The first thing Azeb wanted to know about me was if I was on Facebook. After that she got to the less important stuff: Where I was from, if I was married, had kids, believed in God — and what was I doing in southern Ethiopia? Azeb, a 25-year-old business student with big glowing eyes and long dark hair, was born and raised not far from where we were having breakfast. We ended up sitting together when we realized we were the only people in the dining room at the Lesiwon Hotel in Yirgacheffe, the namesake town of a region known to coffee cognoscenti for producing some of Ethiopia’s highest-quality coffee beans.
As Azeb scooped up pieces of her omelet with torn-off hunks of bread, as is the Ethiopian custom, I stabbed at mine with a fork and told her about my travels thus far in her country. But it was something I mentioned in passing that seriously broke the ice. Until this trip — specifically the day prior to our chance encounter, when I had driven down from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to the southern part of the country — I had never seen a coffee tree.
Azeb’s mouth fell open, her head tilted heavenward, and she let out a high-pitched laugh. “You’d never seen a coffee cherry before?” she said, and then she just stared at me, her mouth still agape, as if I’d just casually asked her if airplanes drive on invisible roads in the sky.
Anyone who’s visited Las Vegas knows that the formula is fairly cut and dry. Walk up to a table with 60 or so dollars, briefly allow yourself to be tricked into having a good time, then about an hour later, walk away empty handed and slightly shell-shocked. I don’t even mean gambling. I’m talking about the world-renowned Vegas-style all-you-can-eat buffet.
Vegas didn’t invent the casino, and it certainly didn’t invent the buffet. But when Las Vegas’ own Herb Macdonald charged a single dollar for his adaptation of the European tradition of smörgåsbord dining, all-you-can-eat was born and pushed to its furthest, most American limits. While Europeans were perusing modest selections of breads, cheeses, cold fish, and desserts, Las Vegas diners were presented with ever-growing heaps of luxurious-sounding food.
The Las Vegas buffet was marketed as an idealist’s dream restaurant, a place where everyone could win. Dad could have three kinds of steak, the picky eater could have seven different shapes of buttered pasta, grandpa could have two courses of shrimp cocktail interrupted by a slice of triple chocolate cake – all at the same table. The idea is so convincing that families, complete with restless children, are willing to wait two, three, even four hours before spending upwards of $60 a head just to get a coveted table at buffets at the Bellagio or Caesar’s Palace. MORE
“Two hundred and fifty grams of Bombay halwa for me and amba barfi for your mom,” my dad began on the phone. I was nervous about the task he had assigned me. But there was no way to avoid it; surely my parents would have been incredibly disappointed had I returned without the good stuff.
A trip to Poona city in Maharashtra, India is not complete without a trip to Chitale Bandhu, the premier sweet shop that is always crowded, since it carries the best mithai in the city. I had been there many times before, but always with my mother. Going there alone meant that I was faced with the responsibility of ordering the perfect amount of sweets and battling an impatient crowd of customers.
I am hopeful that Portuguese wines will take off in the United States one day and I eagerly await the meteoric rise of Portugal’s great-value reds, either from a famed region like the Douro Valley or from lesser-known regions such as the Alentejo or Dão or Setúbal. My wait has been very much in the vein of Waiting for Godot, and it has been going on two decades now. I remain patiently optimistic.
I’m always speaking with people who are fixated on a quixotic quest to find that “great bottle under $10.” I often get frustrated with this mythical idea of the under-$10 bottle, because it’s actually so rare to find one that offers quality and drinkability, let alone complexity. I’m almost always advocating that people bump up at least a few bucks into the $12 to $15 range. A $9.99 wine can just as easily offer bad value as a $29.99 wine can.
Portugal, however, is one big exception, one country that actually produces wines under $10 that offer honest-to-goodness value. Which is why their lack of presence in the U.S. continues to surprise me. MORE
This summer, photographer Rachel Wisniewski found herself careening up the side of a mountain in Italy – toward what turned out to the best meal of her life (so far). Check out her photos below.
“As our tour guide, “Crazy Carmine,” drove us up the winding mountain road in Positano, Italy, I felt my stomach lurch. By the time we reached the mountaintop, I swore that I’d be sick. I didn’t expect Carmine’s next announcement: “It’s lunch time.” He quickly ushered my family into a small, stone home. The sign over the door read “La Tagliata Fattoria.”
Americans love a blueberry festival. This year, they’ll celebrate the small fruit in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, North Carolina, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Virginia, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Vermont, New York, Washington, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Maine. In states red and blue, blueberry fans will pick blueberries, eat blueberry cakes, drink blueberry milkshakes, watch blueberry pie-eating contests, buy blueberry art, and run blueberry 5Ks to celebrate nature’s synchronous gifts of berries and summer. MORE
A few weeks ago I ate horse. On purpose, while a scandal erupted in Europe regarding the presence of horse DNA in frozen meals and processed meat products. Traveling in Mongolia, my husband, Garrett, and I wanted to eat like locals. So we ponied up to a table in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, scanned the restaurant’s menu, and ordered horse meat soup.
Our first bite of the thin broth wasn’t bad—slightly salty, with a hint of pepper. Not four stars, but serviceable. We stirred, and up popped hunks of yellowish fat, goopier than Vaseline, meant to bestow some flavor. Then we found the meat.
I tried not to grimace as I took a second swig of rakija from the tall plastic water bottle. I winced slightly, but then smiled and was met with chuckles and applause. I don’t usually drink straight booze at lunch, but I couldn’t refuse, not just out of politeness, but also out of curiosity. As the warmth of the homemade moonshine spread through my body, I looked toward my boyfriend’s grandfather for approval. The snow-haired man who I was told “only puts his teeth in for pictures,” flashed me a toothless grin that told me I’d crossed some sort of threshold of acceptance. He was entertained by how obliging I’d been; taking a swig every time he nudged me playfully with the bottle. We did not speak each other’s language, but I didn’t need a translator to understand that his cajoling was a sincere attempt to make me feel welcome. Despite being an American, if I could handle the drink, that meant there must be some Croat in me somewhere. MORE
Self: “Hello, my name is Erica.” (Insert handshake).
Prospective Employer: “Erica, nice to meet you. Tell me about yourself.”
Self: “I just finished working on a cruise ship in Hawaii.”
Prospective Employer: “A cruise ship! Doesn’t everyone on the ship have to be analyzed by a shrink? Who knows whom you may be living with!”
Self: “It wasn’t the crew I was worried about.”
She sat with perfect posture at a table for two next to the ship window, book poised in her hands as if it were a bird. Her eyes flitted up at me when I approached her side. “Could you stand toward the end of the table, please,” she inquired. “My neck cramps when I turn it too much to the left,” she explained.
“Zut alors!” my host mother sighed, exasperated, as I admitted that afternoon’s encounter with her respected, renowned winemaking neighbor. In typical “who… me?” fashion, I had managed to achieve local infamy in less than five days.
At sixteen, I was as ignorant of their language as of their wine culture when I alighted upon the cherished terroir de la France. And, if life wasn’t already terrifying enough at that tender point, thanks to crippling isolation and loneliness, I almost got myself killed learning about “The Almighty French Grape.”
The first thing I wish I had known before I approached the car rental kiosk: Almost all cars in Europe are manual. The second: European car rental companies don’t really care about silly Americans like me that don’t know how to drive them.
Many young Americans are just like me. I learned how to drive in an automatic car. Five years have passed and I still cannot operate one with a manual transmission. At home, in my good old automatic, this is never an issue. But when I arrived in Europe last fall for a self-guided tour through wine regions in Spain, France, and Italy, my inability to manage a stick shift suddenly became a hindrance. Luckily, one rental company offered a solution to my problem: the Smart Car, which has an automated manual transmission and can be driven in either mode. It was extremely tiny, like a toy car — much smaller than any car I had ever driven. I wondered where exactly I was supposed to put my oversized suitcase. But while it wasn’t the most comfortable ride for a lengthy journey through wine country — certainly not very impressive to roll up to a winery in — the little car took me far.
When Denmark realized a few years ago that it had an oyster invasion, it turned the problem into a tourism opportunity, inciting people to gather up the pests and eat them. It wasn’t too difficult: Danes and oyster-eating go way back, at least to the Stone Age, as evidenced by ancient heaps of discarded shells called kjökkenmödding. In 1587, King Frederick II made oyster fishing a royal monopoly—those who broke the law three times risked the death penalty.
For most of their history, Danes ate the Ostrea edulis, a flat species indigenous to Europe that also goes by the name Belon (though this appellation is normally reserved for those that come from an estuary in France). But overfishing, pollution and disease have driven the flat oyster nearly to extinction, so the Pacific oyster, or Crassostrea gigas, is now the type most people eat the world over. Introduced from Asia to the United States in the early 20th century and to France in the 1960s, the Pacific is more resistant to parasites and variations in temperature. However, in some places—including the western coast of Denmark—it has become an invasive species, blanketing the sea floor like beds of concrete. MORE
When it comes to wine, we rarely consider its journey from grape to glass. Instead, we fixate on describing its characteristics, like fresh and fruity aromas, savory flavors or an elegant finish. Sometimes we complain that the complexity of a wine doesn’t correspond with the amount we paid for it. And far too often, we ponder the perfect food and wine pairings.
We readily use our senses of sight, smell, touch, and taste to evaluate the quality of wine, but we seldom consider the story behind that bottle. Every wine has a specific place where it was made and the greatest ones have the fingerprints of passionate and intriguing workers all over them. Just like knowing the roasted chicken you are preparing for dinner was raised cage-free or the organic apple you’re about to bite into isn’t covered in pesticides, hearing the details of any bottle of wine can absolutely make a difference in your enjoyment of it. At least, it does for me. MORE
In the Cayman Islands, there’s chicken, and then there’s what the locals refer to as the “other white meat”: endangered sea turtle.
Most vacationers misunderstand and consequently avoid the native dishes on the island that feature turtle, but I wasn’t an ordinary tourist during the trip I took to the Caymans last month. I was returning to a place where I had lived as a young girl, and I longed for the distinct taste of turtle that marked my childhood. When my family lived there, dishes with turtle in them were a regular part of my diet. I ate the meat in stews and soups, as well as in the form of pan-fried steaks. Consuming turtle was the normal thing to do, and I never thought much of it. MORE