How much do your food habits change when you’re on vacation? We just arrived at the Oregon Coast to spend a week near the ocean, which has me thinking about food memories and cravings and habits and how they all build off of each other. After half a day of padding around the wood paneled cabin, I found myself wanting a deli ham sandwich on basic white bread, with a squirt of mustard and a side of potato chips. Normally, I get a bit snobbish about bread, but there’s something about cabins and paper plates that makes this meal not only acceptable, but preferred.
It’s similar to when my husband and I were picking out what type of Parmesan cheese we wanted to buy for our pasta. Our local grocery store carries a good variety of parm these days, ranging from pretty good, to decent, all the way down to powdered. And even though if I were objectively tasting the cheeses, I would say that fresh shaved Parmesan from a block is more delicious, we came away with a plastic jar of the shelf stable powerded cheese. Why? Because it tastes like my childhood. It’s hard to not feel a bit pretentious when you’re making a staple food for a weeknight meal and still insist on all the highest quality ingredients.
I know I’m not the only eater and writer to feel this way. I’ve read many essays on guilty pleasures and food that everyone knows is objectively horrible, but perfect in the moment. And we’re not just talking about junk food, which can be bad for you and taste delicious at the same time. What I’m referring to are those foods that would never win a blind taste test, but carry enough weight of nostalgia to make them win out over food with protected designation of origin and a pedigree older than the nation of America.
Sometimes I get frustrated with recipe writers, who are all so insistent that you use the highest quality this and the most expensive that for their recipes. Does it make a noticeable difference to use best quality ingredients? Of course it does. But do I have the budget to source 100 year old balsamic every time I’m trying a new recipe with that particular vinegar? Of course not! I admit, I have had the opportunity to try such a balsamic, while I was working in a Colorado ski village, and it was amazing. A tiny bottle, with its own miniature cork, a small pamphlet of certification, the ceremonial application of a single drop to a tasting spoon, it all lent itself to the arcane and impressive experience. But that balsamic isn’t one of the food memories that I bounce back to on a regular basis.
So next time you’re reading a chocolate chip cookie recipe and getting stressed over whether you need to make a run to the co-op to buy single origin block chocolate, just think back to your vacation food memories and remember that food can’t be distilled into a simple evaluation of flavor. Location, people, and the memories made with food are bigger factors than its exclusivity and in the end, it’s more about the experience than the taste.
P.S. I don’t always manage to be so low key about vacation food. Read about past adventures in cabin cooking in my Daily Improvisations guest post.