Food: A tasteful souvenir

As much as my brother and I missed
our father during his visits to our Polish grandmother on her yearly spa trips
to Switzerland, when he returned, arms outstretched, we never welcomed him with
excited yells of “Daddy!”

Instead, we yelled “Frigor!” and
ducked under his arms to burrow through his baggage in search of scores of the
matchbook-size milk chocolates from Cailler of Switzerland, a candy maker since
1819.

For the week after Dad brought us
our treats (yes, we eventually hugged him after downing a couple of morsels),
we would litter the house with Frigor wrappers, like Hansel and Gretel and
their bread crumbs, following the crumpled papers back to the kitchen for more,
until the sturdy red carton was empty. We had a whole year to wait for our next
Frigor fix.

Although Internet buying makes
sense – why haul a treat through Customs if a computer click brings the same
result? – Plenty of purists favour lugging over logic. For them, a treat bought
at its source and carried home by their own (or a loved one’s) hands is somehow
more genuine, more delicious, more earned, than one secured in an easy, remote
transaction on the Web. Food souvenirs are food, but they’re also souvenirs,
some travellers say, and as such are evocative of people and places.

“The whole experience of getting it
in its context is something you cannot duplicate if you’re not there,” said
Michael Stern, a founder of Roadfood.com, a website about local restaurants and
foods across America, and the co-author of many books on those subjects. Such
food mementos are “appealing for the same reasons that anyone travels
anywhere,” he continued. “We could all sit in our den with the windows closed
and watch TV and see every corner of the world, but having the experience of
breathing the air somewhere other than our living room – the whole, complete
sensual experience – isn’t something you can replicate.”

Anna Sturgeon, 27, a movie content
reviewer from Cincinnati, agrees. She is a big fan of Cheerwine soda, a drink
that sounds sweet enough to make your teeth ache. “Imagine the sweetest
maraschino cherry you ever smelled, and multiply that by 100,” said Sturgeon,
who first tasted the drink on a family visit to the Carolinas, one of the few
places it is sold, when she was 9 years old and soda was a forbidden elixir.
Since then she’s headed out on road trips of up to seven hours down South just
for a taste. She will buy “at least a case” of 12 bottles for the trip back to
Cincinnati, she said. But despite her enthusiasm for the drink, she will not
patronize online purveyors because, she said, it is all about being there.

Josh Alexander, 27, a Defence
Department analyst, lives and works in Washington. But his home state is New
Mexico, where at certain times of the year the air is perfumed by the roasting
of mild green chili peppers. In the late summer, the chilies are cooked at
roadside stands and even in front of supermarkets, tumbling over a propane
flame in a wire drum cranked by hand.

Alexander loves this signature food
of his home state, and he introduces his Washington friends to it on his
barbecued burgers and steaks. But, like Spivack, he will not order them via the
Internet. “The thought has never really crossed my mind because it is part of
home,” he said of the chilies, “and to have some anonymous person deliver a
piece of home isn’t the same.”

Instead, Alexander said, “I’ve used
my mom as a mule.” Each time she visits him she stuffs her carry-on with Ziploc
bags of chilies, which Alexander freezes, or passes on to his brother in New
York or to other New Mexico expatriates.

Similarly, Molly Dunn-Hardy, 22, a
Boston native who lives and attends college in Vancouver, British Columbia, is
an ardent fan of the Key lime (“There’s something weirdly richer than a regular
lime about it,” she said) and will brook no regular limes in her lime pie. So,
when her father takes her grandmother from Boston to her winter residence in
Florida every year, she instructs him to send her some bottles of Nellie &
Joe’s Famous Lime Juice. Each year, she needs three bottles or so to keep her
kitchen in stock. She uses the fruit not just in pies – her father’s favourite
birthday treat – but in salad dressing and poultry marinade.

No Internet for Dunn-Hardy, either.
With her grandmother’s winter home in Florida, the state means family to her.
To have her father serve as her lime courier underscores the link.

“Every time I open the fridge I see
the little palm trees on the bottle,” she said, and family memories, like her
yearly vacation at her grandmother’s, come flooding back. “I think of running
around on the beach when I was a kid, and collecting seashells.”

Sometimes, it is merchants who
tether a food to its home. At Lucca Ravioli, an Italian speciality shop in San
Francisco, no wares are shipped, not even the much-in-demand turkey ravioli
that is made only for holidays. The shop manager, Martin Ricker, explained that
ravioli squish easily in transit and can dry out even in chilled packages. But
that only partly explains the no-shipping policy.

“People always yell at us, ‘Send
this and that,”’ Ricker said. But, “it would take away a lot of the history of
this place if you could buy it in Wyoming.”

Still, lugging food home has
drawbacks. After a month of researching barbecue joints in the Deep South,
Stern of Roadfood.com loaded his trunk with Mason jars and plastic jugs full of
barbecue sauce, more than 100 gallons in all. Then, heading home, his vehicle
was rear-ended by a truck.

No one was hurt, but the same could
not be said for his souvenir sauce. “It looked like the bloodiest accident in
the history of automobiles,” Stern recalled. “I basically wanted to lick the
road.”