Food Souvenirs

Spanish Stamp

Candied walnuts from Guadalajara. Cocoa powder from the Italian Alps. Sun-dried tomatoes from Barcelona’s jostling Boqueria Market. Nineteen-dollar-a-pound white cheddar streaked with veins of golden maple syrup from my hometown in Wisconsin. These are just a few of the food souvenirs that have quietly perished in my kitchen during the past year or so.

When I travel, I bring home food as mementos. None of those chintzy T-shirts with a silk-screen print of the Colosseum for me; I crave a bottle of ruby red Chianti, the one with cherries bursting from every sip, bought at the bottega ’round the corner from the Colosseum. Forget handmade Mexican lace; I want earthy, bittersweet Mexican chocolate perfumed with cinnamon and chipotle.

I’ve always been like this. I remember bounding off the plane as a teen after a summer spent in Peru and handing my mom a half-empty bottle of warm Inca Kola, a lurid Latin American soda that tastes curiously and unmistakably of bubble gum. A few years later, after a trip to Niagara Falls, while mom was grandstanding for our family in the powder blue jacket she’d picked up at a Canadian leather emporium, I was gladly sharing my souvenir—a box of Tim Hortons donut holes.

Back then I was indiscriminate about digging into—and divvying up—my loot. But it’s somehow different, more difficult, now that I’m older. These past few years, I’ve become reluctant to share my souvenirs, hesitant to even open them.

Here’s the thing. After a souvenir has been eaten, it’s gone. Vanished. And with it, I fear, the memory. It’s not likely that I’ll physically connect with those same travels again. Chances are this is the only time in my life when I’ll have that raw-milk Brie from that little shop in France oozing all over my kitchen table. And if our bottle of aged Dominican rum that my husband won in a chess tournament during our honeymoon disappears, I panic that the memory of our first week of newly married bliss may, too, fade like an old Polaroid.

With these souvenirs sitting in my pantry, the pressure is on—and along with it comes a paralyzing case of performance anxiety. When, exactly, is the perfect time to indulge? And with whom should I share? So, naturally, I procrastinate, delaying the encounter for as long as I can—or, as usually happens, indefinitely. I can practically hear these souvenirs calling to me from the pantry, begging for a proper send-off, a very special occasion. Instead they meet an unceremonious and certain end at the bottom of my garbage can. That cocoa? It became stale and clumpy. Ants got the walnuts. The tomatoes turned black. And the cheddar took on an ugly lacquer of sweat and mold. All before I’d gotten a single taste.

This mental anguish, this fear of wasting a souvenir on a less-than-perfect moment, often leads me to wonder why I even bother. What’s the point of rummaging through specialty shops and markets, paying excess baggage fees, and sweating through customs, only to have my food souvenirs languish on my kitchen shelves between the garlic and the soy sauce? So despite all the potential gratification these keepsakes hold, they really stress me out.

Rather, they used to stress me out. I recently spent my birthday in Barcelona with a friend. We window-shopped on La Rambla, marveled at Gaudí’s masterworks, and strolled the Mediterranean boardwalk. It wasn’t until I returned home, my suitcases bulging with the makings of a Spanish feast, that I realized I hadn’t really eaten. I’d had just quick bites here and there, but not a spectacular supper in the usual flamboyant way I was accustomed to, the kind of repast that would cement this trip in my memory. I panicked, terrified I’d forget the stories that I’d savored in Spain.

That realization spurred me into action. I threw open my suitcases and invited a few close friends to dinner that week. There was tapenade smeared on crusty bread. Nutty sheep’s-milk Manchego. A juicy—and duty-free—Andalucían Rioja. Sweet pimiento peppers that I charred over an open burner. Saffron-perfumed rice. Fruity Arbequina olive oil flecked with a few drops of rosemary vinegar and turned into a poaching medium for fish. And for dessert, small tumblers of delicate dry sherry, sloshing against the glass like liquid amber, alongside shaved chocolate studded with Marcona almonds.

So what if I remember the food more distinctly than the conversation? That’s how my memory works. (Actually, the sherry may have had something to do with that, too.) But I do recall the spirit of the evening—the laughter, the chatter, the sated appetites, the sharing of story after story about Spain. And it occurs to me that I’d somehow come to equate eating my mementos with greedily gobbling them. I’d forgotten the rare and valuable chance they offer to celebrate and relive rousing adventures and, better yet, to share those experiences with others. Abandoned on the shelf, my souvenirs—and the memories linked to them—might wither and die, but reveling in them one final time authors the grandest of epilogues to any travel story. And, as it turns out, it affords me an opportunity to create a new memory.



  1. Thomas, I’m right there with you. I find visiting supermarkets in other countries to be very revealing, and sometimes one can unearth real treasures. (And even if the product itself is rather commonplace, the exotic packaging makes it feel so much nicer!)

  2. “Don’t they have food in your own country?” This silly question I have heard over and over when friends abroad discovered the way my suitcase looked just before heading back home. Breads—loads of those yummy rye breads from Finland. Or Finnish chocolate. Or the Baharat spice mix that I brought from a trip to Israel and which goes perfectly well in my self-invented beetroot lentil soup. THE thing I like to do the most during holidays is visiting a huge supermarket. Being from the Netherlands, “abroad” is always close. Working in Brussels nog for a couple of months I get to indulge in Belgian specialities and all the French products they sell here. Already I find myself transporting all kinds of foods to my home in Amsterdam! Of course it is about the taste in the beginning, but am I the only one who prefers a nice looking package from a far-away place over your local, dull package of well…anything?

  3. Only yesterday, as I was trying to find dried coconut milk purchased in Thailand, did I find all those cans from Spain. And my refrigerator is full of Maille mustards from Paris, all in original crocks, because you can refill them at a reduced price when in Paris. The fact that I live in NYC is irrelevant. I have Cambodian peppercorns that have never been used. I can go on and on. However, I once had a dinner party with elk from Sweden, shot by a friend, along with fresh chanterelles and other goodies that were in my suitcase. Am so glad that I am not the only one with these crazy obsessions. I wonder what I can bring back from Australia?

    1. And what wonderful memories you must have when you look at all your purchases! Your dinner party in particular sounds delicious. You must have gotten creative to get chanterelles past customs!

    2. Fanny, I’ve always found that often the best new obsessions find you, and not vice-versa, when traveling. May it be so for you in Australia. And thank you for sharing. I envy you those peppercorns….

  4. And here I thought, I was the only one to buy different food products to bring home as souvenirs. I always remember the fun memories of travel with food. Whenever or wherever, I always eat the local food and bring them back home for friends and family members to share. I just came back from Paris and on the way to the airport I stopped at the patisserie to buy a baguette and some croissants for breakfast the next day. I bought jams, spices and dried lavender to make some shortbread cookies. I remember when I used to wait to eat those things or, worse, forget about them but now I eat them as soon as possible and relive those memories while they are still fresh and so are the croissants.

    1. Isn’t that funny! For a long time, I thought I was alone in my infatuation with food souvenirs, too. Maybe if we had formed a support group I could have figured all this out sooner.

      1. I’d join that group gladly, Cristin and Sumara. My favorite way around the souvenir hoarding is to have someone bring treats TO me. Then I get to nibble on a souvenir without the nostalgia!

    2. sumara, you’re definitely not alone. I can’t tell you how many times The One and I were nervous wrecks as we passed through customs, desperately hoping the officials wouldn’t make us open our suitcases. If they did, they would have found everything from Portuguese sausage and French cheese to Belgian chocolate and a heck of a lot of duck products.

  5. This writing could not have felt closer to my heart. Since I was a little kid we traveled a great deal and I, too, would bring home food souvenirs. Throughout the years I have had episodes of keeping things in the pantry only to having to throw them out with much regret. Also when going somewhere my gists to wherever I go are foods from where I currently live. Being in Wisconsin now, rare is the occasion I do not bring some fresh squeaky cheese curds to the Northeast or Europe when meeting up with family members. My suitcases are always filled with Portuguese and Spanish food goodies when coming back home, but now instead of hiding them in the pantry, I make sure to have a dinner party organized and share my food memories with my friends. Part of me is sad when all is gone, but much as yourself, the memories will last forever. Thanks for a beautiful writing piece.

    1. Sofia, it sounds like we’ve had similar histories of traveling and hoarding. Thanks for sharing. And your dinner parties sound lovely–wish I could invite myself over.

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