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The Way it Was: Foods from around the world and back in time

by John Straka Published: August 31, 2016 12:00 AM

There are some foods that I have never eaten or even tasted: squid, oysters, sushi, rattlesnake steak, buffalo burgers, steak tartare, haggis, borscht and most likely many others. Every reader probably has his or her own list. Some foods that I ate a long time ago and not again ever since, are things such as tripe, kidneys, pig's tails, pickled pig's feet, and venison.

Then there are those foods that I remember in detail when and where I ate them for the first time. Pizza is a good example. My wife and I were visiting relatives in Naugatuck, Conn. They offered to treat us to something new. Charlie called ahead and ordered a pizza. In answer to my question, I was told it was bread topped with tomato sauce. That didn't sound very good. I went along some minutes later to pick up not only the pizza, but also some orange pop. We were told that in Connecticut, you don't eat pizza without orange pop.

When my Mom was in the hospital, our neighbor lady sent over a pot of her own homemade soup. I have no idea what was in it, but no one in our family could eat it. I'm pretty sure it must have been an old Slovak recipe.

Sometime around 1930, we (Mom, Dad and we three kids) were invited to dinner on the farm of some Hungarian friends. Mom knew Hungarian cooking was very spicy, so she told the hostess that we would like her to go easy on the spices. She assured Mom there would be separate bowls on the table for our family and theirs. When served, each of us tasted the goulash, or whatever it was, and nearly choked, because it was so spicy hot. The hostess tasted the contents of both bowls, and said ours had hardly anything hot in it. I don't remember what happened after that.

On my vacation trip to Florida by train, I had a layover in Richmond, and used the time between trains to get something to eat at a nearby restaurant. A nice young lady with a slight Southern drawl took my order, and when I ordered milk, she asked if I wanted sweet milk. I wondered if that would be milk with added sugar, syrup or honey, and asked, "What other kind of milk do you have?" She said, "Buttermilk". On that vacation I was served some white stuff with every meal. When I asked what it was, I was told that it was grits. Tasted pretty good. That's also when I ate my first temple orange which is now my favorite.

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On one of our riverboat cruises in Europe, we stayed overnight in a hotel. The next morning we had a buffet-style breakfast included in the room rate. Since I did not speak the local language, I just pointed to what I wanted, and tried to order pretty much what others were ordering. Since almost everyone took some of what looked like cream, I did, too. It was a bit sour, but otherwise not bad. I think it might have been some kind of yogurt.

At a similar style lunch in Genoa, there were two pitchers of juice, one red and the other orange colored. When I chose the orange juice, the waitress poured from the red pitcher. In answer to my question I was told it was orange juice. I never did find out what the orange colored juice was.

There is a rather long story about how I got to taste turtle soup. Suffice it to say, the meat was leathery and tasteless, while the soup itself tasted like warm water.

At a Hawaiian luau, I ate poi for the first and only time, which I thought was like a rather tasteless, gray colored pudding. My impression was that it might be one of those flavors that one can learn to like.

Some European beverages can be ordered with or without gas. We would say carbonated or not carbonated. In France, I learned they do not have ginger ale. In Germany, our hamburger was made with ham, and in Canada, a French speaking restaurant owner urged us to taste his specialty "beers". That was as close as he could come to say the English word "pears".

How do you make a Boston cooler? With ice cream in root beer, or with ice cream in half a cantaloupe? How about a black cow or a root beer float? Can you still buy an old fashioned malted milk shake?

The hotel dining room in Helsinki was spacious, bright and airy. Our waitress suggested that we order black root soup. When we asked what it was made of, her limited knowledge of English didn't help. All she could tell us was that it was very good. It was creamy and delicious, with chunks of some kind of vegetable. It was not potato, turnip, kohlrabi or cabbage. It wasn't until several years later, that I learned it was salsify, a root vegetable native to Finland, and known as black root because once it's peeled, it turns black very quickly.

A fun event was when, Brigitte, our German table mate on a Hawaiian cruise, could not eat her lobster because: "It's looking at me".

If you don't know what Rocky Mountain oysters are, I urge you to look it up just in case someone offers you some.

Editor's note: Straka can be reached via email at wenceslas88plus@gmail.com.

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