Sweating into worn out wooden benches waiting for our bus to leave the station, Udi and I rattle off a wishlist of foods that we are desperate to eat right at that very moment. You might know this game if you’ve ever traveled or lived abroad for a considerable about of time.
“Pizza!” I open the wishlist with a predictable choice.
“Cheeseburgers!” Udi adds. We let out a moan in unison of our drooly enthusiasm.
“More pizza!” Followed by, “every kind of salad, sabich, tahina, a turkey sandwich with mayo and potato chips inside, …and pickles!” The list picks up speed as our hunger grows.
“Tacos, guacamole and chips, E-V-O-O, meatballs, ummmm…. PIZZA, biscuits and gravy, cheesey bourekas, Yemen stew, aged cheeses and baguette, cottage cheese!”
Picturing these foods, describing them out-loud in near pornographic tones, causes us to reach an almost hypnotic-state of being. Much like Bran in Game of Thrones, we roll our eyes back into our heads, and instantly transport ourselves to the table of our choice, and at this table we get whichever of the desired dishes we crave most, (and unlock the secrets of seasons past, duh). It’s sick, I know. Although, it is simultaneously heartwarming, too. This game of spouting off our most craved foods has a lot to do with WHERE our imaginations transports us when we do so. From a friends dinner table where they lovingly prepare us meatballs on Sunday nights, to a spot we frequent back home for our fix of local fare, to our own kitchen. A place of hand-selected pantry ingredients and crisper drawers that perfectly suit our tastes and wants, allowing us to feed ourselves and friends, too.
A food craving (also called moreishness or selective hunger) is an intense desire to consume a specific food, and is different from normal hunger.
In certain cultures, it is known that not giving into one’s food cravings can bring bad luck during pregnancy. Hmong women are taught to give into their cravings to ensure a healthy baby. In Malta, women are told to eat their cravings for fear of a representation birthmark. And of course in America, the old adage is that women should be able to eat all the pickle and peanut butter sandwiches they want, or else they turn into slobbering fire-breathing dragon witch monsters.
The thing is, when traveling, there are certain days where you become like the fire breathing pregnant lady. You roll into some city where they have a couple places that cater to the traveler audience. They appeal to those who either can’t or won’t eat the local food (even though it is ALWAYS cheaper and better to do so), with offerings like spaghetti, pizza, burgers and pad thai. A winning menu, if I’ve ever seen one. But there you are, drooling from the thought of a decent slice since 7 in the morning, and you start to wonder if maybe, just maybe, this place can squash your craving once and for all.
This, my friends, has never worked. There have been a handful of occasions during the last 136 days of travel that we have tried to feed our stomachs like the giant venus fly traps (ravenous for blood) that they are, to no avail. Following a delicious meal of succulent, crispy duck with rice in Hong Kong we walked ourselves right into a pizza place for a slice with pepperoni. After a month of traveling in Japan, eating some of the highest quality beef we’ve ever had the privilege of being in the presence of, we caved and ate shitty burgers TWICE (twice!). Let me tell you, they were both completely terrible! (I’m sorry Japan, your food is divine, but your burgers are atrocious). In Thailand we even tucked into a sandwich shop – clearly meant only for the typical tribal/flowy pant wearing, non-Thai tourists, and ordered ourselves an AVOCADO SANDWICH. A dry, mediocre, love-less sandwich that set us back more than TRIPLE what we would normally pay for lunch in that very same city. I never had a sandwich that tasted so much like resentment.
Traveling is both exhilarating and exhausting because of the lack of those creature comforts. Waking up every couple of days in a new bed, with sheets that don’t smell like you, placing your feet onto a cold floor the topography of which you don’t know by memory. There are mornings you wake up early thinking you are somewhere else because it’s hard to keep track of those things while you sleep. Sometimes you wake up and imagine for a split second you are ‘home.’ Then you you brush your teeth, give your clothing a good sniff (to see if you can re-wear them or not,buying yourself another day without having to do laundry), and venture out looking for coffee. It’s a routine within a lack of routine that we have come to know, love and appreciate dearly.
So while the cravings continue to plague us every now and again, we know better than to try any more attempts at Italian or American fair. We go for the good stuff, the spicy, the tangy, the unfamiliar, the things wrapped in something whose name we can’t pronounce and whose contents we will never know. We point and choose based on instinct, eat with our hands on the edges of sidewalks, peering into other people’s bowls to see what they ordered and laugh when we accidentally eat something that seems plain wrong.
We still rattle off our lists, but we know we are saving those moments of satisfaction for when we can get our hands on the real thing. No imposters needed.