The scene: I’m at a restaurant on a trip abroad. The waiter asks, “Do you need a minute to decide?” I shake my head and smile. I don’t need a minute; in fact, I don’t even need a menu. I knew what my husband and I were going to have before we’d walked in the door. Before we’d even left home, I had not only selected the restaurants where we’d be eating, I’d also looked at all the menus and picked out every dish we’d order.
You can call me a control freak, but let me explain how I got to be this way. I can afford only a few very short trips each year, and when I travel, I want every meal to be an event. When I have a bland, boring meal, I feel as disappointed as if I’d arrived in Paris and discovered that Notre-Dame had been demolished. I’m not looking for fancy restaurants or truly spectacular dishes; I can have those at home, in New York City. Instead, I want meals that really take me to a foreign place and make me feel as if I belong there—that I’m not just a tourist wearing a backpack, with a city map in her hand and a camera dangling off her neck.
My fantasy goes like this: My husband and I are wandering the cobblestoned streets of an old European city. We get tired and hungry, and just when we feel we can’t take another step, one of us happens to notice the door of a tiny restaurant. There are plenty of people inside, all locals, yet the place isn’t too loud or crowded. The recipes are the owner’s grandmother’s; the ingredients come from the owner’s sister’s farm, the wine from his father-in-law’s vineyard. The food is simple yet nuanced. We take a few bites and have a few sips of the wine, then sit back and enjoy the triumph of discovery.