I often feel that it is the preconceptions of a place that keep us interested in it. The romanticism of Mad Men took me to LA and the beauty of La Piscine took me to France. Even real New Yorkers are the first to say that their city isn’t what it used to be. Everything is nostalgia, one way or another.
I think of this now as I read through cookbooks. I’ve no doubt that Italy is where I should eat the best pasta. I also have no doubt that the best fried chicken isn’t from a chain restaurant. So much of media centers itself around the authentic experience, but who is it authentic for anymore? Should I be more concerned with authenticity or for accessibility? Probably the former…and yet. And yet, I’m not totally convinced. Once I stopped being preoccupied with what I thought a place could offer and enjoyed a destination for what it did offer, well, I wasn’t so strict to find authenticity anymore.
In Iceland I had the best French food I ever had, and that includes my 25th birthday in Paris. We had spent an afternoon on a horse farm and had worked up an appetite. So, to be in the red-warm glow of Le Bistro with the bustle of wait staff and a bourgignon to warm my body was heaven. Was it authentic? Oh, probably not. Was it delicious? Yes. Does this restaurant hold a 4-out-of-5 on Yelp? Yes, but what do I care? I call back to that memory now. My husband ordered duck, which lingered in the air with red wine and the barnyard musk of my wool sweater. It was heaven.
Same goes for Rome. I lived there for a year in uni and, being 18 and a bit poor, relied on meals at the nunnery I was living in versus anything truly Roman. Apparently, it was considered sinful to use too much cheese or cream, leaving most dishes a bit dry and not at all autentico. So what do I remember most, gastronomically, about Rome? Sushi boats at a metro stop. I had a coupon to use and gorged myself with a friend. We brought in little juice boxes of wine and shared a joint with a stranger later that night at the Spanish Steps. It wasn’t very Roman Holiday of me, but I think even Audrey would have enjoyed herself.
All of this is to say that the strict rules of culinaria should be relaxed when our memories encompass more than just what’s on the plate. Perhaps you’re reading this, thinking I’m like those fools in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave who only see the shadow of the world and don’t experience the world itself. And maybe that is me. But if I recall, they seemed quite content with never experiencing the real thing. And 5 euros for all-you-can-eat sushi is a deal no matter where you are.