Growing Up Vito
It’s Good to Be the Prince
As the oldest son of an Italian mother, I grew up absolutely certain of three things:
- I was better than nearly everyone else in general, and Americans in specific
- Most things that are American are decidedly inferior, although America itself is The Greatest Country in the World (a paradox, to be sure)
- Italian food is the best food
Fortunately for me, my wife cured me of the first belief (mostly) and travel has cured me of second (nearly). I rarely break out in hives if I am not inoculated with tomato sauce weekly, so maybe my views on point number three are becoming a bit more …
Or maybe not.
A Dissertation on Salted Cod
Salted cod (“Bacalhau“) is the essential Portuguese food, despite the fact that they import nearly all of it. There’s a popular Portuguese appetizer called Pasteis De Bacalhau, which is a salted cod fritter. They usually look like this:
I’ve been lucky enough to visit Portugal for business twice now. My first trip I stayed for 10 days, my second trip for 9. I love the city of Lisbon– it’s cleaner than Paris, milder in climate than London, and safer than Rome. Eating seems to be the main national past-time, so I had plenty of chances to try a bunch of the national cuisine, which is largely fish-based.
I am not a huge fan of seafood in general, preferring a more linguine-based diet. However, if there’s one thing I deeply believe, it’s that you should do your best to eat local cuisine when you’re abroad, because food is the soul of a people, right? Also because the voice from my childhood tells me that Only Americans Eat American Food In Europe, And It’s A Sin, Right There In The Bible.
In Portugal alone, I’ve gamely tried:
- fish with the head on (broiled and fried)
- octopus tentacles with the suckers on (broiled and fried)
- assorted mollusks (mostly just broiled)
- shredded fish (boiled, then broiled, sometimes also fried for good measure)
- deep-fried fish (fried again just to be sure)
- fish stew (not fried, but not for the lack of trying)
- goat (pretty tasty, actually)
Then after about five days of finding the soul of the people, I wander off to find the nearest Italian restaurant.
It seems my soul is made of lasagna.
A Moment of Weakness
On this most recent trip, I visited the Hard Rock Lisbon (Ola Sofia and
Ines Rita!). I did not mean to go there– we were actually trying to find a poorly-remembered Indian restaurant, but it wasn’t going so well on account of the fact that we had successfully found the soul of the alcoholic people before stumbling past what was probably the Indian restaurant, or a store, or an Indian, or maybe a very tan homeless guy. Whatever it was, it was probably near the Hard Rock, because you can’t walk past a Hard Rock without saying “Look! The Hard Rock Cafe!” in much the same way small children can’t NOT say anything about that embarrassing sore you have on your face that you tried unsuccessfully to camouflage.
By the time we got to the Hard Rock my stomach was growling with the intensity of a peevish weinerdog. I had only earlier in the week scoffed at another group of my colleagues who had set out– intentionally! — with the Poorly-Camouflaged Sore On Your Face as their destination. Yet here we were, with no Indian restaurant, or Indian people, or even that very tan homeless guy anywhere in sight. A hurried debate in front ensued.
“Where’s the Indian place?”
“Did we pass it?”
“We couldn’t have passed it, we’re nearly completely sober!”
“Do you want to keep walking?”
“If we walk any further, I wanna take a cab.”
We want hamburgers. Right now.
“Who the hell said that?”
Eat. Burger. Now.
Thus it was decided, and we went inside to be greeted by the perkiest, most flair-adorned Portuguese waitress we had ever set eyes on up to that point, who introduced us to another, perkier, more flair-adorned Portuguese waitress and generally set new record levels of perkiness in a Portuguese dining establishment.
We ordered burgers.
Which were delicious.
And $20 each.
That’s why you’re a butt
I believe that we really are, both molecular-ly and spiritually, what we eat. Our choices about our food says a lot about our values, our beliefs, where we’re from, how we’re feeling, and even our hopes and dreams. On one hand, I was disappointed in myself for taking the easy, safe choice and picking a known (if average) quantity. I don’t like the viral nature of American culture, and I feel a little guilty in helping support its spread across the world. I feel that sharing food is the second most intimate thing you can can do with another person, if only because after the first most intimate thing I usually want a sandwich.
ON THE OTHER HAND
That restaurant was packed with locals. They were at the bar. They were at the tables with their kids. They were in the gift shop buying t-shirts. No one is forcing anyone to eat $20 hamburgers, they’re lining up for the privilege! So maybe my choice was a little lazy, or immoral. Maybe I also was a little homesick and craving a little food for my soul. I think it’s entirely possible that one person can wander down a dark alley and try the most incredible Russian food at a brand new restaurant one night and go to Hard Rock the next, because people can hold contradictory ideas in their minds and believe them to both be true.
I was born outside of the US.
I have lived in 3 different countries.
At one point, I spoke 3 languages (2 of them are a now a little rusty).
I have stepped foot outside of the airport in at least 7 different countries, and the Glorious Nation of Alabama.
I have had tourists stop and ask me for directions in 4 different countries.
A Cuban asked me where the iHop was. In Miami. In Spanish.
In short, I think I have some pretty damn good international street cred.
There has been nowhere I have visited that has a greater diversity of quality food than the US of A. I am lucky and incredibly spoiled to have authentic, amazing food from nearly every country in the world no more than an hour away from my house. So deep down, I’m okay with sitting on the wrong side of the Atlantic, eating a hamburger or drinking a Starbucks, because I miss my home and I miss my family.
Also, I had Penne all’Arrabbiata Tuesday.
I asked them to go heavy on the the nuance.