by Elizabeth Weinstein
“If I have to hear one more time about that roast chicken your father had in Tuscany....” my husband says, shaking his head. He feigns disgust, but in truth my husband is amused at the way my family compares every meal we eat to some better meal we had once upon a time. And the best of those meals were always in Italy. The ‘roast chicken in Tuscany’ has become our tagline for the holy grail—the holy food grail.
My parents lived in Italy a generation ago and, culinarily speaking, came of age there. During our growing-up, my brother and I were lucky enough to spend a year and several seasons in that country of hot, meaty broths that simultaneously console and inspire; fresh spinach with warm, oily garlic; pan-fried steaks bright with lemon and salt; and tortellini alla panna that could make you cry.
But it is indeed the roast chicken that does a Marcel Proust number on me—or rather would, if only I could have a bite of that chicken I ate 45 years ago at a restaurant called Cecco’s in Pescia. Just tonight if I could have a taste of pollo al mattone, a fresh chicken flattened whole between two bricks and roasted crisp and succulent on a spit with—with what seasonings? Was it really only salt?—then I would remember what it was like to be five years old and travelling with my parents and my big brother from Lucca back to our temporary home in Florence. I would be able to feel again the warmth of being safe with my family and at home in a foreign country.
If we are food people, travel naturally enhances our appreciation and robs our innocence. How many McDonalds hamburgers and Denny’s Grand Slam Breakfasts will you be able to eat cheerfully, after all, once you have enjoyed hot, fried shoestring potatoes tumbled into a twist of paper with mayonnaise on the street in Amsterdam or a plate of fat sausages and grilled tomatoes in an English country B&B? How many tepid bowls of canned New England clam chowder will satisfy us once we’ve had a tureen or two of bouillabaisse?
True, some of us can tolerate mediocre food better than others. We can rise above it when need be. My mother is a great cook but isn’t fussy about what is put before her. My father and stepmother, on the other hand, have been known to tote a cold roast chicken during their Interstate-and-motel road trips so as not to be subjected to Applebees.
It is not just travelling per se that indelibly impresses our palates. You have to eat something good while you’re there, wherever ‘there’ is. Often this is a question of luck and experience. Did you turn the right corner and find the right trattoria? Did your friend’s mother steer you to the best dim sum during your traipse through Chinatown? And you have to be open to appreciating its wonderful qualities once you get there—wherever you are, whatever the food is. Whether it is ripe, raw, local, exotic, blackened, or bursting with juice, can you really taste it? Will you not be squeamish? Will you be patient? Will you be interested enough to learn its specialness?
Some of us are fortunate to have been introduced both to tasting and to travel early in our lives. Having discerning parents can certainly help in the development of a palate. But neither snobby parents nor international trekking is essential. The roast chicken we carry around with us in our hearts and taste buds could just as easily have been home-raised in Preble, New York and cooked on our backyard barbecue. The spinach could be our Grandma’s, torn off gently from the stalk and cooked in plenty of salted water just the way she did. It’s more in the way we greet that food and remember it—and try to find it once again, over and over.
Elizabeth Weinstein the extremely busy editor of a brand new regional magazine called Plank Road Magazine. (www.plankroadmag.com).