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Locked down but not out in Italy

Singing from the balconies! One nice thing about this crisis ... solidarity! “Guess you’re not living like a tourist anymore,” was the funny, truthful and somewhat gut-wrenching message of a friend the day the lockdown in Italy began. Today is day 6. My beloved Italia has been hit hard with the COVID19 epidemic. With the second largest elderly population in the world, the epidemic has meant a disproportionate amount of deaths in the country. So though I haven’t been worried about contracting it myself, this isn’t about me or someone like me who, if contracted it would probably have a sucky couple of weeks and then recover. It is about if someone like me contracted it and then spread it to a person with a complicated health history or an elderly person with a weakened immune system. Eerily orderly: Lines for the grocery store, each person one meter apart In a country with no concept (and no physical room really) for personal space, and in a city with reproachable hygie

Food: For more than Food's Sake

One of the best things about traveling is tasting the different types of food. As I have already mentioned, I am not a “foodie” in the classic sense of the word. I don’t know the top chefs. I don’t watch the Food Network. I don’t follow cooking blogs, and I don’t particularly care what the current trends in cooking are.

Experimentation and experience: that is my philosophy on food. This theory often makes my own cooking hit-or-miss and my baking a total disaster. However, I have more fun trying out something different than ending up with a delectable result. This is true whether at home or at a restaurant.

I often differ with friends and family members on this topic. Shockingly, it turns out that some people care more about what the food tastes like than about having an interesting experience. Hmm- makes sense in a way. It is certainly one way to look at it… But I don’t. Of course, when I go out to eat, I prefer that the food not be revolting, but if the setting is nice, the music is good and I am trying out something new, mediocre food is not a disappoint to me.

Lentils, Avocado and Tomatoes: lunch in Morocco

I remember clearly butting heads with a college friend on this point. He chose the restaurant based solely on the quality of food, and not even all of its food, only certain dishes. The restaurant could be (and usually was) solely white walls, bare tables, rickety chairs, the occasional potted plant and (I presume) a kitchen. He liked approximately 3 restaurants out of the 1,200 in Atlanta, and he would only eat select, pre-determined dishes at each of those three. We are exact opposites.

In contrast, I try every restaurant once, but I hesitate to return to one I have tried. Even less, if I make a return visit to a restaurant, I rarely order the same dish.

Vegetarian Sampler: Ethiopian Food in Chicago

Unlike many, I do not choose a restaurant based on ratings, stars or recommendations. I choose it on an interesting setting, innovative or foreign (to me) cuisine or any other aspect that might make dining there novel (live band, dancing waiters, flaming drinks… etc).

So, I often failed in convincing this friend to try any of “my” restaurants, and he in turn would have to drag me back to his. Even then, I would often go as a spectator instead of a participant in his dining choice- not being able to convince myself that it was worth spending money on a “boring” (i.e. already tried) meal.

Sri Lankan Food in NYC

Aside from the actual eating part which, I have said, is not top priority in my reasons to eat out, I see a restaurant as a type of living museum. Food holds so many clues into a type of culture. I love noticing the details of a place - the type of décor, the amount of décor, the music playing or lack thereof, how many waiters a place has, if the owner is there and if he/she is serving customers or supervising.

I like looking at the types of dishes, glasses and silverware- if there is too many of each kind or if you are expected, for example, to use one glass for all the liquids brought to the table. (Rome is famous for this).

Roman pizza with chicory, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts and raisins

I love scrutinizing the menu- what trends there are in the dishes, if they are all beef, all chicken or all pork meals, if there are a lot of vegetarian options, or if “vegetarian” means side dishes with the meat plucked out.

I notice the types of vegetables that are most common on the menu and whether or not they are in season. I inspect the ingredients most often used in cooking- olive oil, peanut oil, butter or lard.

My favorite is the spices. I love studying the menu to see what spices stand out the most: basil in Rome, rosemary in Tuscany, pepper and garlic in the U.S., paprika in Romania, cumin in Egypt. I try to distinguish the over-powering smell as you first walk into a restaurant.

I love seeing what desserts are homemade and what after-dinner drinks are drunk like water.

Semi-freddo alla menta con ciocolatto

As you can see, I have also picked up the habit of photographing my food. I will admit that I acquired this from 3 of my Asian friends. Yet, I find it a fantastic habit. If restaurants are a living museum of a place’s culture, and food is one method of understanding that culture than it deserves being captured just as much as any marble statue would. Why photograph a carved piece of stone that will never change and not a spaghetti alle vongole or feuilles de vigne on your plate that can never be exactly replicated?

Food can be for pleasure. Food can be for fuel. Food can even be for thought, but food is also for experience. Try something new on the menu... even if you spit it out in your napkin.