We are coming up to Thanksgiving and so a break. Thanksgiving is built around food, so I thought my offtopic post before I go away until the Monday after the holiday should be about food. If you are thirty or forty maybe food doesn't seem much better than when you were a kid. Of course, it depends on income and where you live. But if you are my age, food is so much immeasurably better that it is hard to describe. But I'll take that as a challenge. Let me take you on my food journey before we get to Thursday's turkey and pumpkin pie.
This is a journey from the bland English food of the sixties to the wonderful panorama of food we have available today, and that I love to eat. I could write ten thousand words on this journey, but instead, I will reduce it to four dishes, all in Italy to give a bit of a theme. Some of these meals I ate over 50 years ago, but I still remember them today.
First, a bit of background.
I grew up in the UK in the late 1950s and 1960s. Rationing from the Second World War didn't end entirely in the UK until after I was born, years after the war had ended. But the food didn't get any better. To be honest, I don't know what food was like in the US in that era since all that I knew came from the occasional US sitcom shown on British TV. I have no idea how realistic a series like Bewitched was (yes, I do realize witches are not real, but those huge houses with big kitchens...we didn't have those in the UK). But, in a similar way, if you only watch Friends you would assume that everyone in New York in their twenties and thirties lives like royalty. I went to boarding school, so I ate a lot of boarding school meals. By the way, some aspects of Harry Potter are spot-on, but a lot are not (and I'm not talking about Quidditch or something, just the background structure of houses and stuff). The food was not great, but to be honest, it was not that bad, just what was normal at the time. We even got roast beef occasionally on Sundays.
But never pizza.
When I was a teenager. In a moment of adventurousness, my parents and a couple of other families decided we should go and spend a couple of weeks in Elba. That's the island off the knee of Italy ("it's at the knee, that's why they call it the elbow"). Now I think about it, I have no idea why they picked somewhere so relatively difficult to get to since we needed to get on the car ferry to the island. You couldn't book in advance (predating the internet by decades and, based on my grownup experience, predating reliable telephones in Italy by decades too), you just had to show up and act like Italians of the time and shove your way to the front.
We got to Elba. We were camping. I'm unclear how much it was because we couldn't afford hotels. After all, we stayed in hotels as we drove through France and Northern Italy, but Britain still had currency controls, so you could only convert a limited amount of money to foreign currency. We filled the trunk of our car with cans of ground beef, canned ham, and...Italian tomatoes. If we bought them in Britain they didn't come out of our limited foreign currency budget, but in Italy, they would.
To show you how limited cuisine was in Britain in that era, that trip was the first time I had pizza. Just like the first time that I had sushi was in Japan (see The First Sushi I Ever Ate Was in Japan) the first time I had pizza was in Italy. It was in a hilltop town called Capoliveri. Somewhat oddly, the pizzeria was run by an Englishman. Thinking back, maybe my parents didn't want to go to a real Italian pizzeria where they would have to decide and order what they wanted without any Italian. In that era, it was not like today where most young people are taught English in school and so have at least the basics. No Italian spoke any English. And today we all know the Italian words on pizza menus. By the way, public service announcement for anyone visiting Italy, "pepperoni" means pepper, like grilled red peppers. It does not mean any sort of spicy sausage. A memorable aspect of that pizzeria was that my parents and their friends ordered a carafe of cheap wine, and the waiter just filled up a glass for everyone, including teenage me.
I don't know how widespread pizza was in the US in that era. Obviously, in places like Little Italy in New York, or North Beach in San Francisco, you could get pizza. But Domino's was only founded in 1960, for example, and I'm sure it took years before it spread to every town in the country. Pizza Hut started around the same time, in 1958. So I guess pizza went mainstream in the 1960s and 70s.
Also, in Elba, I had my first real non-fish seafood. We were in a restaurant in Porto Azzuro and the menu contained a dish called "spaghetti alla vongole". Nobody knew what "vongole" were, so I bravely ordered it anyway. All food in Italy seemed to be good, and it seemed like an adventure to order something where I didn't know what I was going to get.
It turns out that vongole are clams, still in their shells. And, as predicted, it was good.
My next visit to Italy was not until I was a student at Cambridge. Some friends of mine were studying architecture and did a sort of pilgrimage to Italy to see some of the famous buildings from both Roman times and, especially, buildings designed by Palladio. They drove out from Britain and would be there for a month. I flew out to Rome and joined them for about ten days.
One day we had car trouble. One of the plugs in the engine block where they removed the sand during manufacture blew out, and all the water immediately fell out too, and the engine overheated. Luckily, the plug that blew out landed on part of the car, so we jammed it back in again with some plastic bag to help seal it, got some water from a nearby stream, and eventually got going again.
As a result of all the delay, we arrived after 10pm at the campsite. The restaurant in the campground closed at 10pm. However, the owner who checked us in said she could make us some "spaghetti carbonara". None of us had a clue what this was but we said "yes" anyway, of course.
It turned out to be one of the best pasta dishes that I've ever had. Spaghetti carbonara is with pancetta or bacon (actually, purists insist it must be guanciale, cured pork jowl), eggs, and Parmesan cheese. Some people put cream in it and others swear that this is sacrilege. Anyway, we were ravenous and cleaned out the whole bowl.
But it was also a revelation that the campsite owner, not a professional chef or cook, just casually whipped up one of the best things we'd ever eaten from stuff that was in the refrigerator. I remember it still, over forty years later.
Perhaps my most memorable Italian meal of all time was in Ivrea. You probably have no idea where that is, it is in the foothills of the Alps north of Turin (Torino). It was where Olivetti was based. This was in the era when every big European country had its own computer manufacturer (like they still have national airlnes today). Olivetti was Italy's. They were making the transition from typewriters to electronics. Later, they would buy Acorn Computers and thus end up owning about half of Arm. But to help them make the transition, Olivetti had a partnership with VLSI Technology and we had a couple of people working full-time in Ivrea. I can't remember quite why, but I had to visit for a couple of days. I think it was just that I was relocating to Europe to open our R&D center in Sophia-Antipolis (see my post Sophia Antipolis) and I ought to get to know our major customers.
That evening we went to a little restaurant. Ivrea is not a big town so we were going to a small restaurant in a small town. Except for the fact that all food in Italy seems to be good, I had small expectations too. The meal started and the owner bought us a plate of salumi (sausage, ham, and so on). This was the first plate of antipasto. That means before pasta since a full Italian mean consists of antipasto, primo piatti (pasta or risotto), secondo (main course, meat or fish), and dolce (dessert). Then came a second plate of antipasto. And another bottle of wine.
We ended up having about twenty different plates of antipasto, more like eating Spanish tapas or Dutch rijsttafel than an Italian meal. We drank way too much wine. Eventually, the owner asked if any of us wanted pasta or a main course, but we were all too full. I forget if we had dessert or not. But I'm sure we had grappa, the Italian clear spirit that is made from the remains (stems, seeds, skins) of the grapes after the rich people have made wine and brandy.
Again, another meal I remember fondly about forty years after I ate it.
First sushi in Japan, first pizza in Italy, first oyster in France, first ouzo in Greece, first doner kebab in Turkey...and, yes, first barbecue (not counting grilling as barbecue as we do in California) in Texas. But not everything like that. First Indian food in Cambridge since we have lots of Indian restaurants in Britain (trivia fact #1: they are mostly run by Bangladeshi but that was all part of India pre-independence; trivia fact #2: there are more Indian restaurants in Britain than fish & chip shops). First Chinese food in Chatham (Kent) and if you think American Chinese food is not exactly genuine, you should try English Chinese in the 70s. First Sichuan food was in Pittsburgh and it was a revelation to discover that there was Chinese food that was not (a bad version of) Cantonese. First Armenian food in Edinburgh, cooked by a real Armenian who basically went back to Armenia for a few weeks whenever he felt like it even if you had a reservation, so you were never sure he would be there. I have no idea if that counts as "very Armenian".
First Mexican food when I came to the US for my job interview (spoiler: I got the job) in San Jose. OK, probably not that genuine. Quote of the day was that one guy who grew up in Idaho looked around the table and said "no matter what you order, when it comes, it's flat and mushy". My favorite Mexican dish is Chiles en Nogada. Yes, the first time I had it was in Puerto Vallarta (but you can sometimes get it in Mexican restaurants in the US). The poblano chiles are stuffed with a meat sauce, it is covered with a walnut sauce (nogada), and decorated with pomegranate arils (the name for the seedy berries). It is a traditional Independence Day dish. Green-white-red, the colors on the Mexican flag.
And the colors on the Italian flag too, as it happens, which is where we came in. In France, what is called Caprese salad here in the US is often called Italian salad because the colors (tomato, basil, mozzarella cheese) are the colors of the Italian flag.
Breakfast Bytes is dark all next week. If you are in the US, enjoy Thanksgiving. If you work for Cadence, it is a global holiday so you enjoy it anyway. I'll be back on November 29.
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