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Sidewalk Meals

Mar
26
2007

It was a glorious morning in the summer of 1971 and I was in the midst of an astoundingly beautiful valley in Switzerland bordered on all sides by the Alps. I should have appreciated it more, but I was an impatient 17-year-old, it was hot, and my last ride had dropped me off on a two-lane road in the middle of nowhere two hours before. One of the difficulties of hitchhiking in a country where you don’t speak the language is you’re never quite sure where you’ll end up. Eventually, though, a young farmer in a truck picked me up.

I’d been in the truck for about ten minutes before he started questioning me – in German – becoming steadily more and more frustrated until I figured out what his problem was.

Cheese. Specifically a large block of gruyere that had been cooking in my backpack under the sun until it had achieved and unusual degree of redolence. I offered to share it with him, but he insisted I dispose of it instead. We left it in a shallow hole he dug beside the road. Three months later my pack still smelled faintly of cheese.

Fortunately, before being picked up I’d had time to eat a fair portion of the cheese along with some dried sausage for breakfast. This was typical of my meals for the three months I spent in Europe. But some were more memorable than others.

A couple of days before I’d had two extraordinary food experiences in Munich. Both were simple in the extreme, but, perhaps because of their simplicity, they made an impression on me. In the first case I was wandering through town, growing more and more hungry, and finally stopped at a kiosk and bought a sausage. The sausage was hot and greasy and served on waxed paper with a hard, dark roll and a huge dollop of mustard. I don’t know what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t the food of the Gods I received. These were flavors that tasted like a kick from a mule. And the textures, too, were extraordinary. The bread simultaneously tough, chewy, and soft. The sausage snapped with each bite giving way to a smooth, unctuous interior. The mustard smooth and burning. A sidewalk meal that was rich, primal, and deeply satisfying.

The next day an odor of frying captured my nose and led me to another kiosk. This one featuring pommes frites. I was American. I grew up eating fries – but nothing like these. Crisp on the outside and fluffy and airy on the inside, they tasted like the soil they’d grown in. Never had I eaten anything so potatoey. Years later I learned the secret of twice frying the frites to achieve that ethereal texture but I’ve never managed to duplicate the earthy flavor.

Sometime later, I was in Place de Clichy in Paris. The youth hostel was full (as they often were – I slept in some odd places that summer) and someone had directed us to this section of town as having cheap hotels. At the time I didn’t connect it with the Place de Clichy featured in Henry Miller’s books (though I’d read both Quiet Days in Clichy and Tropic of Capricorn

), but since then I’ve taken a certain pride in having spent a week in that once-notorious red light district.

In Paris I was with a friend I’d run into in Zurich and each morning we would go down to the street where we’d have a coffee and then share a bacquette and juice for breakfast while sitting on the sidewalk. Then, our interests being different, we’d go our separate ways. But those shared bacquettes on a sidewalk defined my time in Paris more than the museums, cathedrals, or anything else.

I got off the ferry from Calais in Dover late in the afternoon and headed uphill. At about the point I was ready to take a break I spied a vending machine selling milk. I’ve been a milk-lover my entire life, but at that point in time I hadn’t drunk any in about a year. I bought a carton, and then another, and then a third. Wonderful stuff.

I was in Windsor when I ate my first Cornish Pastie. Crisp and crumbly on the outside and filled with a succulent mixture of beef, vegetables, and a spot of gravy, I fell in love on the spot. Who knew a simple meat pie could be so good? Over the following years I managed to duplicate (to the best of my memory) that first pastie, or the filling at any rate, but the pastry eluded me until an English friend suggested making the pastry with lard. I’d never cooked with lard, but I gave it a try. Success at last!

I seldom ate in restaurants during that teenage adventure through Europe. I didn’t want to spend the money and the food I could buy in shops for picnics or that was available at the youth hostels was excellent. I have other food memories of that summer, but all these years later I can still feel the sausage grease running down my chin and taste sweetness of the bacquette combined with the smell of wet streets. It is those four sidewalk meals I recall best.

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