Food is the great equalizer. Or so you would think.
Everybody has to eat. And the list of common cultural ingredients is fairly lengthy. Rice, wheat, beans, fish, meat, poultry, legumes, oils, dairy, fruits, vegetables – at some point in time, it all begins to cross-pollinate.
And yet every person in every corner of the globe craves eating what reminds them of what they grew up with. For me, my favorite memories of food are not only about the familiar tastes of home, but also the experiences from my travel destinations taking in the local cuisines.
What I realized on this most recent trip to the Bahamas was the broad variance of what home cooking really is. One day we took a cultural food tour in Nassau. One of the dishes we sampled was conch fritters. I asked our tour guide what the standard for a typical Bahamian conch fritter was. The not-so-surprising answer to my question was that there was no real standard. Our guide Alex was a gregarious and highly-knowledgeable young woman who had grown up in the Bahamas. Her family makes the dish as do most of the households in the country. But every woman in her family has a slightly different (some would say “easy”) way of doing it.
I assumed there existed a baseline definition of what constituted a basic conch fritter in the Bahamas the same way we in Texas have a standard definition of chili. As in there is no such thing. I make mine with ground guajillo chiles, for example. Jennifer uses bizarre ingredients like bell pepper and bacon in hers (it is supposed to be chili, not gumbo, Jen!) But we both agree that there is no place for beans in chili so that is our common ground. If we navigated a couple of states to the north, kidney beans (ugh!) would be de rigueur.
As it turns out, many of the dishes we tried on our tour had some variation from common cultural foods. A twist on chicken. A variation on rice and beans. A different take on fruit punch.
Whether you are eating familiar food from home – or a unique local dish – often is in the interpretation. If boiled down to the simple common denominator then we all essentially eat the same things.
But its the little deviations from the baseline that make all the difference. Those unique coordinates on the taste map provide the flavors that lure us back – whether to home or favorite ports – time and time again.