Around The World In 80 Dinners Part 15

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Freshness obviously matters as well with produce, but that's less of an issue these days for a careful American consumer because of the increasing number of farmers' markets, roadside farm stands, and groceries and restaurants committed to buying from local suppliers. Diversity of varieties can be a bigger problem. Asian cooks don't just put fresh eggplant in a dish, they pick a specific variety of eggplant to impart a desired and distinctive flavor and texture. A mother-and-daughter team of New Mexico farmers, Eremita and Margaret Campos, once grew many of the dozens of eggplant varieties common in Asia-even the pea-shaped type that adds zesty bitterness to some Thai specialties-but they couldn't sell them. Our cooks and their guests, both in homes and restaurants, aren't ready for such complexity.

Before leaving on the trip, we thought the United States in recent decades was catching up to international culinary capitals in its understanding and appreciation of food. Our experiences abroad undermined some of that parochial confidence. In Australia and South Africa we saw contemporary chefs taking a bold leadership role in transforming the tastes of their nations. They presented exciting, unconventional dishes, exploring the frontiers of fresh local ingredients and elevating the expectations of patrons instead of pandering to them.

American chefs are just as creative and skilled, but the bottom-line consciousness of their restaurants and the resistance of their customers to daring flavors exerts a powerful restraint on their ability to lead in a similar way. Some buck the odds and take risks to appeal to serious eaters, but many of our top talents are content to cook for people who have too little real enthusiasm for eating to bother with doing any cooking of their own. For main course dishes in particular, these chefs offer one of everything-a steak, a chicken ("free-range," of course), a fish, a pork dish (probably tenderloin), etc.-in tasty but standard preparations that won't challenge many palates and can easily be matched or even surpa.s.sed by good home cooks. In Australia and South Africa, we found lots of real restaurant food, fare that went beyond the limitations of a home kitchen and made eating out a wonderful adventure.

Our meals in France and China ill.u.s.trated another kind of strength generally lacking in our country, the devoted respect for a cla.s.sic tradition. In Hong Kong, Provence, and Nice, and at our incredible TV-show banquet in Chaozhou, the best dishes reflected treasured regional tastes that resonated with a sophisticated, contemporary understanding of the core concepts. With a solid grounding in their roots, the chefs refined the old to make it brightly new. In the United States, perhaps only New Orleans possesses a range of fine restaurants with a similar commitment to honoring and honing a venerated local heritage. In most of the land, Americans are so nervous about food and obsessed with this month's health fad that little or nothing from grandmother's table appeals.

Even in the realm of fast food, where we supposedly lead the world for good or bad, we've got lots to learn from street-stand cooks in Singapore, Thailand, Brazil, and other nations, who make and serve their specialties as quickly and efficiently as any eatery in the United States but also offer astonishing levels of flavor and complexity. Despite the well-intentioned preachments of the Slow Food folks, speed is not culinary enemy number one. The big problem is the forgotten joy of eating sensuously and the human fulfillment of sharing that with others.

Neither of us had thought before in quite these terms about travel. We simply a.s.sumed that we travel, therefore we eat, and we should make the most of the eating opportunities. The three-month trip changed the correlation in our minds in a subtle but significant way. Now it seems to us that we eat, therefore we must travel to enjoy the pleasure as fully and pa.s.sionately as possible.

That would be true wherever we live, in the United States, Australia, France, Singapore, or anywhere else. It's not because you can't get good food at home-you just have to be more selective in some places than others-but you can't get all of it in any one spot. Robert Frost once described poetry as "a way of taking life by the throat." So are some kinds of travel.

A few months after our return, friends come to dinner at our house and bring Cheryl a hostess gift of beautiful small cacti in a strikingly colored ceramic pot. She takes one look at the container and says, "I know this seems rude, but I've got to look at the brand name on the bottom of the pot." She does and smiles instantly. "I thought it looked familiar. This Norcal line comes from our friends' factory in Chaozhou, China, where we saw similar pieces."

Cheryl makes northern Thai khao soi for dinner, and while feasting on it, we tell our friends about other great food we had on the journey, refreshing our excitement about the whole experience. Bill wakes early the next morning, as usual, boots his computer, and logs onto the Internet to check our frequent-flier miles. He doesn't say anything about it to Cheryl until the evening, when we're looking together for a place to put our cherished new pot.

"You remember how we started thinking about our trip four years before we went?"

"Yeah, when we realized that we had enough reward miles to begin planning something special."

"Well, I figured out this morning that we're in a similar place now, mainly because of miles we earned from credit-card charges on the trip. And it's four years from our twenty-fifth anniversary. What do you think?"

"Let's do it again!"

About the Authors

CHERYL and BILL JAMISON are the authors of more than a dozen cookbooks and travel guides. They appear regularly on television, and are frequent contributors to publications, including Cooking Light Cooking Light and and Bon Appet.i.t. Bon Appet.i.t. They live just outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. They live just outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

See more of Cheryl and Bill's trip photos at www.cookingwiththejamisons.com.

Visit www.AuthorTracker.com for exclusive information on your favorite HarperCollins author.

ALSO BY Cheryl and Bill Jamison

The Big Book of Outdoor Cooking and EntertainingGood Times, Good GrillingAmerican Home CookingChicken on the GrillA Real American Breakfast

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Around The World In 80 Dinners Part 15 summary

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