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Where They Ate: Authors, Eaters, and Food and Travel Writers Tell Their Favorite Eating Experiences of 2010
I've always been baffled when I hear someone say eating is overrated. After all, these types of people, the thick-necked fratboys of the food world who mindlessly consume things only to feed the pain of hunger, are completely ignoring one of their senses. For most of us, though, eating is more than just sustenance. It's what propels us out the door and onto airplanes and down alleyways in dodgy parts of towns our parents would have warned us about. It's what makes us risk a night of being planted on the toilet seat or blowing our paycheck for a four-star dinner at an acclaimed restaurant.
And so I decided, with the year coming to a close, to break out my rolodex and ask some great eaters one simple question: where were your best meals of the year?
After the jump, where they ate: authors, eaters, and food and travel writers tell their favorite eating experiences of 2010.
• Frank Bruni
Former New York Times restaurant critic and author of the books Ambling Into History and Born Round: A Story of Family, Food, and a Ferocious Appetite; twittilicious twitterer.
Three wildly different moments from 2010 stand out: moments of complete and utter eating bliss, when the world shrinks to the size of your table and what's on it and how deliriously happy you are to be making your way through it and how sad you are, already, in the course of it, that it will come to an end. In chronological order:
--I remember a lunch of fried octopus fillets at Casa Aleixo, a rustic and charming restaurant in the beautiful city of Porto. The Portuguese love--and do so, so right by--octopus, and this was a treatment of it I'd never had: essentially thin octopus cutlets, if you will, prepared by these elderly, stout women in white in a nearby open kitchen of abundant Old World charm.
• Gary Shteyngart
Author of the novels The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Absurdistan, and, most recently, A Super Sad True Love Story; one of The New Yorker's 20 best fiction writers under 40; contributing editor at Travel + Leisure.
I ate the most awesome thing in Vancouver at a restaurant called Vij's. It was called a Punjabi Heart Attack, it came on a spoon and it involved mostly ghee, the clarified butter. More than that I can't recall.
-- Fresh cider donuts at a farm stand in the Hudson Valley. The donut was warm and sweet, the air was bright and cold, and I could have eaten a dozen. I don't know how I managed to stop.
• Tim Cahill
Author of several books, including Lost in My Own Backyard and Hold the Enlightenment
--I was a visiting professor at San Jose State University last winter/spring semester. I drove to that job in San Jose from my home in Montana. The drive started in January, in the midst of a nasty ground blizzard with temperatures near zero. I arrived in San Jose two days later. The house I'd rented--sight unseen--had an orange tree in the backyard. We don't see a lot of those in Montana and the first thing I did was pick one of my rented oranges. It may have been the best orange I've ever eaten. I think circumstances had something to do with the taste.
In retrospect, it was a stupid thing to do. No, actually, I knew at the time that it was a stupid thing to do. And when you drag along your 7-year-old daughter, stupid actions become grossly irresponsible.
And yet climbing Volcano Pacaya in Guatemala (which entailed trekking first up a steep dirt path for an hour and then over jagged, brutally sharp outcroppings of new rock for another hour) is something I have trouble regretting. I got to watch my little Trixie (her nickname) conquering, with single-minded determination, what was likely the greatest physical challenge she'd ever encountered. It was a really grueling hike, and yet she didn't complain once. In fact, the 20-something backpackers who were with us couldn't keep up with this middle-aged mom and her mountain-goat of a child. And then, when we got to the top, we made use of the long sticks we'd been carrying to roast marshmallows over the lava. It was the equivalent of a champagne toast to my first grader, and, without a doubt, my top eating experience of 2010.
That all being said, I really can't recommend this experience to others at this time. A month after we made our trek, almost to the day, Pacaya erupted, killing at least four people, badly injuring 70 others and damaging hundreds of homes. Its apparently still quite active.
--The Glenview, Isle of Skye
--The tuna festival in Zahara de las Atunes on the Atlantic Coast of Spain. We roamed from restaurant to restaurant, sampling tuna tapas and voting for our favorites. By midnight we were following an old fisherman's wife as she danced in the streets.
• Daniel Mauer
The most memorable meal I had this past year was also the least expected. I was traveling down the Lewis and Clark Highway, along the river that separates Washington from Oregon, when I saw a crudely drawn sign saying "SMOKED FISH." I forced my friend to make a U turn and we drove into what was essentially a makeshift trailer park where some fishermen were camped next to the water. One guy, a Native American of few words, emerged from his car, and after showing me his homemade wooden smoker, he sold me his last bag of smoked salmon (or at least he said it was the last bag-- he clearly sensed that I was excited enough to pay heroin prices for it). It was incredible-- just thinking of those chewy, briny little nuggets of fish, and the way they lingered in my mouth long after I ate them, makes me want to build a smoker in my backyard. Months later while I was driving through Nova Scotia I encountered a guy selling smoked salmon out of the trunk of his car-- it still kills me that I didn't have enough cash on me to get some smoked cod as well. The guy definitely didn't take credit cards.
Host of the Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods; author of The Bizarre Truth; prolific twitterer.
--I am not often at home and when I am I try to sit on the couch or in the backyard, unmoving, immobile, stationary...but my Dad came into town and I wanted to get out and about for one night at least. He and my wife and I went to Piccolo, a restaurant I am convinced is the best new restaurant to open in the Midwest in years. The brainchild of owner/chef Doug Flicker, this small 16 seat café offers extremely food forward cookery, modern in style but firmly rooted in traditional flavors. It's rootsy elemental cooking. Flicker cooks with wisdom, his food is off the beaten path, humble indeed, but out of this world. My favorite dish is a signature of sorts, he takes brown eggs, scrambles them delicately, turns a dollop or so out into a lowslung hammock of a bowl, pairs them with slow cooked pigs trotters that have been braised, pickled, and then pulled, the meat and gelatinous nubbins pan-crisped at the last minute before being snuggled up against the egg. Finished with truffle butter and seriously good Parmesan, this dish is a small notion of what food is like in the afterlife.
--Chops Grill on Oasis of the Seas:
• Andrea Sachs
Staff writer and editor at the Washington Post Travel section.
Geka's in Elmira, N.Y., replaces the meat with heart and soul. Once a month, the vegetarian/vegan restaurant offers free food to those in need of a hot and healthy feast. At the kitchen window, a caring arm handed out plates of homemade lasagna, vegetable curry, and salad topped with a lemony tofu dressing. As a thank you, I ordered an additional meal (rice and beans, steamed broccoli, crusty bread), happy to give back with my stomach and my wallet.
This past summer, I spent a week on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, a kind of Land of the Lost for heritage livestock, heirloom vegetables, and merroir-specific oysters and crabs. Exmore Diner, an honest to God stainless steel clunker, served my favorite meal of the trip: fried drum ribs, fried swelling toads, and fresh collards. You want to talk local foods? The Eastern Shore in general, and the Exmore Diner in particular, had all the credentials and none of the pretense.
• Katie Parla
--Speckfest in Alto Adige
• Don George
Here are my top three eating experiences in 2010:
Author of No Touch Monkey, Dirty Sugar Cookies, and, most recently, Zinester's Guide to New York City.
Tong Sam Gyup Goo Ee Korean Restaurant
I'm still not sure he preferred grilling strips of pork belly on a convex grill set into our table over say, Steak Frites at Bar Tabac, but it was delicious, and filling. The novelty of the food and our surroundings provided ample conversational fodder to speed the recovery from the many harsh words unleashed earlier in the day. Our waitress, who spoke Spanish and Korean but very little English, snipped homemade kimchi into bite-size pieces with scissors and showed us how to cook and eat the meat. A big TV in the corner broadcast an Asian newsmagazine-type program concerning, if what I gleaned is accurate, a therapist's attempt to teach the parents of an autistic child how to not resort to violence when everybody was approaching the ends of their tethers. I remember consuming a lot of chili-marinated bean sprouts, while various family members occupied the table across from us, doing homework and dealing with giant mounds of raw produce. (We'd arrived in that nether hour between lunch and dinner) There were only four items on the menu, not counting bibimbap which could be added to any order for $1.99. Actually, there was no menu, just a sign listing the four items. Were I to go back, and I'd like to, I would endeavor to bring another couple, preferably of jolly disposition and expansive palate. We could order BBQ pork and beef intestines in addition to the Sam Gyup Sal, and maybe even laugh about how I virtually ruined Greg's birthday by taking him to Spa Castle.
Bratwurst and sauerkraut in Berlin
• Andrew McCarthy
Actor; director; travel writer; winner of the 2010 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award for Travel Writer of the Year.
Earlier this year I made a batch of popcorn. It was tight and firm, lightly buttered and perfectly salted. It ruined me. I've made at least two dozen batches since, but none have approached the texture or flavor of that bowl. I'm afraid I'll never pop corn again.
• Jessie Sholl
My best meal of the last year was in fact a week of feasting in Tokyo. I'd recently been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an incurable and potentially debilitating autoimmune disease; unwilling to accept my diagnosis, I tried everything to reduce the inflammation in my joints. Since fish oil is a natural anti-inflammatory and miso is nutrient-packed, in Tokyo I gorged myself on sushi and miso soup-with the occasional irresistible steaming bowl of ramen. By the end of the trip all of my joints felt better and my knuckles were visibly less swollen. I've continued to get better and I can't help but credit the week of meals in Tokyo with getting my recovery started.
Read the sequel: "Where They Ate in 2010, Part II: The Ensnackening."