By, Kristina Todini (@fork.in.the.road)
I grew up on macaroni and cheese and hotdogs and my family has a tradition of ordering takeout for holidays. There are no beloved recipes handed down from my grandmother and I didn’t know how to bake a chicken breast until the tender age of 22. Raised in the landlocked American Midwest, I didn’t see the ocean until I was 11 and at the time the only “ethnic” foods I dared to consume were tacos, pizza, and chicken fried rice.
To say I was sheltered culturally would be a severe understatement.
It wasn’t until I began working in restaurants in my early twenties that I ventured outside of my food comfort zone. I slowly began to like seafood and realized brussel sprouts were no longer the bane of my existence. I gained a taste for good wine and cheeses beyond those melted and drizzled on top of fried foods. And at the same time I was expanding my palate, I was also stepping outside my comfort zone with a newfound love of travel and exploration.
I first stepped foot on foreign soil in Italy at the age of 24 and the trip was a pivotal moment with my outlook on food...and on life. The Italians’ commitment to fresh, seasonal, and simple ingredients shine through every dish and they do not cut corners when it comes to quality. In a twist of fate, six months after my trip to Italy I met an Italian man while I was on vacation, married him in Vegas five months later, and spent many summers in Italy with his family drinking espresso in tiny coffee shops and cooking homemade pizza in backyard ovens. It was quite a culture shock coming from my hometown in Missouri, but in the best possible way.
I have since eaten my way through twenty countries and countless cities on my treks across the world. I have barbecued kangaroo and emu in the Australian outback, munched on fried crickets in Mexico City, and hiked the jungles of Thailand for a cup of coffee. I have drank coca tea while watching the sun rise on Machu Picchu and sipped on caipirinhas while viewing the sunset over the hills of Rio de Janeiro. And in each of these places I found that no matter where you are from or what you believe, loving delicious food is what we all have in common.
If I had to choose one thing that has changed my outlook on life it would 100% be travel. Exploring new countries and immersing myself in different cultures has pushed the limits of my comfort zone, tested my biases and preconceived notions, and humbled me with a respect for not only the profound differences of the people in this world, but also for the stark similarities.
And it was in travel that I realized something: I did not come from a “lack” of food culture. I realized that my own food upbringing was a culture in and of itself. A culture of backyard barbecues, casseroles, fast foods, and beer in red Dixie cups. A culture of baseball, swimming in rivers, catching tadpoles, and chasing lightning bugs. I had spent so many years trying to escape my Midwest upbringing and looking at other cultures as more refined, when in fact my own region is what shaped me into the adventurous eater I am today.
So instead of looking back on frozen pizzas and boxed meals with disdain, instead I now appreciate the experience of the fast food culture I came from. While I may explore new recipes and kitchen techniques acquired from my travels, I keep it simple in the kitchen due to my Midwest preference to get in and get out without all the fuss. I may drink fancy wine from carafes but that doesn’t mean I will ever have a matching set of wine glasses--and I’ve realized now that that’s okay, because in the end what my upbringing and travels have taught me is that the act of eating together and sharing experiences over food is universal, no matter what is on the table.
Kristina Todini, RDN is a registered dietitian living in San Francisco, CA. She photographs and writes about food, travel, and sustainability on the blog Fork in the Road when she isn’t tasting her way across the globe. You can connect with her on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.