Why is it that food at home never compares to the delicacies savoured while on vacation?
At the tender age of 19 I had the distinct privilege of spending two glorious weeks on the Isle of Patmos after three torturous (though equally transformative) weeks of a study-abroad seminar in Egypt and Israel on the Arab-Israeli conflict. The fact that I was penniless and on the verge of learning firsthand what was worse – the savagery of credit card debt and the predatory pursuit of college students by some credit card companies – did not stop me from daily enjoyment of fresh tomatoes, transparently slivered onions with salt and olive oil, or the ambrosia that inspired this post – Greek yogurt topped with cherries and drizzled with honey. This latter confection was my prize each afternoon when, parched on my daily return from my perch overlooking the Aegean, I would stop by a taverna in the plaka, wipe down the bar, and wash the glasses after sweeping the floor.
The owner had perhaps taken pity on me from my first night on the island when, after securing a room in a pensione, one of his cousins whisked me onto the back of a Vespa and beyond the center of town, to yet another cousin’s restaurant for a meal fit for an honored guest. Being what appeared to be the only Black American to visit the island since the war or since his chef cousin had more recently returned from his several years” stay in Chicago, I was offered a local favorite, goat entrails soup WITH the eyeball dead center to indicate a high honor.
As everyone in the place watched and waited for my delightful response to the pungent vinegar-based soup, all that emerged was a series of frantic hand gestures exchanged between me and the even younger server. True, from the start I’d had to stifle panic, trusting guardian angels to preserve and protect me as I was led first by hand then by motor bike from the dock to the hotel then restaurant. But now I couldn’t believe that after my unfounded fears that I was being led to sacrificial slaughter had been revealed for the sun-addled machinations that they were, how was I to explain that I was, of all things, a vegetarian?
Divining my anguish, the young man retreated to the kitchen only to reemerge with his father, the chef – who spoke English having, as mentioned earlier, spent several years in Chicago. After multiple apologies were proffered on each side, a hot and cold salad replaced the local delicacy and a good time was had by all.
This afternoon returning home, I reached for my version of comfort food: Greek yogurt, dried cherries and salted peanuts, a variation on the decades’ old memory that I always keep on hand. I thought back to the first taste and the first love that blossomed shortly thereafter, and wondered: Are we what we eat or what we think about what we eat?