Sunday, June 12, 2011

Regional Cuisine

Items from a Rwandan market

orginally published gardenshare.org in Sept. 2010

I traveled more this summer than I usually do. By the end of September, I'll have traveled through nine states and across the Atlantic to another continent. I find great pleasure in enjoying the regional cuisine of each location. If you head off the beaten path and ignore fast food chains, you will learn a lot about an area by what food is considered local. Food is rarely only food. It says a lot about geography, culture, people and history of an area. I encourage you to be on the look out for local diners and restaurants, farmers' markets and produce stands while you travel.


This is the typical menu when we head to my in-laws in Maine: lobster, clams (ones we dug during low tide), blueberries in everything from dessert, pancakes to salad, whatever my in-laws have in the garden, seafood chowder, crab rolls and popovers. Most of this food comes from within a ten mile radius of their home and is wonderfully fresh. I find it interesting that while some foods (such as popovers) do not necessarily contain local ingredients (the flour), they are every bit a part of the regional cuisine. Foods like popovers have a historical notch in the menu and it would be fascinating to trace their history.


There is a TV show I enjoy, one I only happen to catch every once in awhile due to infrequent TV watching. I can't even remember the chef's name, but his job is to travel around the world and eat local food. Whatever foods are local, regional or traditional....he consumes them. He then has the joyous job of talking and writing about it. I think “I'd love that job” until he is in Thailand eating caterpillars and scorpions or in Mexico eating jellied pork tacos. Maybe I wouldn't try those items, but I love learning about foods served local households and sold in neighborhood markets around the world. However, whatever you can handle – take part in what the locals are eating. Your trip will be all the better for it. One of our best meals in Spain a few years ago was in a working class diner off the beaten path – not a tourist destination.


This summer, I tried some new and enjoyed some not no new foods. My trip to the southern U.S. was full of creole sauce, grits, hush puppies and seafood. In Rwanda, I visited a market to purchase local fruits and vegetables (some of which I wasn't sure what they actually were) and at meals I tried various curries while my daughter ordered goat kebabs. When I head to Cincinnati next week, where I grew up, I can expect meals which are based not on local ingredients, but Germanic heritage and the influence of southern cooking. It is a crime in my family not to like sauerkraut or corn pancakes.


I never realized how “southern” some of Cincinnati's foods are until I moved here. I remember foods such as okra, collards and biscuits and gravy as a regular part of the weekly menu. Cincinnati was an important part of the underground railroad serving as a protective site for escaping slaves and abolitionists. Meals served here and now are part of that historical story.


I'd love to know about local foods from areas you have traveled or lived. I'd love to know about recipes in your family based on heritage and ancestry.

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