By the time I went to college I had developed enough taste discrimination that I could not stand to eat in the school cafeteria for more than a couple of days together; since I had a meal ticket this made for budget problems when I wanted to eat in restaurants. As Jonathan Lehrer says “This is the power of cooking: it invents a new kind of desire.” And then, in my sophomore year I went to Europe.
I wasn’t prepared for the variety of foods I found when traveling, not only in moving from Germany to France to Italy to Greece and Turkey, but also the regional variety between a Milanese cutlet and a Tuscan beefsteak. And in truth I sampled very little of it, lacking the money, the languages, and the imagination to go beyond some of the simpler dishes. But what a revelation they were! I reveled in pasta with meat or fish sauces so complexly flavored, so savory they compelled slower eating. Late in my trip, in St. Germain-sur-Seine, the father of a friend taught me the rhythm of one bite of food, one small sip of wine, as we ate his superb lapin au vin blanc. “It dissolves the fat,” he said. But in Italy, early on, there was one discovery after another. In Rome I ordered a plate of spaghetti alla vongole at a waiter’s recommendation (though neither of us understood the other’s language—and the menu had no translations) and found with surprise that the excellent sauce was filled with tender clams. Like Henry James some time before, I was pleased, surprised, and curious about how long all this had been going on over there. Adam Gopnik describes a similar experience as a young teenager when he and his family spent a year in Paris: that first night, he writes, “we went out for dinner and, for fifteen francs, had the best meal I had ever eaten, and most of all, nobody who lived there seemed to notice or care. The beauty and the braised trout alike were just part of life, the way we do things here.”