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Do we tend to romanticize food based on our surroundings?

When we were in Florence, that gelato I had for the longest time was in my opinion the best gelato I've ever had in my life. Frozen nectar of the gods, I used to say. But now as I look back on it, given where I was (Italy), who I was with (my SO), I could've been eating a slushy 7-Eleven Slurpy with a fork and I would've declared it the "best gelato ever!"

I sort of feel the same way now about other things I've thought were the best ever, like that baguette we had in Paris, or the paleta I had in Mexico City, or the molletes in Puebla, etc.

Maybe all those "best ever" moments were really the result of being in an exotic land (for me) with someone whose company I really enjoyed.

Now, granted, there are certain foodstuffs that are in fact sort of better in their indigenous land. Montreal bagels, NYC-style street pizza by the slice, Taiwanese stinky tofu, seafood in Hong Kong, etc. all come to mind.

And, some of those things are better "over there" simply because of a matter of geography (Hong Kong just has more access to fresh seafood, for example) or muncipal regulations (stinky tofu in Taiwan is just stinkier because brine is allowed to fester like a bad science project petri dish).

But I am beginning to think that alot of what we fondly remember as "the best ever ___" is really a product of our imagination, prompted by circumstances, and not so much a product of the actual food.


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    1. I kind of agree. I swore the best Mexican we had was in Mexico. The best baguettes in France. The best cocktails at Disney's Animal Kingdom. Heck, I even loved the food in England! Looking back, I realize that we were having great vacations. We were relaxed. In love. Or just paying a fortune and determined to have a good time. I have all my souvenirs. One just turned ten.

      1 Reply
      1. Well, if you're talking about travel, I think there's a very good reason why food tastes better from the source.

        As much as I love having so many great cuisines to eat close to home, part of me is perfectly ok knowing that I may have to travel to get the really sublime stuff.

        1. ipse, you tug at our heartstrings on Valentines Day, summoning up romantic memories...feasting on Moreton Bay bugs across from the Sydney opera house, gazing into her eyes. ...succulent grilled prawns on Margarita Island, holding hands as the sun sets over Venezuela... a Grand Slam breakfast across the street from the chemical factory in Bayonne for $2.99....

          1. We call it "atmosphere food" ...

            1. I don't think it's our imagination at all. Many of those things you mention are authentic and passed down through the generations. True, the atmosphere and who we are with matter a whole lot also.

              1. I think there's something to your theory. I have some close family friends from Italy, who also spend quite a lot of time in the states. Their food just felt more special at their home in Italy, despite the fact that I had many of the same dishes before. Maybe it was the produce, maybe the atmosphere. I wouldn't rule out either one.

                That said, I haven't had better crepes than the ones I had in Paris. I dream about them.

                1. I like to think of this as the afterglow effect. When we attach a halo to a certain place or people, that halo seems to rub off on all things we associate with that subject. When I first read this topic, I thought to myself "Well I certainly don't do that!" but then I realized that there are certain flavors that are captured at their peak in a place in time for me. The almond cookies I would get at the Chinese barbecue for being quiet through dinner. The pleasant sweet crunch of turron that took weeks to travel by ship from my uncle to me for my 4th birthday. I even remember how much better Marlboro Reds tasted in my high school parking lot.

                  There's no doubt some foods are hard to create outside their environment. San Francisco sour dough with a native starter. Coca tea in the Andes. Fresh langoustines in Galicia. But on the NYC boards, there is no dearth of tourists who wax poetic about the stale mass-produced bagel they bought at a corner shop or the incomporable slices at a generic fast food joint whose crust must be a by-product of the magic pixies in NYC taps. No doubt certain foods are best in their homes of origin; but our unreliable mental processes have a tendency to bask all our memories in the afterglow of our most cherished experiences.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: JungMann

                    ... but our unreliable mental processes have a tendency to bask all our memories in the afterglow of our most cherished experiences.

                    Bingo. But isn't that what happens when we romanticize our food and food experiences.

                    1. re: ipsedixit

                      That's my point. Human memory is very malleable. I am pretty sure Marlboro Reds are as disgusting now as they were when I smoked them on the beach after prom night.

                  2. One of my favorite authors, the late Carl Sagan, wrote one of my favorite books (coincidentally :P) -- the Demon Haunted world. The book is certainly not about food, but he has a lucid section on the human mind and how it can alter its own perception of memories over time via different stimuli -- external and internal.

                    Using your example -- of course the best Gelato is supposed to come from Florence (or at least somewhere in Italy) because that's what we've been told (by who?)! Of course that was the best thing ever because of who and what you were experiencing at that particular moment! Although Sagan wrote this section dealing with suggestibility in the light of UFOs, murder cases, etc. -- regardless I think it's still extremely applicable to food experiences. I would be curious to see how many people had a vaunted memory of some place in their mind, and the food associated with it, who have revisited only to be disappointed and chalked it up to another "they don't make it like they used to" moment -- when in fact, it was their minds' extraordinary ability to alter its own memories making them seem much more fabulous than they ever were ;)

                    1. ipse: Yes, an embarrassingly large portion of our appreciation of food and wine (and doubtless many other things) has little to do with the food or wine itself. Psychologists have proven this experimentally over and over again, especially with wine. Your glass at Opus One will taste better than the same wine served by the glass as house wine at your favorite restaurant. The fascinating part for me is that you are NOT being fooled exactly. You actually DO enjoy the wine more in that setting because (among other things) you know what it costs; the pleasure centers in the brain actually light up more when you believe that the substance is rare/dear/expensive/special. More endorphins=more pleasure=dearer "memories".

                      There may be a too-wide chasm between your Florentine gelato and your hypothetical Florentine Slurpee to be completely apt, but you are generally right. That's why we light candles at table, waiters fuss, and wineries spend millions on architecture.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: kaleokahu

                        I was just going to write virtually the same thing. Completely true WRT wine.

                      2. Sometimes I tell my husband that I wish that someone else had cooked the delicious dinner we just ate. As I am prepping and cooking whatever it is, I know in my head how it is going to taste. And those little bites to correct seasoning along the way.... well, by the time dinner is ready, the surprise is gone.
                        When someone else does the cooking, whether it's a restaurant, a friend or relative, or some European chef, you get to have that feeling of unexpected pleasure with the first bite.

                        My son makes a turkey piccata that made my eyes roll back in my head the first time I tasted it.
                        I don't make anything that he makes because his dishes are so delicious that I want to have that pleasant surprise every time I eat them. Even the simple stuff like this tastes better when someone else does the cooking.
                        Fortunately for DH, he gets the big tasty Wow almost every night. And fortunately for me, he loves my cooking, so I keep doing it!

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: jmcarthur8

                          That is super sweet!

                          My sis-in-law always flips out over the food my brother makes, and now I wonder if this isn't the reason! :)