Note: This is a lengthy, reflective piece, a personal attempt to thresh out issues I faced during my month of travel. It is deliberately written so as not to reveal specific locations and thus, no real names and addresses are given. I recommend reading this when you’re relaxed and have the time.
The lobster corndog is as soft as her words are biting. I don’t want this meal to turn into a feast of recrimination so I let her talk. I dip one dog into the accompanying sauce of whole grain mustard melded into crème fraiche. I like its temper of tang caressed by smooth and the bonus of mustard seeds flitting through my teeth. I sip my Cosmopolitan, feeling the fragility of the glass’s stem. It’s as fragile as I feel right now.
There’s a reverent lull in conversation once the foie gras PB&J arrives. Ah, foie gras. Resistant to teeth but submissive to tongue, it possesses a firm but melting texture – how is that possible? Foie gras has a feral flavor but it’s faint here; instead, it forms an alliance with the pistachio crust it lays on and its ravishing strawberry gelée atop. The studied carelessness of the pistachio butter swipe on the plate invites just that, so I swipe my finger into it and taste. It’s creamy and subtly nutty and assuages more than just my hunger.
A traveler brings on her travel many hopes, the solitary traveler even more so. I’m on this trip because I’m in search for stimulus. And I’m looking for something, although what that is exactly, I don’t yet know. I wish this trip to be the culmination of my current contemplations and fever dreams.
At a restaurant, I’m reminded that seemingly simple intentions can have complex underpinnings. In a black melamine bowl – really, why not a lighter-hued receptacle instead? – sit roasted dates. Their bodies are swathed in bands of bacon, and seemingly inconsequential ingots of parmesan peek out from between. It begs to be picked up with fingers so I obey.
I bite down on sweet succulence and feel myself fall limp. The date’s sticky smokiness echoes the bacon’s own, which ring in its inherent saltiness resounding that of the parmesan’s. I eat another. Then another. It’s too good, it feels almost illicit.
New emotions explore my every moment as I continue on my journey. Around me, people are tethered to their hands-free headsets and iPads; the elixirs of their lives are their iPhones (almost always black in color, but the super hip have white). I have neither. The buzzing liveliness of the neighborhoods I walk through is my soundtrack, the conversations I have are face to face. What I am right now is a student being taught a multitude of lessons on her travels. So I’m learning to trust my judgment.
I remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books of my youth where one decision would impact the protagonist’s fate. I wryly remember peeking ahead and being able to ascertain from these sneak peeks how the ending would turn out. Too bad it’s not like that in real life I muse as I nibble on a cheese wedge that I’ve dipped into wild honey still oozing from its honeycomb. I’ve always adored these charcuterie boards because of the possibilities they present: pair salami with cheese – but which cheese? Every cheese yields various, resultant flavors depending on what it’s paired with. Or will I consider the dates and melon finished with a bite of sourdough rye? But say nothing of the rainbow of pickled vegetables because they’ll go only with the burrata and cranberry whole wheat raisin walnut batard topped with mustard-laced prosciutto. Unlike Choose Your Own Adventure books and charcuterie boards, there’s no peeking ahead to see what life has in store for me.
As is true when I rip myself out of my familiar, my senses are on high alert, my experiences run in Technicolor and High Definition. My attention becomes so sharp that every taste, sight, emotion, and motion hits me with a gasp. As such, when happiness appears on this trip for me, it is unrepentant and I revel in it. Warm sea urchin (uni) sits on a gilded glory of mashed potatoes. It’s an island unto itself – no, a peninsula of pleasure for it juts into a sea made of lemon beurre blanc heightened with fines herbes pocked with crab. Thick enough to coat my spoon but neither chowder nor soup, it’s so va-va-voom velvety that I’m shocked to hear that my voice has seemingly dropped an octave when I open my mouth to speak. It’s unceasingly amusing to me that the bistro bills this dish under “Appetizers.” I agree, there can be no foreplay more devastating than this.
Other times I find my rapture in bread. I wrench out the doughy arms that jut from a finely-formed ficelle or liberally dip slices of a pain au levain into olive oil, a vista of glistening green on which I scatter needles of rosemary and bullets of sea salt, salty stopgaps to plug my wayward fits of grief.
Another time, I’m overjoyed to be introduced to sweet potato fries. My mind retorts, “Oy, kamote fries lang iyan, ‘day!” I have an undying love for sweet potatoes, any and all kinds. But I’ve never had them like this before. Long, Crayola-orange fingers with ooh-ouch-hot crispy exteriors give way to mealy insides still steaming. And the carnival of dipping sauces that come alongside? This is pure serotonin with aioli on top. Forget Prozac, give me my sweet potatoes.
Oyster stew is something that I’ve only read about in my cookbooks. And when it’s in front of me, it’s one of those rare pleasures where the fantasy lives up to the reality. Oysters engorged with brine and the allure that allows them to be called aphrodisiacs are awash in a creamy dream forged with foam and flashes of thyme. The broth is riddled with reams of bacon, their breath abounding and adding to the enchantment of it all.
The best meal I eat on this trip is unsurprisingly, steak, my favorite food in all the world. I can’t even recall which cuts I eat – a tragedy, that; perhaps tastings of two Custom-Aged USDA Prime Beef and one from Australia? (filet mignon? Rib eye?), I know not now. What I do know is that during this meal, hunger and contentment cocoon me from my presently perpetual travel companions of restlessness and solitude.
When traveling alone, I delight in the company of people I don’t know and I find myself reliant on their kindness. I can talk to anyone about anything and I’m not shy about asking for help. I realize that this longing for connection is one of the needs of a solitary traveler. Ryann, whom I meet at a high-end boutique, urges me to ditch that neighborhood for this – “The view is worth it!” She exclaims and scrawls on my map the numbers of the buses I should take to get there. We converse for a good half hour and when I leave, we hug like old friends. “Remember that spark, that spark!” she calls out to me when I wave goodbye. What she says imprints on my mind the way her fiery pink bustier dress and black combat boots do, physical manifestations of her brand of verve and fire. I covet her certainty about her place in the world.
Like that, much can be said about the confidences exchanged and afforded by the anonymity of strangers. There’s Tina, who’s on the same bus riding downtown. “I like your hair,” she asserts and that starts off a conversation, a rather personal one, that continues off the bus and on into her favorite coffee shop where she introduces me (and treats me to!) her current coffee favorite: an Americano with a spritz of hazelnut syrup and a splash of half and half. She looks anxious as I take my first sip; I’ve told her that I’m a food writer back home. “Do you like it? Is it ok? I’m not an expert.” Her words rush out. I like the drink very much and tell her so. “Never mind people like me,” I tell her with an encouraging smile. “What’s important is what you like.”
- Greek coffee in an honest-to-god Greek cafe. It wasn’t my thing, though (the coffee, not the cafe).
Coffee, obviously, is one thing that fuels my trip. Contemplated over in cafés, chugged on freeways, or sips stolen through a slit while wending my way through a neighborhood pummeled by rain and wind as I frantically grasp my backpack and maps. I buy coffee from coffeehouses I come across by coincidence or those I purposely seek out. I’m besotted by these places, taken by the way they smell and feel, always full and hungry for them.
- the infamous bacon maple latte
My two-times-daily poison of choice (skip the sleeve, please — I have very high heat tolerance) depends on what my mood dictates. Black mostly, because I’m macho like that but when it’s an especially rough patch I skid across on the trip, then I seek the caress of a cappuccino, especially soy cappuccinos of which I’m growing an alarming attachment to. When I meet a bacon maple latte, I laugh at the hilarity of it but my snicker is silenced by a single sip. Two tablespoons of rendered bacon fat, a glug of maple syrup, two shots of espresso, and enough milk to rob a cow translate into a sheen of oil broken through by my receptive lips. As the liquid pulses through, a breath of bacon quickly overtaken by milk and maple and somewhere in all of this, the espresso steps on toes and shows who’s boss. I get weak and whimper. Oh coffee, it will always be coffee for me.
And cocktails. And wine. I’m still learning about both but their names enchant me like the lyrics of my favorite songs. Love Letter, Major Danger, Belvedere, Cosmopolitan, Ginger Limeade. And the wines: whites, reds, and everything in between from all over the world. As proclaims a sign I see in a wine shop: “Sometimes no matter what the question is, the answer is always wine.” But I’m decided on whiskey: I hate it.
At trip’s end, I’m at a bistro gazing at my bruschetta plate. It’s a masterpiece mosaic made up of housemade ricotta, tomato marmalade, candied olives, roasted garlic confit, and points of grilled crostini. Again, I’m mixing and matching and choosing-my-own-adventure, examples made edible of what I’ve been doing throughout this travel. Memories of it play through my mind like a frenzied slideshow – I’m exhilarated and exhausted with everything that’s happened to me here.
At trip’s beginning, I’m looking for something and I find plenty; not exactly what I was hoping for but the attempt of discovery is the fear of discovery: who knows what I’ll find? I end my trip with more questions than answers, more sorrows than joys but of one thing I’m sure.
With dessert, there’s always a better tomorrow.
You’ll laugh, I know, but this statement has multiple interpretations.
I order the house cinnamon roll. It’s ridiculously large and as big as my outstretched hand, which is reaching for it now. It’s touch-me-hot and sticky and all levels of gratifying. My lips feel a sugar-sting like an eternal game of spin the bottle.
My cellphone beeps. It’s S, my best friend, who’s been keeping tabs on me during my trip. Last night, I texted him that I was coming home.
His reply: “I am looking forward to you coming back and excited that your exodus is over. The past is done but you can make decisions to make the present better. Love you, S.“