A Tramp Abroad, but mostly at Home 7 August 2010

In A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain reccounts his 1878 journey through Europe with his characteristic, and occasionally annoying, curmudgeonly humor.  Late in the book, after too many months of fine dining and hotel fare, Twain is clearly longing for “American food and American domestic cookery.”  In Chapter XX (pp. 235-241), he launches a mild attack on European food, from breakfast to dinner, and prepares an extensive menu for the distinctly American meal that he intends to eat upon his return to the States.  For those interested in the particulars of this meal, I recommend Andrew Beahrs’ engaging recent book, Twain’s Feast, in which the author track’s down many of the American dishes that Twain describes.

Reading Beahrs’ book set me thinking about my own food adventures, recently abroad, but mostly at home.  And just as I was contemplating a fantasy menu of my own, a friend emailed to ask when American Road Trip was going to post a food update comparable to last week’s building slide show.  It was a fair question; I’d taken nearly as many pictures of food on my road trips as buildings.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise.  As loyal readers of American Road Trip are well aware, I hold food and buildings in equal esteem.  If it seems that I sometimes privilege buildings over food, that’s only because buildings are my day job.

Upon reflection, I’ve come to realize my taste in food precisely mirrors my taste in buildings.

I prefer the extremes of vernacular and high style to the dreaded middle ground, tacos at a Route 66 gas station and abandoned motel having an appeal equal to martinis at the Four Seasons in the Seagram Building (which is being lovingly restored by Belmont Freeman Architects). No doubt, this appeal is inextricably linked to what I see as a direct, formal relationship between food and building, one that can have a powerful effect on dining.

Thus, for example, no matter how excellent Thomas Keller’s dishes, my enjoyment of Per Se is muted by the taupe blandness of by Adam Tihany’s interiors.  Only the fake double doors of the restaurant’s entrance offer any kind of aesthetic frisson, but only because they remind me of a 1950s jewelry store I recall from my youth.

With those glossy blue doors, sliding glass partitions, and manicured topiaries, the stylized Dorothy Draper glamour of the entrance (which is little more than an interior store front in a shopping mall) is far more enthralling than the supposedly soothing serenity of the dining room itself.

To emphasize the food:building analogy I seem to be proposing, I was tempted, in the slideshow that follows, to include images of both the dishes I consumed and the spaces in which I consumed them.  In the end, though, I decided that the food was ready for its close-up.  Nonetheless, there are plenty of hints of the settings incidentally captured in photographs otherwise concerned with the fine details of cobblers, hamburgers, etc.  Captions give some additional information for those who might want it.

Here is Mostly at Home on the YouTube channel AmericanRoadTripNYC.  La cena e pronta.

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