Vacations are as varied as vacationers, except in one regard: "One of the very nicest things about life," observed Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti, "is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating."
And although dining is something we do multiple times on the most routine of days, meals can take on extraordinary importance when we're traveling.
Our expectations are high as we sit down at an unfamiliar table, and why shouldn't they be? A cuisine almost always tastes best at its source, where native ingredients are fresh and abundant, chefs are inspired by their ancestors' innovations rather than by cooking schools, and the sensory setting -- the quality of light at strange latitudes, the aromas unique to every cuisine, the sound of an otherwise incomprehensible language -- all remind us that we are not about to have a routine experience.
We return home from Mexico, Thailand, Ethiopia, Louisiana, China, Italy, India, Japan, Texas, Morocco, Jamaica, California, Peru, Spain, Turkey, New England, Vietnam and France excited by variations of cuisines we thought we knew.
There are meals where the enjoyment comes predominantly from inventive combinations of flavors, but there are also meals, particularly when we're on the road, in which people and settings play equally important roles. When this happens, the meal becomes a medium that opens doors to a local culture and provides a memorable narrative.
But a few notes about that narrative: We may share photos of food we're about to eat on Instagram or Pinterest and then, on Twitter, hashtag the name of the famous chef's restaurant where we're dining. We may post a Facebook status update to brag about what a fabulous meal we just ate at a taverna, trattoria, street cart, bistro, tapas bar, beach shack or cafe. And if sharing that experience is rewarding for you, terrific, but no matter how many "likes" you collect, it's unlikely anyone else is quite as interested in your meals as you are.
On the other hand, throw a party after you return from a trip to a particularly interesting foodie destination and serve dishes you discovered while traveling, and you will have an appreciative audience for your travel dining narratives.
While we look forward to many good narratives out of the meals we have when we travel, that's not always the result. "There is nothing more devastating than a bad meal," said Ruth Reichl, former Gourmet editor in chief, at a Travel Weekly Consumer Travel Editors Roundtable in 2009.
I agree. A bad meal leaves the aftertaste of opportunity wasted. You know that somewhere else in town, people are eating with pleasure in direct proportion to your disappointment.
I'm writing this in New Mexico, four nights into a family vacation, and dining has been a mixed bag. I already have three stories that begin, "The place we had intended to go to was closed ..." It seems that by near-universal agreement, the restaurants in Carlsbad, Alamogordo and Las Cruces lock their doors before 8 p.m.
The upside of these initial disappointments is that we rediscovered how much serendipity can enhance a good meal. The alternative places we wandered into turned out to be pretty good for the most part, and the satisfaction of "discovering" a restaurant is akin to finding a valuable coin as you're emptying your pocket of loose change.
We had flown into El Paso, and a very small touch at the hotel we stayed in the first night managed to leave us with, literally, a better taste in our mouth about the place. We wandered down to our free breakfast with very low expectations after finding a surprising number of things wrong with our room, from drawers that broke when we tried to open them to burned-out light bulbs. The morning buffet included a make-your-own-waffle station, and my kids were quite taken with the Texas-shaped waffle iron. We adults were shocked by how good those waffles tasted. It was the one food item, so far, whose image my kids have Instagrammed on the trip.
And finally, for me at any rate, an important aspect of the connection between eating and travel is that between trips, food has become a means for me to simulate travel, on the cheap. If one lives in or near a city with pocket ethnic communities, dining out can trigger fond memories and provide a way to vividly relive experiences that were very expensive to acquire.
I live less than a mile-and-a-half from 116th Street in East Harlem, and I feel at times that I can walk to Mexico. I can buy, from street vendors there, the ultimate Mexican comfort food, tamales, that are cheaper and better than what I can find at sit-down restaurants lower in Manhattan.
Different foods in that neighborhood spur memories of different trips to Mexico. In addition to the tamales, the most authentic Mexican food I've had in NYC is from a small joint called Taco Mix on 116th. And I love the huitlacoche/flor de calabaza quesadillas sold by a family with a remarkable portable kitchen on Third Avenue at 117th. (They always ask whether it's to stay or go; if it's to stay, it means I will eat with others standing against a store window a few feet away from the cart.)
Which leads me to the final point about food and travel: The cost of a meal has no correlation to the intensity of the dining experience. One can have a truly memorable eight-course meal in a three-star Michelin restaurant and an equally memorable meal rubbing shoulders with truck drivers and laborers in a brightly lit, all-night falafel palace in Amman, Jordan.
I love the Pavarotti quote above, but it could be more succinct; with apologies to Descartes, he was really stating, "I eat, therefore I am."