Some people collect postcards when they travel, others collect rocks. Some collect t-shirts, pins, or admission tickets. We collect food.
Food is a great souvenir. It’s usually fairly portable, completely practical, doesn’t collect dust and endlessly renewable. You don’t have to worry about finding a shelf to display it forever — just a little space in the freezer or pantry. Some of our best gifts while on the road were food items given by thoughtful friends and courtesy parking hosts who knew we had limited space in the Airstream to store things, but unlimited space in our stomachs.
Food is one of the few things you can buy that is truly made locally. How many times have you discovered a souvenir plastic trinket really came from some overseas sweatshop? A nice fresh salmon caught in the river next to your campsite in Washington state, or a bottle of ale from the local microbrewery won’t have “FABRIQUE EN CHINE” stamped on the underside.
Every food item we’ve bought has said something to us about where we were. In central Florida I used to like buying little round jars of Honeybell Marmalade. The Honeybell orange has a very short season and (I think) makes a unique marmalade. I still have a few jars here in Tucson for special occasions. Spread it on a warm English muffin with a touch of butter and it brings me right back to happy winter days among the Florida orange groves.
For a trailerite, the fact of a tiny RV freezer is an asset. If we could take everything delicious that we’ve found along the way, we’d need a Sub-Zero in the Airstream, but realistically we can only collect about 2 cubic feet of souvenirs before we have to start eating them. This meant that we typically can keep frozen items for about a month, just long enough for the place where we bought them to become a fond memory. Breaking out the chow usually means an easy meal or two and a chance to re-live the tastiest highlights of our visit. Then of course, the opportunity to collect new souvenirs begins anew.
Food is also a cheap and guilt-free souvenir. Even paying a little more for the local version still works out as a great economy when compared to useless “stuff” that will only clutter up your house later. I’d rather pay $7 for a $3 jar of marmalade that I’ll savor slowly, than $5 for a t-shirt that says “I SURVIVED XXXX CAVERNS.” A t-shirt will never nourish me, nor is emblematic of the local culture that we were able to touch while traveling by road. But even an overpriced edible memory yields value in every mouthful, and there’s a small joy in knowing you supported local farms and producers.
I like food souvenirs for their remarkable ability to evoke long-lost memories. Every time I eat something we bought on the road, I can think back to the time when we found it, and what life was like then, and what age Emma was, and the things that were on my mind. An old t-shirt can’t do that. This week we took a bit of beef brisket out of the freezer, that we had put away during our recent trip to the Texas Barbecue Trail. Eleanor warmed it for dinner and the aroma of it instantly triggered a scene where we were meeting our friend Gunny at Rudy’s in Austin. It was a chilly night but we stood around Gunny’s truck after dinner and gave leftovers to his dog, and talked until I couldn’t stand the cold any more. All of that came rolling back the moment I opened my mouth and smelled the unmistakable smoked essence of the brisket.
Tonight we took out some bratwurst that we bought in the late summer of 2009 as we were passing through Minnesota. It was one of those impulsive roadside purchases that I had long ago forgotten, but in the recesses of our deep-freeze it has maintained perfect flavor. Tonight it finally found its destiny on my Weber grill, and over dinner we talked a little about our trip to Minnesota. Alas, not everything keeps as well as the sausage. We carry Vermont maple syrup at all times, and it lasts forever, but the fresh and wonderfully complex local root beer that is only sold at the Burlington, Vermont Farmer’s Market has to be enjoyed immediately.
Also in the freezer I can see a more recent acquisition, a frozen ready-to-bake apple pie from Julian, California. That one will not sit for a year waiting for the oven. Sure, they make apple pie everywhere, but it is the signature dish of Julian and that was a good enough reason for us to buy one. Just knowing it came from there will make it taste better, because (in a small way) eating it will be a chance to travel back there.
Not far behind the apple pie is a very well-wrapped turkey sausage that we bought at Vencil’s in Taylor, Texas. I have no idea how Eleanor plans to serve it, but I can be assured that the moment it hits the table I will see in my mind’s eye that shabby (but hallowed, by Texans) building down by the railroad tracks where we bought it, and the friendly guy who chatted us up and gave us a copy of the newspaper reprint about Vencil himself.
Once it’s gone, I’ll want to go back and get more, and so from the little crumbs of our consumable souvenirs a new trip plan will gradually grow. And that’s probably the best part of collecting food while we travel. Local flavors still exist in this country, despite the homogenization of towns by food chains, and those flavors inspire us to keep seeking out more of the little, local, and often-overlooked parts of America.
A food souvenir is a treat, both in the finding and the consuming. By embedding themselves in the darkest recesses of your caveman memory, they capture a piece of your visit in a way a photograph can’t. Try it sometime and see.