Eating Abroad

The Importance of Sharing a Meal

I have discovered, while traveling in France and Italy, a quieter side of food culture that I appreciate even more than the range of cheese selections at the deli. In the past two months I have learned how to appropriately pair wine and pasta. I have learned how to make homemade gnocchi and cheese soufflé. I have also sat down to dinner with strangers and left the table with new friends, shared meals with distant relations and risen to the promise of future visits. Through dining, I’ve learned about people: their lives, their tastes, their hobbies. I’ve learned about their senses of humor, their joys, and their pain. I learned, during a three-hour lunch in Italy, that at the table, no story is too embarrassing, or moment too intimate to be shared with the group, yet as the chairs are pushed in, formality returns. I’ve grown to appreciate not only what food is—its ingredients and how it’s created—but also what food and the ritual of sharing a meal can reveal about those with whom it is shared.

Before I go on to describe the incredible meals I’ve eaten and the wonderful conversations I’ve had, I would like to acknowledge that I am writing about food and drink in Italy and France. Incredibly unoriginal, yet I do feel I have something to add, a twist to the well-known narrative. Despite the fact that I am spending a traditional semester abroad in Europe, I am doing so in a nontraditional way. I am not taking classes at a historical univeristy in a beautiful city, rather, I took the semester off and have been traveling throughout Europe spending time with, and learning from, the people I know who live here. My connections have taken me from city centers to hamlets in the hills, but always end at a dining room table with a local meal. I have a eurail pass, a friend from infancy, and very little shame in calling upon distant relatives and old friends to house us, and as it follows, to feed us.

The first people I met in this context were my WWOOF (world wide opportunities on organic farms) host and hostess, Bernard and Catherine. They own a small bed and breakfast near the Mediterranean coast in southwestern France. During dinner on our first night we exchanged pleasantries in a broken English-French combination, referencing a well-thumbed translation dictionary and smiling a lot. When I had exhausted my French vocabulary, silence fell, smiles widened, and seconds stretched into minutes. Bernard eventually rose and produced their wwoofing book—clearly a first night conversation starter. The book turned out to be pages and pages of hand written recipes from their hundreds of wwoofers. Our most important task was to add to the book, to share a traditional meal from our country with them. We made Fish Chowder—chowdah, as its pronounced in Maine—and biscuits. The night we cooked, the over-polite, forced small-talk gave way to genuine conversation. I didn’t ask mundane, grammatically correct questions in French about the weather patterns near the vineyard, and they didn’t tell us we had done a good job pruning the hedges. We discussed French and American Universities, debt, the mortgage on their bed and breakfast, and the first time Bernard met Catherine’s parents. We didn’t always agree and we didn’t always understand each other—the dictionary was still in high use—but for that meal we were equals. It didn’t matter that we were wwoofers and they our hosts, or that they were middle-aged entrepreneurs struggling to remain afloat in a declining economy, while we were young students traveling without obligation. At the dining room table we met as strangers and left as friends. We didn’t make any groundbreaking realizations; we just discussed what we knew. Each of us arrived with our own unique perspectives and knowledge. It was simply an exchange of understanding—shared as easily as butter or salt.

Dinner that night made a lasting impression. I arranged as many more shared meals as possible, eager to experience other such exchanges. In each new place we followed new traditions, sampling local specialties, trying everything. In this way, we learnt the values of our hosts, and of their countries. In return we offered insight into our past experiences—culinary and otherwise.

In France we learned respect for locality. Over raw-wheat bread and Camembert in Aig Vives, my uncle explained the renown of French craftsmanship, how each place had its speciality. The bread we were eating, homemade down the street, was famous throughout Southern France.

In Northern Italy we tried Tartufo Bianco, white truffles, and experienced what it means to appreciate quality. A few shreds over pasta was enough to entice our host to a remote village over an hour away where truffles  are a specialty. The quantity was irrelevant, as they were unmatched in flavor.

In Rome it was impressed upon us the importance of enjoying oneself. After a simple meal of pasta and red sauce, my friend’s dad pulled out a bottle of homemade Grappa, a remarkably strong drink made by distilling wine down to nearly pure alcohol. The Italians drink it after a meal because “grappa makes you happy.”

 My food experiences abroad have not been guided by a desire to try every regional specialty (which is inevitably the most delicious item on the menu), rather by a desire to understand the regional people—to see them in a context that is their own. In France and Italy food is important—not just the “what,” but the “how.” Participating in that has offered me glimpses into the authentic, honest lives of the people who live in these flavorful places.