My family and I recently took a trip to visit friends in San Diego. We left an ice-covered Utah for a balmy California. We stayed with friends we have never stayed previously and they welcomed us with graciousness and hospitality. While there, we spent quite a bit of time talking, reading, sleeping and, of course, eating. But it was only later, as I call up memories of the trip, that I realize something about myself and how I like to travel. It all revolves around food.
I love food. Always have. Trying different foods and different recipes. Can’t get enough of it really. Thinking about it, my view of food is a window to the way I view the world. There is a philosophy to the way I pursue and consume my food. It speaks volumes about who I am. I’m not sure when I became a discriminating eater. Sometime along my road, I started preferring nicer food, better food, food that had been prepared with more thought and kindness. I’m not saying that I’m some kind of connoisseur (I had to spell check the word itself), but I am saying that at some point along my journey I started thinking about the food I eat, where it comes from, and who benefits from it’s production and consumption. I’ve become a bit of a food snob. Some folks call themselves foodies. That’s a good term. Better than food snob. But in reality, they are the same thing. There are foods I much prefer over other foods; places I prefer over other places. It makes me a snob because I will actually not eat poor foods when given a choice. If it’s a choice between canned fruit or no fruit, I choose no fruit. If it’s a choice between McDonalds and nothing, I choose nothing. I think of myself as discriminating. Others might see me as a snobbish jerk that has a hoity-toity way of looking at food.
Chain restaurants, in general, don’t have the same quality of food that a local restaurant does. It’s just that simple. I get better tacos in my own town at Juan’s Place than I can at Taco Bell. I get better hamburgers at JCW’s than I can at Burger King. I get a better steak at Porter’s Place than I can at Sizzler. And it’s not just the quality of food; it’s the service and atmosphere. There is little reason in my mind to give money to these giant chain restaurants that care little for quality or service when there is a much better just as close and just as convenient. Plus you’re helping out a local business owner that doesn’t subscribe to the big chain mentality. So when I’m out and about, either a few blocks or hundreds of miles from home, I try and visit places that aren’t part of a chain. Which leads me to my next point.
I love to travel. I love going places and seeing new things – especially when friends are there to meet you. Strangers are good too. I love to Couch Surf (look it up – it’ll blow your mind). But I just love visiting new places. I’m not a big fan of the tourist places like I’m not a big fan of chain restaurants. I want to know where locals go. I want to eat where locals eat. So it was with great enthusiasm that we went on our latest trip to San Diego. But it’s also where I realized I have a strange way of remembering trips and places – I remember the food.
WARNING – I’m about to describe my amazing trip to San Diego. And I’m going to talk about food. I’m going to be specific and descriptive. I’m just warning you.
Sarah and Andrew are a beautiful couple – both in body and soul. She is a mixture of American Indian and Black Irish; she was raised Catholic but now attends a Baptist church. He comes from an Egyptian Jewish community by way of France; he was raised Jewish and continues to be strongly connected with his ancestors and religion. They have two gorgeous girls who compliment each other brilliantly – one is as talkative and bright as the summer sun, the other is as quiet and observant as the autumn moon. Their family makes for storybook pictures and their love for good food is what fuels this story.
Our first full day there was amazing. It was Easter morning and we agreed to go to Easter services with Sarah at the Baptist church. Here’s the thing – it was an amazing experience. We were welcomed by each and every person we came in contact with as if we were literally their brother or sister. They were kind, thoughtful and full of smiles. They served us a breakfast of fresh fruit, pancakes, bacon and hash browns. Simple and filling. Then we went into church and sang, prayed and laughed. We remembered what was important in the world. What things deserved to be worried about and what things deserve no attention whatsoever. We reaffirmed our commitment to our families, our friends and something bigger than us. Something worth looking to and striving for. It was magnificent.
That day we came home and rested until the afternoon when we started preparing for dinner. Friends came over. Family came over. We roasted a ham in the oven. We grilled small, thick lamb chops on the grill. We put it all on a plate with warm bread, cold salad and laughter around a table full of people who care for one another. Then there was an earthquake. My first ever. We sat in stunned silence for a bit. We laughed nervously and then went back to eating and laughing.
Later we would eat brie cheese, roasted in the oven after being covered in brown sugar. The sugar made a delicious caramelized coating on the outside of the cheese, which is then broken open and spread on bread or crackers. We also tried some blackberry jam, slathered on another piece of brie, roasted in the oven into a gooey mess, and then dipped into with crackers.
Sarah took us down to the harbor one morning. The sun was bright and the sky was perfectly clear. Down on the waterfront was a little seafood place, filled with lines of people, ordering fresh fish of all kinds. We were there for the crab cakes. We ordered several plates and sat around small tables with blue umbrellas. Sitting in the warm sun or cool shade, I ate these perfectly crispy cakes of crab meat and sucked on my icy beverage. I watched school kids on a field trip, laughing and joking with each other. I watched an old man, propped up by his cane, dozing in the warm sun. I watched two pretty women in tank tops, both covered in tattoos and one with a shaved head, quietly eating. The crowd moved around us, as my girls, Sarah and my wife all talked, and I just quietly watched and munched on my crab cakes and listened to the lapping of the ocean against the docks.
One night, Sarah’s dad brought Middle Eastern food. Grilled lamb, chicken and beef on skewers, yellow rice, warmed flat bread and pickled beats. Humus and olives and bread. We sat around the table and listened to Sarah’s dad tell stories about his life and experiences around the world.
On Friday night Sarah made roasted chicken, matzah ball soup, warmed bread and salad for Shabbat. Andrew led us in a short service at sunset – a welcoming of family, an acknowledgement of God, and a thankfulness of all things given to us. We enjoyed the simple, traditional meal that people have been eating for centuries and talked into the darkness. When we were finished, everyone else went inside to talk while Andrew and I stayed outside and he described the history of his people, their beliefs and struggles and how, even today the feeling of connectedness, love, family and God are still strong. Andrew’s passion and love for his history was inspiring.
While cruising around downtown San Diego, we lucked into this little Irish pub called The Field. All the interior wood is darkly stained and polished to a glow. It is filled with old odd and ends from Ireland – pots, pans, crockery, tools and art. There was a man behind the bar, cleaning glasses and laughing with the customers; music was playing. He talked with a distinctly Irish accent – teasing the women and laughing with the men. We sat down and he made his way to us quickly, asking what he could get for us. We ordered corned beef and cabbage, shepherds pie and Irish bacon with potato pancakes. Nothing could have compared to that day.
I could go on and describe for you the authentic pizza we enjoyed. Cooked in a wood stove with minimal ingredients and how they belonged to the Vera Pizza Napoletana in Napoli, Italy to insure the quality and authenticity. I could tell you about the soul food brunch or the loads of other food we encountered on the trip. I won’t. The fact is, there is a lot of good food to be had out there. It’s everywhere. It sometimes takes a little more time and money to find it and enjoy it. Sometimes it takes sampling things you may not like. But every bite is an adventure. Sometimes you have to try something you don’t like to realize what you truly love.
Chain restaurants are doing fine. They don’t need you. Next time you visit friends or family and want to find someplace to eat, try someplace new. Risk it. Find someplace unfamiliar, preferably suggested by a person from that area, and then if you’re really adventurous ask the server to choose for you. Tell them the kinds of foods you like, stuff you simply cannot eat, then let them choose. Or tell them to have the chef choose for you. You’ll be surprised at what you find. You might not like it, but the service will be better than at any local chain restaurant, the food will be higher quality, and you’ll have a great story to tell about the time you spent with your friends.
So I say all of us should rise up. All of us should start taking an interest in food around us, not just mindlessly eating it while talking with those we love. Food should rise to the same level as the company we keep. Good friends and good food. We need to be willing to spend a bit more, risk a bit, and find someplace that doesn’t make the same burger over and over and over again out of meat that was ordered from Timbuktu thirty-six days ago. Try some local burger joint that bakes their own buns, uses fresh local beef and potatoes grown locally. Then you will have had something worth talking about. It’s time we were all foodies. Be a bit of a food snob and you’ll find that not only the quality of your food increases, but so does the quality of your conversations. Throw off the chains I say. Embrace something amazing and local and you too will begin remembering your best times with good friends and great food.