One of my most embarrassing travel food memories involves the notoriously stinky Chinese tofu. Although I’d eaten it before back home, I never quite realized just how pungent its stench was until I went to Shanghai. Rounding a corner in the Yuyuan Gardens, I took in a big whiff of the aforementioned tofu and immediately turned to my guide and asked, “Is there an open sewer nearby?”
“Uh, no,” he said. “It’s just the tofu. I thought you said you were Chinese.”
Ouch. (But totally well deserved.)
Anyway, aside from my occasional cultural cuisine gaffes, what I really love about learning about new foods when I travel is how food and all of its accompanying rituals reveal a place and a culture to you so instantaneously. From the utensils that you use to pick it up to the company you keep when eating it, food, to me, is the ultimate—and universal—common denominator.
Another great thing about food is its ability to, quite literally, bring people together. And, in the process of doing that, it also helps you get over even some of the roughest of times, no matter where you are. That was that case for me when my friends and I decided to spend part of our Labor Day weekend at the inaugural L.A. Times Food & Wine Festival.
One of my friends was initially on the fence about going. Too much hot weather and too many people, she thought. In retrospect, yes, it was pretty toasty—so much so that I bailed on my friend Justina during a “Top Chef” panel discussion in order to satiate my hunger and fend off an impending heat stroke. My self-prescribed cure? Red velvet chocolate chip pancake bites from The Buttermilk Truck. (Sorry, Justina!) And yes, there were lots of people—the event sold out.
But even with the crowds and the heat, I’m so glad that we all went and truly relished our holiday—and all those thousands of calories, too. A part of me sort of wishes that I were exaggerating the total calorie counts, but I’m not (trust me, I have three other witnesses/accomplices to back me up). The other part, well, it doesn’t regret anything in the least bit.
Nevertheless, here are just a few of my favorite items from our veritable smorgasbord …
In the time that it took us to wait for our tacos and basil-mint lemonade from the Nom Nom Truck, we also sampled ice cream (strawberry buttermilk and salted caramel flavors), seafood gumbo from Ragin' Cajun and Wahoo’s tacos, and even tried to win a free T-shirt from a bean bag toss (only Justina succeeded). Yeah, we tend to roll like that.
What I loved most about the free samples of Greek yogurt were the cute bamboo dishes in which they were served.
Although I ate tons of KyoChon Chicken in Seoul last winter, that didn’t stop me from partaking in more of it here …
… Or from taking a spin on its makeshift wheel of fortune. Hey, I got a free tissue box and tape flags from it so please, don’t judge.
A savory duck slider from Campanile was filling.
As was the dosa (a South Indian crepe-like sandwich) from DosaTruck that Jen and I shared. Her portion was sweet potatoes; mine was curried potatoes.
I discovered a new multitasking talent: balancing brownie bites and wine in the same hand.
I also rediscovered one of my favorite donut varieties: the Italian zeppole, from Rosa's Bella Cucina. So did my friend Tricia.
And, luckily, my friends finally got to taste the red velvet chocolate chip pancake bites at the end of the festival.
Although I ate—and drank—exceedingly well that day, what I’ll savor most was being able to spend that time—and all of those meals—with my friends. That entire day, for me, was the absolute best way to indulge in some much-needed comfort food (and wine).
Those kinds of experiences and memories just can’t be bought, and there aren’t any recipes for crafting them together. It’s a little bit like when you travel, I suppose—there’s no magic formula for putting together the perfect trip or experience, no matter how far—or close—you go. But here’s a little tip: a heaping helping of good food never hurts.