The summer travel season is in full swing. Despite the state of the economy, folks are still deciding to get away from it all. We all know that a change of scenery won’t magically inflate your sad little 401(k), but sometimes getting out of town is just what the doctor ordered. The doctor also said you might want to avoid the Moscow Airport.)
I am a big believer in leaving everyday things behind for a while (to vacate, if you will), carving out time to clear the head and regroup. I usually start planning summer vacation as soon as school starts in the fall. I was first diagnosed with the Travel Bug as a child. Even back then, I imagined myself as a jet-setter and seriously considered a career as a stewardess. (I realize that title is passé, and yet I cannot shake it. Why is “flight attendant” so much better than steward or stewardess? Steward sounds much more refined. Flight attendant sounds like an assistant to a bird doctor.) As a culinary student, I briefly considered a career in airline catering but gave it up when I realized I would not be flying from one exotic location to another, cooking interesting foods, but would instead be stuck in a steamy El Segundo warehouse assembling dry turkey sandwiches.
Granted, the current state of air travel, with minimal service and maximal fees, is disappointing. I, for one, really miss the free peanuts and pretzels. And I actually miss mediocre airline food. Where else could you find an oddly geometric full-course meal, made to fit perfectly into tiny rectangular trays, like a culinary game of Tetris? Each tray was just for you, wrapped hygienically and equipped with a spork, a pat of margarine and your very own small paper tubes of salt and pepper. Alas, the day of cookie-cutter airplane meals has gone the way of in-flight smoking. (Can someone explain why there are still ashtrays in armrests?) Now I am forced to either bring my own food or spend $9 on a $2 sandwich in the terminal.
Still, these hardships are in no way a deterrent to me. Just plop me in a seat with a Sky Mall catalog and I’ll be fine. All true jet-setters know that it’s more about the destination than the transportation. Once we arrive, I hit the ground running. I am inclined to pack as much into every day as I can, which, of course, includes experiencing as much of the local cuisine as possible. I do not concern myself with sensible eating. A holiday is, by definition, a rest from work, and — let’s face it — eating sensibly, for some of us, is work. Vacation is the time to let loose and enjoy the pleasures of the palate with liberal abandon. Guilt-free gluttony is the order of the day.
Vacation in our family means completely shunning all normal behavior. You want ice cream for the third time today? Absolutely! A falafel at midnight? Indeed! Another corn dog? Go for it! Pie for breakfast? You’d better believe it, baby! This is vacation, and if your pants aren’t tight by the end of the day, you’re just not trying hard enough.
When I visit new cities, I feel obliged to try the local specialty. Some part of me fears Memphis may not welcome me back if I don’t try the barbeque. I will surely offend a Philadelphian if I decline a cheesesteak with wiz. And no one will believe I even went to Wisconsin if I can’t vouch for the fried cheese curds.
When eating in a new city, one should never say, “What is that?” But it is perfectly polite to ask the natives about their famous dishes. That way, you’ll be prepared for your first lick of Alaskan Eskimo ice cream — a creamy frozen treat made from reindeer fat and salmon eggs, sans sugar.
In fact, before you launch yourself into such a situation, it pays to do a little research, especially when traveling overseas.
Familiarity with the gastronomic vocabulary will serve you well. At the very least, it will keep you from ordering a stick of butter for lunch, as one member of my family once did. (“Oooh, this cheese is so buttery!”) You should also use caution when eating foreign food in a different foreign country. For instance, an American eating Italian food in Honduras could easily mistake the bowl of sugar on the table for parmesan cheese (“Sir, why is your son sugaring his ravioli?”).
Even if your vacation food is fantastic, you always run the risk of getting sick of it. (Ho hum … another flaky, buttery croissant.) When I hit the road-food wall, I head for the local markets. There is no better place to get to know a culture. Even if you can’t read the labels, you will, at the very least, be able to find some edible fruits and vegetables to shock your system back into shape . You may even discover something new about the natives, such as the French appreciation of horse meat, the Northern European love affair with the eel, or the Central American affinity for corn fungus. Study the local markets enough and you may even qualify for a job with the State Department.
My favorite travel food of all time came from local markets. I backpacked through Europe with my boyfriend (now husband) when I was in college. We were totally broke, but we had a Eurail Pass and a sense of adventure. We had the poor-traveling-student thing down to a science. First, we were always careful to eat everything at the youth hostel’s free continental breakfast to ensure maximum caloric intake. That included smearing as much jam as possible on toast, and dousing coffee with milk and sugar, even though I preferred it black. Our first task after breakfast was to find a local market where we would buy a loaf of bread, a piece of cheese and a hunk of salami. That served as our lunch and dinner. Sometimes we would splurge on a piece of fruit or a carton of milk, or indulge in the occasional ice cream or beer (usually after wiring home for more money from our parents). Since that trip, I have had the privilege of eating some of the finest food on earth, prepared by many great chefs, at home and abroad. But there is nothing more delicious to me than the taste of bread, cheese and salami, washed down with the memories of wonderful trips gone by. It tastes even better if I can carry it around in a backpack all day.
Now, where did I put my suitcase?
In-Flight Granola Bars
Forgo the airport food and pack a few of these delicious, nutritious bars. They are loaded with protein and complex carbs, just what you need to maintain enough stamina to sit still through a five-hour flight.
41/2 cups rolled oats
1/4 cup sunflower seeds
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup dried apricots, chopped
1/4 cup banana chips
1/4 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup pecans
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup honey
1. Preheat oven to 325°F. Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with pan spray. In a large bowl, stir together oats, sunflower seeds, flour, raisins, apricots, bananas, coconut, walnuts, pecans, brown sugar, salt and baking soda. Add butter, honey and vanilla, and mix well to moisten.
2. Press mixture into prepared pan, and bake 20 minutes, until golden brown. Cool for 10 minutes before slicing into bars.