The best thing about traveling is food, and that’s because eating functions in so many different ways.
Eating is a way to feel welcomed. When my girlfriend Kacie and I arrived in Austin together, her coming along while I attended the annual Association of Alternative Newsmedia convention last week, we immediately dropped our bags and started walking through the heavy heat to Iron Works BBQ. There, sweating profusely in the barn-like setting that Kacie compared to a camp mess hall, we dined on memorable brisket and the best green beans I’ve ever eaten alongside construction workers and two men in business suits. This is Texas, we thought to ourselves, distilled into one TV-ready barbecue dive. It felt as if we’d come home and taken our shoes off before putting our feet up.
Eating is a way to explore. The hunt for dinner one night took us to Casino el Casino, a dive bar on the rowdy Sixth Street where traffic is diverted on weekend nights. There, as Kacie ordered hot wings at a back counter, my friend and co-worker Lamar and I took in the truly bizarre mix between the street-punk door guy, pork-pie-wearing female bartender, a biker patron and the Abba and Beatles coming from the jukebox. Just a few blocks from our downtown hotel, we wondered where the hell we’d ended up. I guess they were just doing their part to keep Austin weird.
Eating is a way to connect. Over incredible biscuits and delicious sausage at Stubb’s, a live music venue and restaurant, I talked to other alternative newsies from Reno, Nev., Chico, Calif. and Canada. Food gave us — former strangers — something to talk about. The next night at a place called Hopdoddy Burger Bar, food played the opposite role, giving five of us a reason to converge around a table though we didn’t discuss our meal at all. Despite the line snaking through the long restaurant, out the door and around the side of the building, the burgers didn’t come close to the similarly named Hops Burger Bar in Greensboro, but at the time I was more focused on reconnecting with my old friend Claudia who lives in Austin.
Eating is a way to learn. During a late brunch at a spot east of downtown called the Hightower, I tried something called a Dutch baby pancake for the first time. It tasted like a cross between French toast and fried dough but resembled a bread bowl. I loved it, and I’m glad my friend Mike let me try his, though I favored Kacie’s porkbelly sandwich and even more so my carnitas with grits, salsa verde and an egg. At an upstairs spot called Swift’s Attic, I learned that I love goat shoulder, especially when it comes with ricotta gnocchi and smoked fig (pictured at top). I savored the devils on horseback appetizer, but wish I’d learned what I thought about the squid fries.
Eating is a way to understand a place. From the hipness and mildly pretentious vibe of Swift’s to the low-key cool of Fresa’s — a drive-thru or walk-up Tex-Mex joint where Kacie and I nabbed breakfast tacos before heading to the airport — our meals and the restaurants that served them provided insight into the place we were visiting. Reading the dining guide put together by the Austin Chronicle for the conference, gathering friends’ suggestions, chatting up the bartender at Easy Tiger and walking by food trucks helped us comprehend what food distinguishes the city and who values what aspects of the myriad options across town.
Eating is a way to express emotion. I identified this most clearly on our final evening, as the whole Triad City Beat team in for the convention gathered for dinner at Ramen Tatsu-Ya where we ate an unbelievably satisfying meal. Our leader Brian Clarey had called us together to express his gratitude towards us, picking up the tab on what may’ve been the best meal of the entire trip. And it turned into an opportunity for all of us to express our jubilance that our own Jordan Green took home the second-place award for political columns for newspapers with a circulation of 45,000 and under — no small feat for the association’s youngest and near-smallest publication — raising our glasses, laughing, hugging and maybe crying over his win.
Later that night as most of us sat at the hotel bar, Brian returned with a dozen ridiculous treats from Voodoo Doughnuts — I tried one with Tang, and another came with bubblegum — and I took his gesture to be a sign of his affection for us.
It’s true of course that you could do any of these things while traveling without food. But why the hell would you want to?