My passport has more visa stamps than I would have ever dreamed possible. In a very real way, the document that has granted me entrance into so many far-flung places has also become the outline of a personal food journal.
Although my earliest international journeys took place long before I could describe a foodie, I like to think that something took root in me during those first trips. Hindsight also tells me that I had a lot to learn.
The summer of 1982 was a summer of many firsts. My first time in an airplane also happened to be the first leg of an international flight. It was my first year in the Mississippi Lion’s Band and we were invited to play at the Durban, South Africa, Military Tattoo. Loads of firsts were to follow.
It was in South Africa that I was introduced to meals served in courses. Most of our meals were taken in the hotel, where we almost always had at least four courses: a fish, a soup, an entree’, and a dessert. I had never had a piece of fish served before the main meal. Rather, fish was more of a focus dish, served fried with hushpuppies at Granny’s house, often caught that same day. So for me, this fish course was akin to two meals in one. I was liking this setup.
Before we crossed the equator, I had heard something about the famous South African braai, which is essentially the word in Afrikaans for grilling out. There are several unique foods traditionally served at a braai, but I fear my inexperienced ninth grade palate probably gravitated toward the familiars. Sigh.
Another culinary and cultural surprise that summer was the menu at the concession stand in the stadium where we marched every night. I don’t remember hot dogs and hamburgers, and certainly not peanuts and popcorn and Cracker Jacks. Instead, it was fried meat pies. It was there I convinced myself that the kidney in the steak and kidney pie certainly had to mean red beans. Those were the days long before I was actually seeking out the strange. Ignorance was bliss.
Unfortunately, the most vivid eating memory I have of this first South Africa trip is also a bit embarrassing. In the shops near our hotel, as we searched for souvenirs, someone discovered a candy shop. We had been out of America almost an entire week, probably less, yet you would have thought we had been stranded on a deserted island for months by the way we consumed this so-called “American chocolate”. Yes, American chocolate that we had been deprived of for days on end. Days, I tell you. American chocolate with names like Cadbury, Toblerone and other … European candy makers. The worst part of the story was that I ending up spending most of my souvenir money on these rare and perishable items, with nothing to show for it but some sweet-smelling wrappers. Thank goodness for more seasoned travelers and pals like Al Sills who undoubtedly felt sorry for me and floated me a loan, and to whom I probably still owe a few rand.
My next sojourn across a border was to Canada, a trip which lasted approximately two hours. At the time, I had no idea of what a Canadian meal would entail, and again I am slightly embarrassed as a food enthusiast to share this fuzzy memory. As best I can recall, the culinary portion of this northern run for the border was ordering a Canadian Whopper and a Coca-Cola with French writing on the can. Later in life I would learn at the World of Coca-Cola’s tasting room that Coke made in other countries actually did have slightly different flavors, depending on the unique taste preferences of those citizens. Perhaps I did come away with something truly Canadian that day besides my change at Le Burger King.
As a grown-up I had the chance to go back and experience the South African braai more fully. The closest I have come to Canada since that first trip was through a viewfinder at Niagara Falls a few years ago. Thankfully, my passport was not revoked due to my poor budgeting skills or any cultural faux pas, and I have lived to eat again outside these United States. More travel tales to come.
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .