Friday, February 4, 2011

Eating Our Way Through the Great Vacation Spots of the World

Last weekend, we flew to Phoenix for a family get-together and spent three days plucking fresh oranges from the trees and soaking up a bit of much-needed Vitamin D. In the depths of January, Arizona and its cerulean sky were a welcome distraction.

"Vacation" means something different to everyone, whether it is simply not being at work for a few days or a year's worth of planning for a grand three-week European tour. For us, most vacations involve some sort of family event, usually because we can crash in a guest room and spend the weekend digging through someone else's refrigerator. Any other type of vacation, as far as Chef Matt and I are concerned, should be driven by the local cuisine. Amazing landscapes and national monuments are a secondary perk, ranked behind the foods that lend cities their character and culture.

Before I met Matt, I traveled to New Orleans for a few days to visit friends. I spent a sunny morning sipping coffee and eating powdery beignets at Cafe du Monde, one of the treasures of the Big Easy. We ran the gamut that weekend, sampling decadent gravy cheese fries, hideous but delicious crawfish, spicy homemade jambalaya, and an amazing concoction called alligator cheesecake.

During our honeymoon in Italy, we tackled all the Italian classics: margarita pizza, caprese salad, fresh pasta with arrabiatta sauce, bolognese, gnocchi, tiramisu, gelato, and melty prosciutto and mozzarella paninis.  We wore paths between restaurants and street vendors, pausing between to take in the David and St. Peter's before seeking out the next cheesy, saucy, creamy miracle of cooking. 

Vacations will be few and far between in our future, but sometimes, when we sit and dream about the places we have not seen, our dreams begin and end with the menu. Boston will be a race to consume as much seafood as possible, Charleston will be plantation tours sandwiched between fried green tomatoes and spongy biscuits, Austin will be plates of barbecue eaten to a soundtrack of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Paris will be a weeklong orgy of bordelaise, fine chocolate pastries, and boeuf bourguignon. 

Cuisine is a defining characteristic of most places on earth, and reveals much about the people and history of those places, in ways far different than art and architecture and music. Food illuminates the soul of a city. Seeing the Eiffel Tower is a grand thing, but doesn't it look that much more incredible while clutching a crepe and anticipating a plate of ratatouille? 

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