My first weekend at Syracuse, I witnessed a melee. Rounding the corner to my dorm, I saw a kid running flat out, headed in the direction of the library, where Waverly Ave. flattened out and ran like a shot through campus before dead-ending near Crouse Hospital. By the look of the group of ten or fifteen people that came storming after him, this was a good thing.
If he made it that far.
A full-on brawl was raging between Byrd Library and Schine Student Center, and like the semi-privileged dumb-asses we were, a group of us stood on the patio and watched it all unfold, as if Waverly was an impenetrable moat keeping us safe. Through the middle of this chaos, a lone knight walked off the street, up the steps, and into our midst. He came at us with a poor attitude and a hard question.
“Who the hell thought it was a good idea to order a pizza?”
It was the first time I’d seen a Domino’s pizza.
Winchendon sits on the Massachusetts side of the border with New Hampshire. During the ’80s, it was a town that had a bowling alley but not a Dunkin Donuts. (It has one now. Progress.) During my first few weeks, my dorm phone didn’t work, cutting me off from the old world. (This was 1991, so there were no cell phones, and “What the fuck is the internet?” was a legitimate question, not just a line from a Kevin Smith movie.) During those opening weeks, I experienced a whole lot of things 8,000-person strong Winchendon never offered: Domino’s, black people, public transportation, and food trucks.
Marion Hall sat in the center of two prime food truck spots: down the hill to the Greek houses of Walnut Park or up the hill to a cluster of dorms. I visited my first truck after a night of being underaged and over-served on M Street. My intent was to jam my face full of french fries because even at 18 I knew this was my go-to food to properly balance out numerous pitchers of Budweiser and Miller Lite, but there was a food on the whiteboard menu that I’d never had before that caught my eye.
How can you be 18 and never have a bagel? As I devoured the crunchy/chewy bread and thick slab of cream cheese that would be a greater cause of the freshman 15 than $1 pitcher nights, I realized a dark truth about my wonderful parents.
They were shit cooks.
I grew up on about 12 basic dinner meals in heavy rotation: stove top pork chops (disgusting), spaghetti, hot dogs and beans (always together), elbow macaroni (a different dish than spaghetti, though made with exactly the same sauce), pancakes, Westerns, Shepherd’s Pie (which was not called Shepherd’s Pie …), oven-baked chicken, stove top steak, macaroni and cheese, tuna fish casserole, and potato salad, but only in the summer.
When I was six or eight or whatever, my parents finally stopped making me eat pork chops when I “gagged” on the half-chewed bite of pork chop in my mouth, then ran away from the dinner table and “vomited” in the toilet.
This was very likely the moment I realized I was pretty goddamn clever.
Now, everywhere I travel, it’s about finding food that escaped those first 18 years, whether that was bagels and Domino’s at 18 in Syracuse, home made Indian food and crab cakes at 30 outside of Baltimore, or grits at 34 in Oxford. I hate traveling to a new city and eating at a chain restaurant. I like traveling to a familiar city and eating local food. I like it when people post pictures of food to Instagram. I love cooking, even if I do fall back on old standbys too much.
If you’re going to travel, try new things.
Even if they end up being totally gross.