"Foodar"

For me, being at a new food festival or farmer’s market is like letting a coon hound loose to find his prey.  I am both giddy with anticipation and totally focused on results, the quintessential hunter and gatherer. After all, for most of us, this is the closest thing to our ancestral primal landscape where our animal brains and instincts are fully activated. And it’s just plain fun.

My husband, Buck, who has been my companion for over forty-five years of adventure, used the phrase “foodar", as in radar for food, during our recent trip to San Francisco. It seems that I have it. Early on he learned always to follow me in a buffet line to see what I put on my plate. Recently, say the last 15 years or so, he even lets me wander aimlessly in bustling cities, Italian countrysides or drive randomly off an interstate, to locate something that meets at least minimal culinary requirements.  More often than not, we hit the jackpot.

The first time this happened was at the Ninth Avenue food festival in NYC decades ago. Back then, the festival was smaller and served mostly Italian foods. I had an idea of what a really great Italian sausage would and should taste like from my growing up days in Buffalo. I would only buy one. But which one should I pick? The festival stretched down several blocks and there were quite a few grills offering what looked like pretty much the same thing.  A pork sausage seasoned with fennel and served on a bun with grilled onions and peppers. 

I steadily walked down the street, making conversation, but my mind had gone to some other place - the place where I process a lot of information like: the juiciness of the sausage, whether or not it was cooked on charcoal or a flat top grill, did the buns look homemade? Were the cooks smiling and having fun or intently focused on their task? What about the aroma? That the aroma seemed to be everywhere on the street didn’t help. But some of the smoke wafting through was more enticing than others. And of course, was there a longer line at one booth or another. The other things my foodar detects are intangibles, like the umami flavor that is so hard to describe. But something in that separate part of my brain, an almost trancelike state has more than a dollop of intuition and instinct, like a homing pigeon’s ability to find its way home. 

I circle back and stop almost involuntarily in front of a simple booth and get in line. I order my sausage, taking direction about toppings from a personable grey haired man.  The first bite, brings a smile and the second goes to Buck.  “How did you know which one,” he asks? “Really couldn't say,” I answer with a mouthful of sausage..

The most memorable time that happened was on a family trip to Italy. We were driving and sometimes sparring about how to find our way through various Tuscan towns, sightseeing and sampling the local cheeses, wines, and pastas especially. This was before GPS made things a lot simpler. But I actually like the idea of getting lost sometimes. There is always something new to discover, a surprise when that happens. Sometimes the GPS can spoil your fun.

It was getting past lunch time, we were clueless about where to find a meal and things were getting a little testy as our hunger increased. The darkening skies threatened to open and I insisted that Buck turn the car around and circle back to a little village where I had spied a weatherworn sign with an arrow for a trattoria.  We parked outside the village walls and the rains began just as I led the charge through the gate and up the cobblestone road into the town. I quickly decided to head to the right and tried not letting the reticence ( ie. grumbling) of the others change my mind. I pushed forward through the empty streets past closed shop windows and vine covered stucco walls. 

Finally, halfway up the steep hill, I spied a worn restaurant sign protruding above a small doorway. This must be the place. There certainly weren’t any others. I opened the door and soon the rest followed me in, all of us a little wet from the rain. Things certainly were looking up for our bedraggled group when we were seated near a window overlooking layered storm clouds rolling across a gorgeous Tuscan valley. 

When our waiter arrived, he asked what we wanted to eat and in our broken Italian we asked back for suggestions of the day and finally told him to just have the chef just prepare our lunch for us.  It was a delightful and delicious lunch from the fresh salad of artichokes and the stuffed zucchini blossoms to a fresh pice pasta with tomatoes and pecorino. Our coffees arrived with a beautiful chocolate confection, not unlike a tiramisu. It was one of our best meals in Italy.

While we gathered our coats at the door to leave, we noticed a letter posted on the wall. Written in English, it was addressed to the proprietor of the little, almost empty restaurant. It was a glowing note of gratitude for the wonderful meals that the actors and crew of The English Patient had enjoyed there while they filmed the movie. Obviously, we weren’t the first tourists to find this gem.

Last week, Buck and I were staying a short walk from the Ferry Building overlooking the bay in San Francisco. I was thrilled since we had discovered it during our last visit. Inside the building are dozens of food stores and booths from all over the Bay Area, groceries, restaurants,  cheese shops and bakeries, all meeting the expected museum quality food I usually find in the Bay Area.

This trip we were lucky enough to be there on Saturday when the Cuesa Farmer's Market set up shop outside. It started as a sparkling crisp morning. Everywhere farmers and local businesses were setting up. We began our slow walk around the rows of booths in hunt of breakfast. There were burritos, butchers, bakery booths and produce stands offering samples of organic Fuji apples, jams, and nut butters. I zeroed in at Captain Mike’s Holy Smoke, a smoked fish stand where the owners were making smoked white salmon sandwiches with pickled red onion and arugula.  We ordered one to share and sat on a damp bench overlooking the Bay bridge as it slowly disappeared into the fog.

I already had my eye on the fresh seafood stand, Hog Island Oysters Company,  having noticed a sign that said something about grilled oysters. Their grill wasn’t lit yet so I pulled Buck along back inside the Ferry Building for my cup of Blue Bottle coffee and tapioca dumplings from Out The Door kiosk. Having noticed a huge line the day before for the stand, I finally I figured out it was the takeout arm of the Slanted Door, a Vietnamese restaurant where we had eaten the night before. I was still swooning over the dumplings and wanted an encore for breakfast.

Circling back we ordered 6 grilled oysters. They were shucked to order by two helpers in the rear of the booth and covered in a big dollop of their chipotle butter spread. They said to come back in a few minutes, but I moved to the side so I could watch the operation. The booth owner and staff shucked, chatted and sold more. I, on the other hand, kept my eye on the grill. Since I am a bit obsessive about not overcooking things, especially seafood I was getting little nervous and finally, unable to stop myself out of politeness, I asked the young woman grilling them if she didn't think ours were ready. I briefly mumbled something about my obsession as she agreeable dished them up.  Buck and I moved to the side with our paper plate and plastic forks and took our long anticipated first bite..totally delicious, plump …and perfectly cooked.

Now for a breakfast “dessert”. We were on vacation after all.  It wasn’t hard to pick the booth- Biscuit Bender. After all we Southerners had to get a taste of West Coast biscuits. We bought our treasure and of course, stood right there and split it before heading out to the museum.  Surely we would find a perfect lunch later on.

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