It’s Canadian bacon but it’s not. It’s a loin, but it’s half cured, so you still need to cook it. That’s a food from away that I miss.

And fish, the little fish you can get. Sardines, anchovies, things you get in the Mediterranean that are so fresh.

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Paula Routly

Paula Routly

Bio:
Paula Routly is the cofounder, publisher and coeditor of Seven Days.

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