Breaking news: our August Thankful Thursday winner is Brian Frauenknecht! Congrats, Brian! Also, our three additional winners who will receive a copy of one of Jessie’s books are Catherine Larkland, Janet Lomba, and robeader. Jessie will be in touch with you all. Please message her your emails.
Edith/Maddie here, bringing an old series new life.
Last month on the Jungle Red Writers blog, Hallie Ephron hosted a group post called “Frogs legs, artichokes, and buffalo milk… memorables on the menu.” I’m a regular commenter over there, and the topic brought up so many food memories for me. I write foodie mysteries, and I have traveled and lived abroad quite a lot in my past.
Also, my first and third mysteries, originally written as Tace Baker, have re-released as Edith Maxwell books with fresh editing and new covers. Speaking of Murder and Murder on the Bluffs feature Quaker linguistics professor Lauren Rousseau, who is also a world traveler and, like me, loves to eat.
To celebrate, please come along with me today on a little chronological international tour of some of the best and most unusual foods I’ve eaten in my sixty-seven years. Bear in mind that my upbringing included no more exotic foods than canned and packaged Mexican foods like tamales and tacos, and the occasional can of chop suey. I don’t think an actual bulb of garlic ever crossed the threshold of my childhood home, so this history was quite the journey. Read down for a giveaway.
Note: All my early travels were, of course, recorded with a real camera and printed on paper. I basically never took pictures of food back then, so we don’t have a lot of documentation of the actual meals and foods in this post.
Mexico, Roasted Goat. The first time I left the US was on a school camping trip to Ensenada in Baja California, Mexico. I was a young sixth grader, but I had an adventurous palate. A local organization put on a goat roast for us. I still remember the flavor of that tender meat.
California, escargot. My high school French teacher, Mr. Grindell, was almost more interested in teaching us French culture than the language. Once he took French Club to a French restaurant, where yes, I ate escargot. With enough butter, anything is palatable! No wine to wash it down with in ninth grade, alas.
Brazil, everything. In 1970 I went off at a young seventeen for a year as an exchange student in southern Brazil. OMG. Churrasco. Feijoada (black bean stew heavy with pork feet and other meats). Delicate sweet desserts of coconut, egg yolk, and sugar. My first beer. My first Caipirinha (like a mojito, sort of). And excellent coffee. All of it opened my eyes to the possibilities of new foods.
Balboa Island, mushrooms, etc. During my college years at UC Irvine, I lived at the beach in a house with three housemates (we all became vegetarians). The food discoveries (see prev note on my culinary upbringing)! Nani sauteed a pound of mushrooms slowly in a lot of butter. We joined a food coop in Laguna Beach and cooked leeks, bulgur wheat, soybeans. We made spinach souffle, miso soup, and our own tofu. My taste horizons widened further.
Mexico, fish tacos. Back to Baja in 1974, on spring break during my last year of college. We ate fish tacos decades before US restaurants were offering them on menus. My friends and I bought them from a street vendor who roasted the uber-fresh fish, added local tomatoes and cabbage and probably some kind of hot salsa, and wrapped it in flour tortillas. With a Tecate beer on the side. To die for.
Japan, everything. I taught English conversation to engineers for two years in the Tokyo area. I ate truly fresh sushi (and please, NO avocados…). Hot roasted sweet potatoes sold from a cart at night (and warm sake from a vending machine at the train station, which was next to the condom vending machine…). Teriyaki chicken and eel skewers, also street food. Shabu-shabu, a broth you swish vegetables and thinly sliced raw beef through in a pot at the table – and then drink the broth. Ryokan breakfasts of grilled fish, rice, and miso soup. Spicy kimchee and crunchy dried anchovies as drinking snacks. And so much more. I’ve used those experiences (and foods) in two published short stories: “Yatsuhashi for Lance” and “Sushi Lessons.”
Southern Indiana. Then I was off to southern Indiana to grad school, where I learned to make sopapillas from a New Mexican friend, West African leaf stew from the other Edith in the linguistics doctoral program, and whole-wheat banana walnut pancakes from my friends who ran the Story General Store (pancakes now offered in Robbie Jordan’s Country Store).
I fit in a trip to Sweden and London during my grad school years, but mostly remember the pubs. A more memorable trip was visiting my Greek friend Marios in Thessaloniki, Greece. We sat outside eating exquisitely flavored fish and eggplant. We dipped bread in the sauce, talking politics all the way and sipped Metaxa late into the night. Then I spent six weeks in Salzburg, where I remember eating a stunning Hungarian goulash filled with whole black peppercorns.
Portugal, everything. After I moved to Boston, I traveled to Portugal three times to see Amalia, a Portuguese friend who is half English. We ate just-caught fish in a seaside restaurant in the south and sipped true Port wine in Oporto. At the end of a fabulous meal in Lisboa with Dao red wine, we drank little espressos and sipped bagaceiro, a liqueur made from the lees of wine. Stepping out into the sunshine after that combo was stunning.
Quebec, poutine. My sister Janet settled in the Quebec countryside with a Quebecois beekeeper in the late 1970s, and I visited as often as I could. At that time, every village had its own bakery and its own poutine (pronounced “pu-TSIN) stand. I loved (still do) the crispy fries with tender cheese curds and meat gravy served in a little open box. Jannie and Pierrot were vegetarians, so they made their own fries from home-grown potatoes and a miso gravy. Also yummy.
Grenoble, wine and bread and cheese and…. After I moved to Boston and had my first child, my husband and I took baby Allan to live in France for a semester. We discovered the wine cask store, where you bring your own bottle to get refilled. And the superb permanent open market a block away. Breads and cheeses to die for. Peaches from Provence. Pastries, OMG…
Mali, Tigedigena, rose papayas. A few years later we lived in Mali for a year with our three- and five-year old sons. Most foreigners hire a local man to cook, clean, and do laundry. Doumbia was so talented in the kitchen, and often prepared Tigedigena – peanut stew – redolent with chicken and all kinds of vegetables in a thick nutty sauce, spiced by foronto, a Scotch bonnet/habanero type of pepper. We also savored small rose-fleshed papayas in season, and tiny bananas sold by a woman on the side of the road.
California, fruit and candy. I’m a California native but haven’t lived there since I went off to Japan. Taking my sons to visit my mother in Ventura during February vacation every year was always a fruit fest. Eating local oranges and strawberries when snow is still on the ground back in Massachusetts was a huge treat. And to pick up a box of my beloved Sees peanut brittle? Heavenly.
Burkina Faso, Thieboudienne. We also had a cook during our year in Ouagadougou seven years later. Compaore made the most fabulous Thieboudienne, a Senegalese broken-rice dish cooked with tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, carrots, and fish, either tiep or another fresh-water fish, even tilapia.
Barcelona, paella. We depressurized with a week in Barcelona and Costa Brava on our way back from Burkina in June, 1999. Our sons, then ten and twelve, hadn’t had American fast food in a year. My husband and I wanted to eat good Spanish food. So we found a small family restaurant next door to a Burger King. The boys got their fill of burgers and shakes while we ate amazing paella and drank Spanish wine. All were happy!
I haven’t lived anywhere exotic since that year. We’ve had some lovely vacation trips, though, with excellent food. When my younger son JD spent a semester in Morocco ten years ago, Hugh and I went for visit. We ate amazing fresh seafood in Essouira, a delicious ground-meat sandwich in the mysterious enormous maze that is the market in Fez, tea with JD’s host family, and a delicious tagine dinner in Rabat.
Mystery conferences have taken me plenty of delicious places. Most memorable has to be Bouchercon in New Orleans. Leslie Budewitz and I set out for beignets at Café du Monde one morning, and they were everything I wanted them to be. I also dined on a big greasy po-boy and ate all the other typical dishes.
I also traveled on vacation twice to Costa Rica and twice to Puerto Rico, the latter in early March at the last possible moment before the lockdown. Costa Rica was more about the views and being warm in January, although there was that swim-up hot-springs bar in Arenal. In Puerto Rico, I cherished watching my sons cut down a coconut at Plenitud PR, the eco-farm where my younger son JD lives and works. You can’t beat fresh coconut milk. And then JD picked and cut open a star fruit and a mango. Yummy!
Is it any wonder I write two series with recipes in them?
Readers and Wickeds: What has been your most memorable meal, whether abroad or closer to home? Did you read the Lauren Rousseau mysteries first time around or are they new stories to you? I’ll send one of you an ebook of Speaking of Murder and another Murder on the Bluffs.