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.

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