Mealeastate: The Art of Strategizing Dinners While Traveling

the seafood chowder in question

 I am happy that I married a man who likes to eat.

I’ve thought about it a lot since our wedding: what kind of fresh hell it would be for some of us (me) to have permanently linked my fate to that of a person who didn’t bother with snacks for a twelve hour road trip, or whose priority on a list of Things To Do In A New Place was, like, only war memorials or something. I have nothing against war memorials - I think they’re great. But the experience is infinitely better if you’re visiting either right before, or right after, having eaten a nice meal. Thankfully, Andrew agrees.

Not that checking out the food scene is all we care about when we travel. We love museums, long rambles through a new place, hiking, sight-seeing, choosing which house we’d move into if I inherited a sudden enormous fortune from a forgotten relative whose death will come as a fleeting sad shock, but an enduring boost to our finances (after all, we never knew him). But despite the many things we like to do while on a trip, it is a true fact that the flesh of our trip hangs, so to speak, on the skeleton of the meals we will eat.

the apples for which I never had cash so I never got to taste :(

I call this category of planning, “mealestate”: the finite number of days and meals during which we will be on-location, working up an appetite. You can’t just give a corner lot of mealestate to any old restaurant, you see. You’ll never have time for all of them, so that means creating a hierarchy of the Most Important Spots For A Meal. If you don’t, you might spend half the seven hour drive home wondering if that ice cream shop might’ve changed your life (it probably would’ve).

The strategy we have developed goes something like this: we take all the suggestions we’ve been given on where and what to eat, compare it to where we’ll be and what else we want to do, and toss away any ideas toward which we feel ambivalent. (“Do we really need to try Mighty Taco? Isn’t it just Taco Bell without the marketing strategy?”). We generally emerge very satisfied with the outcome. The beauty of this strategy is that we can save whatever didn’t make the cut for our next visit, or discard it entirely.

Some of this strategy is cleverness; the rest is mere practicality: if you want to get into a particular restaurant, you will need to check the days of the week it is actually open, and possibly make a reservation well ahead of time. Not to mention the keen sense of disappointment when you leave a place knowing you’ve eaten absolutely the wrong stuff: like finding out that if you’d only gone one block farther than you'd have found a third-wave coffee shop instead of the groaty Starbucks you slunk into each day. I try to live my life in a way free from such avoidable regrets.

But is it worth it? the fly-by-the-pants traveler wants to know. You will be the best judge of your own humor, but consider: when it comes to meals-while-traveling: a crew of people who are walking farther distances than they’ve walked in the last ten years will be happiest when kept reasonably well-fed.

For some groups this will feel obvious, for others it will revolutionize the whole experience. I know plenty of people who have lived absolute decades on this earth and are still oblivious to their hangry evil twin lurking just there behind a genial smile.

“I feel so much better after eating!” they’ll exclaim when their senses have returned, as if this was a new discovery to anyone but themselves.

Best to be proactive and stave hanger off before it's begun.

I have not always been so wise. I offer this advice about mealestate in the wake of plenty of times when I totally failed at it. My siblings and I traveled together to Ireland in 2018. It was an amazing trip and we did enjoy some lovely meals. We are all food-people, and we managed to hit quite a lot of delightful restaurants and pubs. However, we made the mistake of forgetting to officially think through the mealestate for the most part. Perhaps two of our meals were pre-planned. The others chaotically came together when we were all on the verge of tears because, dear God, we’d had nothing to eat since morning but tea and a crumbling scone. We often skipped lunch and always argued about dinner, spiraling at a rapid pace from undecided to uncivil in our conversations about where to be fed.

Because we had our own car and an ambitious itinerary for our nine days in Ireland, we moved quickly through the country. Our evenings were often complicated by traveling to the next destination. Deep into the winding roads, far between cities we zipped forlornly in our little car, stomachs growling. Occasionally we passed a village pub, wondering if there was anything but Guinness to be had inside, and was it worth stopping? probably not. We kept on, growing more morose and tightlipped about the whole thing. Someone would start getting combative about something that wasn’t important at all. In a word, we were hungry, yet we never learned to chart our course toward a fixed point. The fixed point, in this case, being a piece of prime mealestate.

Besides the otherworldly trip to a deserted Lidl for a dinner we could shove into crooked little oven in a crooked little 200 year old cottage in Glencolumbkille, two instances of especially failed mealestate-planning stand out in my mind:

Number One: Belfast

After a long day’s drive we crashed late at night into our Airbnb. We were staying in Belfast - one of the few cities we actually spent time in during our trip. The apartment was chic, and in a good part of town, though grossly complicated to get into. After a lot of arguing over what we wanted for dinner and whether any of us felt like going out (we girls didn’t), we sent my brother away on a mission to bring back Chinese. We had no idea if Chinese takeout in Ireland is any good, but it was late, and we were in awful moods. For some reason we watched the BBC’s North & South till his return, a drab, mournful miniseries for a drab, mournful state of hunger. Finally we heard the snick of the doorknob, and there he was with a greasy, brown-paper sack out of which spooled endless good smells. It was late by now, and he’d found perfectly acceptable, trashy Chinese. The good kind of trashy. You know the sort. We gnawed on lumps of crisp chicken in a neon-orange sauce, dunked egg rolls in soy sauce, and watched Big Bang Theory till our hunger faded into the background. A memorable, if not strictly well-planned dinner. 

Number Two: Ballycastle

 We pulled into our neat-as-a-pin, modern-looking rental house and got settled. After days of quaint, very Irish lodgings, it felt strange to be in a house that could easily have been a vacation home in Florida. A paved driveway. An actual lawn. On a street lined with other houses kitted out with paved driveways and actual lawns. We’d fallen through the looking glass and ended up back in America, somehow. Or so it felt.

Evening had fallen, so we thought we’d better get on with it and grab dinner before everything closed up. After parking along the street we set out on foot, intending to find some place nearby with good pub food. Maybe a bowl of the seafood chowder and moreish, brown bread I had begun to exclusively exist upon here from the sheer joy of eating such a thing in such a place.

No luck for most of our long, dark walk. At last, however, we found an out-of-the-way pizza place: a little Chanello’s-looking joint with a few wan tables butting up to the glass, a menu board, and a tired-looking woman taking pizza orders for takeaway and delivery. How fortuitous to have found a place that looked both open and decent - after all, how could one mess up pizza?

My brother addressed the pizza lady and asked if the shop took credit cards. Our faces fell, watching his fall at her words: cash only. Of course, we did forget that we’d crossed into Northern Ireland on our way to Ballycastle, and euros were not accepted. Euros were the only cash any of us had on hand.

It was the pound sterling or nothing, my lad. The pizza lady was very kind about it, but absolutely firm.

Too late to exchange money in any of the usual places, she gave us instructions on where to find an ATM where we might try to withdraw money with our cards. We could walk there and back before closing time, it wasn’t far, she promised.

The evening grew later and dark, mid November closed in around us. Our stomachs reproved us for ignoring them for so long. We huddled around the ATM machine against the cold dampness of the sea-air. Each of us wanted a good pizza more than we’d wanted anything in this life, probably. I thinly mentioned that I’d taken a look at the menu board. I didn’t want to bring the mood down further, but it seemed that messing up pizza was entirely possible: I’d seen advertised a “tuna and banana” option for toppings. I couldn’t imagine what sort of place found those to be a desirable combination, let alone atop red sauce and mozzarella.

Pounds in hand, we stalked back to the pizza parlor and ordered a tame option: sausage and olives. Shuddering, I ran my eyes back over the Tuna & Banana pizza listed so chipperly, so bravely you might even say. Yes, I’d read that right: tuna and banana.

Back at the airbnb, we feasted. The pizza was not what I would call strictly good: the crust tasted funny and phlegmatic, the sauce oddly, deeply sweet. But in our hunger we ate the entire thing and came back for seconds. It was edible and, more to the point, strictly lacking either tuna or banana. In a pinch, you eat what you can find. The meal ended with pints of watery ice cream from a petrol station around the corner. The next morning, of course, we had a lovely breakfast at a two-story cafe on the main street and repaired all our sad feelings about Ballycastle’s food scene. It seemed like a lovely place by daylight.

a happy accident in the Belfast Christmas market

I do not for a moment blame the cities, the country, or even the restaurants which we found less than satisfying. Poorly judged, last-minute meals were our own fault. If food matters to you (as it matters to us) then you must be aware of your meal-estate and think ahead. 

I say to plan your mealestate, and I stand by those words. But if you don’t, if you desire to be led by your stomach and group-hunger and good fortune to the home of a perfect steak and Guinness pie, then I wish you happy accidents every time.

I hope you’ll have cash for the Galway market where we saw two young men hawk fresh oysters, settling the shucked-right-there shells into the divets of overturned egg cartons and passing them to customers with wedges of lemon and a bottle of hot sauce. Save a few euros for the market tables laden with jammy-smelling fruit: gooseberries in their cocked paper hats, bright yellow apples with red cheeks, and beadlike currants spilling from pint cartons.

Go to any holiday markets you find and eat your fill of sudden offerings like chimney-cake or a giant, arm-length sausage in a bun onto which you’ll have to squirt mustard from some suspended contraption that looks for all the world like a cow’s teat.

I hope further unexpectedly-good meals come your way through sheer luck, like the seafood chowder on the pier in Howth, or Irish stew in the home of a friend’s grandmother, or fish and chips at Leo Burdock in Dublin. I hope you laugh over some unplanned meals - the restaurant proprietor berating an embarrassed young man who asked for a bottle of ketchup while you slowly realize that all the art on all the walls is full of people who are all very, very naked.

And I hope you have one really memorable food moment, one completely fortuitous accident, like I did up near Donegal at a tiny cafe near the cliffs. My "cajun" sweet potato fritters arrived with a poached egg perched on top. When I pierced it, the intensity of its sunrise orange yolk astounded me. I had never before, or since, seen an egg that looked like a tangerine. The chickens that laid those eggs lived a scant two miles away, I learned. They picked through Ireland’s green-green grass, salted over with fine sea spray from the wild Atlantic way. And though I later messaged the cafe on Facebook and convinced them to pass along the recipe for their sweet potato fritters (so generous!) I know I’ll look my whole life and never find eggs so fine again. I just know it. How completely unsatisfying.

 I guess we can all learn from my foolishness: this is the steep price you pay for not making use of your mealestate license. Be warned, fellow travelers. Here there be danger.

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