The Greasy Spoon

There is an on-going debate about eating in foreign countries.  Almost everyone has said that you have to be real careful about the food you eat.  Almost all those people have had bad experiences of some sort or another.  I want to share some of my own eating adventures of the last 32 years.

This is not the last in historical order and not strictly experienced in a foreign land, but it is worth noting.  In 1971, I was assigned to a Navy oiler, a big tanker of sorts, as an officer.  The enlisted crew ate out of the general mess.  All Navy food.  The officers in the wardroom (officer dining area) ate out of the wardroom mess (not what it sounds like).  Officers could eat anything they wanted to order.  The difference is that they have to pay for their meals beyond a token compensation of some $47 dollars a month.  That fact was to keep us from having lobster three meals a day.

When the ship was in home port, in this case Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the duty officer's wives, some of them, ate dinner with their husbands.  Yes, they had to pay for their wives’ meals.  The meals are prepared (at least at that time) by Filipino enlisted stewards.  One particular night the duty officers, and a couple of wives were having who-remembers-what, when the supply officer’s wife got up from the table and walked to the sliding door that the stewards passed the meals through from the officer’s kitchen (mess). 

She took one quick sniff, closed the sliding door, and walked out of the wardroom, took a few steps down the passageway and into the officer’s kitchen and spied on what the stewards were eating.  The supply officer’s wife had a sneaking suspicion that the stewards were eating better than the officers..... and their wives. 

I am not sure how the stewards are fed.  If we have steaks, do they have steaks, or do they eat out of the general mess of the enlisted men?  I never thought to ask that question.  In this case the stewards had scrounged in the officer’s pantry and came up with the best they could to make chicken adobo, pancit, and lumpia.  Chicken adobo is chicken cooked in soy sauce, garlic, and vinegar.  Pancit is an egg and rice dish, and lumpia is some sort of meat wrapped in a filo dough with a brown sauce.  The supply officer’s wife wanted a sample of all three.  To everyone’s surprise all three dishes were outrageously wonderful. 

From that day on, once a week at least, the officers had chicken adobo, pancit, and lumpia.  I am not a rice fan, but let me tell you, that pancit was a meal in itself and wonderful.  Twelve years later, back in Florida, I had a Filipino woman who worked for me.  We got to talking about this subject.  She then brought into work some pancit made with the real oriental ingredients.  I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  It made me appreciate more what those stewards had concocted from what they could find in the wardroom pantry.

I have tried repeatedly over the years to cook chicken adobo.  All attempts have had very poor results.  My wife never cared for it.  Hated the soy sauce and vinegar combination.  My stepson Steven liked it anyway.  Steven moved away from home finally and I didn’t make it for quite some time.

One day, I decided to try it again.  At least I would eat it if Jan and Patrick didn’t.  I made a batch after having cooked Jan and Patrick’s chicken on the grill like always.  When I got the grill put away I went into the house to set the table.  Patrick was standing there at the counter and had consumed about all my chicken adobo.  Well........ I guess that answered that question.  Just think, if I could only do it the right way.  Needless to say, in the 29 years since I left that ship,. I have yet to find a Filipino restaurant.  I do sort of live in the sticks of Florida.  A culturally deprive void in the world at large.

Going back in time to 1969, I was on my way home from Vietnam and took a detour for a week’s tour of Japan.  You can’t see much in a week, but I took some advice from  a friend and stayed in a Japanese inn rather that the western style hotels that have sprung up everywhere in Japan. 

This inn was in Kyoto.  It was owned by three sisters, none of whom spoke English.  I don’t speak Japanese.  My room was very different from American standards.  The floor was covered by tatami mats.  Sort of a woven bamboo matting.  I slept on a futon, which is a padded bedding of sorts on the floor.

What really set this room off from American standards is the gas outlet in the wall near the floor.  When you ordered dinner, one of the sisters would bring a grill up to the room and cook dinner right there before you.  You would be sitting on the floor with the grill a few inches off the floor.

I ordered Sukiaki (don’t know how to spell it).  My mother is a good cook and she tried this on me when I was living at home.  The meat is cut in very fine strips and grilled along with the vegetables.  There is soy sauce involved.  I was puzzled by the cup of raw egg to the right of my plate.  The hostess finished cooking the ingredients and put them on my plate.

Using my chopsticks, yes I can use the darned things, I gathered a mouthful and raised the chopsticks to my mouth.  To my consternation the hostess, quick as a snake, hit my wrist with a chopstick.  That stopped me cold.  She indicated that I was to dip the mouthful in the raw egg.  Oh no, I tried to tell her I was not about to try that.  Guess what, I wasn’t going to be allowed to eat until I dipped it in the raw egg.  I gave in.  I’ll be darned, it was really good.  You couldn’t even tell that it was raw egg.  So much for the customer always being right.

A few days later I was in Hiroshima........ as in A-Bomb devastated city in 1945 Hiroshima.  I was in a seafood snack bar and they had the biggest raw oysters you ever saw in your life.  It took three bites to get down one oyster.  I was looking around for the catsup and horseradish sauce to mix together.  I like the flames to come out my nostrils when I eat raw oysters.  The bar man set soy sauce down in front of me.  Oh no, I couldn’t imagine soy sauce with oysters.  The Japanese are a very courteous people, but for the second time in a week I did not have a choice in the matter.  Guess What?  Not bad at all.

1970 saw me in Europe for a three month wandering.... I guess that’s what you can call it.  I got a map and went.  When the scenery got interesting... or the map got interesting, I went that a way.

I did have a few interesting experiences eating in Europe.  I had been cautioned by experienced travelers to be wary of any food I ate in Europe.  I did have one person who gave me the best advice.  “If it looks good, it probably is.”  That is the guide I went by.  No digestive problems.

Since I was back in college at the time, I went to Europe with enough funds for about $10 a day.... for everything.  I missed all, and I mean all, the good restaurants in all the countries.  You have to be young to travel Europe the way I did.  England was a disappointment for me as far as food was concerned.  They don’t have restaurants in my price range.  They did have Wimpy’s though.  A copy-cat of McDonalds.  I had to be starving to eat there.  Fortunately I never got that hungry.  The first thing I wanted in London was a Coke.  Pepsi would do in a pinch.  I walked up to a street vendor and asked for a cold Coke.  “Sure, love.” 

To my great disappointment which was to last 90 some days, is the fact that to Europeans, cold means that it has not been sitting out in the sun.  When they say “cold” it translates to lukewarm.  I wasn’t sure I could handle three months of tepid drinks.  I headed for the continent.   Surely things would be better there in the way of eating.

I was invited to stay a few days with a German family who were friends of a classmate.  We had venison for dinner the first night.  I am not a big game hunter and was uneasy about gamy meat.  Surprisingly the meat was very good, nice and tender, tempered by a wonderful tangy sauce.  A good wine for dinner.  Oh boy.  “Yes, it is cold”.......... right out of the cellar.  Slightly cooler than room temperature.

I should have known.  These people had a nice house in Budigen and drove a BMW, a car which is a status symbol everywhere now, but new to me back in those days.  In their kitchen, though, is the smallest refrigerator I ever saw..... up until then.  I have a Igloo cooler in the trunk of my car today that holds more food than that fridge.  It seems that everyone, almost everyone in Europe, goes to the grocery store just about every day.  Geez, my wife goes to the grocery store once a month. 

More about refrigerators.  Once upon a time.... sounds like a fairy tale.  Maybe it is.  Anyway, at one time we, the three of us at home now, used to all drink Coke.  When they started jacking the prices of Coke above a dollar for a two liter bottle, I made a life altering decision.  I switched to Sam’s Cola.  I know you are horrified.  It was traumatic for me at the time.  After all, I was a Coke customer for 50 some years.  You see Sam’s Cola is 58 cents a bottle where Coke is above a dollar now.  Problem solved, right.  Wrong.  My wife couldn’t make the switch.  Not only that, but my son Patrick switched to Pepsi.  So much for me having control of my household. 

It is plain for the reader to see that I have three, two liter bottles in the refrigerator, right!  Noooo, you are wrong.  There are six two-liter bottles in the fridge.  One of each brand open and another of each brand getting cold.  Correction.... Patrick has decided to have some two liter bottles of lemonade in the fridge, that makes eight bottles.  That refrigerator in the house in Budigen wouldn’t have held my family’s sodas much less any other food.

I bought a used Volkswagen to get around in.  I did fine for a month or so until I wrecked the thing in Scotland.  Do you know those people drive on the wrong side of the road.

A little side note.  Back in college listened to travel discussion hosted by some people who traveled in Germany.  They said that the people on the highway would stop their cars alongside the road and go to the bathroom.  They were disgusted by the vulgar display in public.

Guess what I discovered.  There aren’t any public rest rooms in Germany.  Let’s say, almost none.  The most important German phrase a traveler can learn is “Woe ist der Banhof.”  Translated that means where is the train station.  That’s right, that is the only place you are going to find a public toilet.  I needed to use a toilet once and went into a hotel.  I wasn’t in there long.  I wasn’t a paying customer.  No  public toilets.

There is one thing that I liked about Germany.  Every town that is big enough to have a stop sign has a brewery.  Stop at a street vendor and ask, “Bratwurst unt ein Bier.”  Boy do they make the best sausages in the world.  The beer was good even if it wasn’t cold like I like it.

                I spent one day in Venice.  I shared the rent of a gondola with an American family.  I then spent a few hours touring the city and taking pictures.  I didn’t have the money to stay in Venice, so by late afternoon I was headed back north to towards Austria.  I spent the night at a small hotel in northern Italy.  I did not speak a word of Italian except “spaghetti”.  What I could say was,  “Haben sie ein zimmer frei”, do you have a room to rent.  One of my three German phases I had learned only days before.  At least I was understood.  It wasn’t cheap. 

                I do remember the dinner I had that night,  Spaghetti.  What was so memorable was that there was a plateful of spaghetti with about two tablespoons of sauce on the whole plate.  I like a little spaghetti with my sauce.  This was ridiculous.  I don’t remember what it tasted like.  There wasn’t much sauce there to taste.

                I spent one day in Geneva.  I had met some American students and we tried a cheese fondue.  Was it ever delicious.  I was to never have another fondue in the next 32 years that even came close to being that good.  I believe it had something to do with the bread.

                I spent a few days in Paris.  I found a reasonably priced hotel only a few blocks from the Arc de Triomphe.  Nothing fancy, but I was concerned more about economy that luxury. 

                I wish I’d had enough money to really taste French cuisine.  I didn’t, but I made up for it by buying a loaf of that long French bread, a baguette, along with a stick of butter, and a quart of milk.  It was a picnic affair on the banks of the River Seine.  Let me tell you, that bread was like candy.  I ate the whole loaf.  I had never had bread that good before........ or since.  I don’t care what the grocery stores here in America say they have, it isn’t real French bread.  A hard crust with a soft center.  You just can’t imagine what a delightful taste real French bread has.  You just can’t get that kind of bread here.  At least I have never found any.

                I spent about 10 days in Norway.  After spending a night in a youth hostel in Bergen, I was hungry.  The breakfast at the hostel was $2.50, more than I wanted to spend.  Remember this was 1970.  I was going to travel up the coast on a ferry boat that went north, then east into the Sonefjord. 

                It was the salt air that did it.  I was starved by 11AM.  The ship has a brunch for $2.50.  I didn’t care what it cost, I was going to pay it.  There was only one problem.  It was a buffet, a “smorgasbord”, with all the dishes laid out on a long table.

                I walked down that table with a plate in my hand.  Darned, nothing looked remotely like anything I had ever seen before.  Not another soul there spoke English.  I was on my own.  I figured I would try a little of everything and tell by taste what I was eating.  Boy, was I in for a surprise.

                After eating a plateful, I had not identified a single dish.  It was good, very good, but I had no idea what I had eaten.  My taste testing had not given me a single clue...... and I had tried numerous dishes.  What a puzzle.  The evening meal was exactly the same with one exception..... I know a potato when I see one.  At least that was familiar.  I even tried different dishes with the same results as earlier.  I couldn’t identify any dish except the potatoes.

                Two days later found me in the town of Lillehammer, where they held the winter Olympics one year.  Norway has good restaurants in the train stations.  I decided to eat in the Lillehammer train station.  I sat there and looked over the menu.  I had no idea what they offered.  There was no picture by each selection. 

                I picked up the menu and walked into the kitchen.  That stirred up things fast.  Everyone in the kitchen was waving their hands and motioning for me to leave.  I held up my hands then pointed to the menu and then to the various dishes that were being prepared.  I spotted something that looked like a stew and had the waitress point it out on the menu.  I figured out that I would eat this same dish whenever I ate in a restaurant. 

                As I left that restaurant I saw a poster on the station wall that caught my attention.  It was a scene of a mountain valley deeply scoured by the ice age glaciers.  It said “Trollsteigveg,” which I found meant “Way of the Troll.”  I went north instead of south.  I had a destiny with another train station meal with different results.

                At the end of the day I was in Andalsnes and I was hungry.  I went into the restaurant in the train station and picked up the menu with confidence.  My confidence disappeared in a hurry.  My newly found Norwegian dish wasn’t listed.  How bad could it be if I just picked a selection at random?  As bad as it can get. 

                My meal arrived and my hopes were dashed.  Liver........... I hated liver.  Actually, I had not tasted liver in many, many years.  I was a grown man now.  Surely I could eat liver.  I took a bite and chewed....... and chewed.... and chewed.  I could not make myself swallow that liver.  So... I had a meal of potatoes and some kind of greens.  That was the very last bite of liver I have had in 32 years.

                Two days later I found myself in a remote youth hostel on the side a Norwegian fjord.  It was the first week of September and there were only four of us in a hostel that would sleep about 30 people.  We ate breakfast in a roughly finished room that looked out over the junction of two  fjords that were flanked by 4,000 walls of solid rock.  Breakfast consisted of bread and a couple of blocks of something in the middle of the table.  One of the others at the table said that the brown block was goat cheese.  I made a face and figured that my meal was going to be just the bread.  Then the man said that under the wax coating the other block was blue cheese. we were in business.  I had a generous helping of that bleu cheese.  I have always loved the stuff.

                Another time found me in the south of France.  I stopped in the town of Sete.  On the waterfront there was an outdoor market.  I saw a vendor with what looked like blueberry muffins.  I bought a couple.  As I walked along I took a bite.  The taste stopped me dead in my tracks.  What in the name of Heaven was this stuff.  I returned to the vendor and asked in my horrible French, “Que est que cest?”  The woman pointed to two buckets at her feet.  Squid in one, and octopus in the other.  Having my question answered, I went ahead and finished by breakfast.  The taste wasn’t bad, just completely strange to me.

                I had not intended to spend much time in Spain.  I wish I had not waited another 20 years to learn Spanish.  I would have spent a lot more time there than the few days that I did.

                Arenas de Mar is on the northeast coast of Spain.  It is a tourist haven, but for the life of me I can’t understand the attraction.  It does have beaches, but the sand and water quality are below my standards.  If you have lived in Florida like I have, you are used to clean white beaches and beautiful clear water.  Here in Spain, I wouldn’t set foot in the water. 

                I headed to the youth hostel.  Packed to capacity.  The only place left were the modern high-rise hotels on the beach.  I was desperate, so I decided to spend just one night.  There was an American student riding with me (also helping to pay the gas) who also needed a place to stay.  We decided to get a room at one of the nice hotels.  No way around it.  We would share a room.  To my great astonishment, the room was just $10 a night.  There had to be some mistake, but I was not to argue with my share of $5 a night.  I was in for another surprise.  It is the only time in my three months of travel that I had a private bathroom.  If I had not had the itch to see “everything” in Europe I could have stayed there for until it was time to return home.

                The next day was Saturday and I toured the open-air market.  It took up the whole main street leading to the waterfront on this one day of the week.  There was a large open building off to the side where meat was on display.  For some reason I went in.  I have been in butcher shops before, but this was a bit different.  It was not air conditioned, much less refrigerated.  What stopped me cold was a half dozen carcasses hung on one wall.  There is only one animal I know of that fits that size and shape .......... cats.  I wasn’t reassured by that sight.

                Now we come to the “greasy spoon.”  La Luna was a small restaurant on the Arenas de Mar waterfront.  A very plain exterior and interior, with no decoration at all.  It had no air conditioning.  The front door was left open for ventilation.  The meals were cheap.  I paid 40 cents for a meal.  I don’t remember what it was but it came with French fries.  I had the same meal every time I went there for three days.  I should have had the Paella. 

                Paella is a rice dish, flavored with saffron, and loaded with seafood.  What put me off was the fact that the fish went into the pan whole, as did the shrimp and clams.  All those feelers, shells, and legs did not appeal to me.  The cost for a meal of Paella was 80 cents.  That same dish in America today will probably cost you $20 or $30 a meal.

                One day, at lunch, I did not get the usual French fries on my plate.  I got the attention of the waitress and indicated that I didn’t get the fries with my meal.  “No problemo,” was the cheerful reply.  She then went to another table where the eaters had just left.  She picked up one of their plates which had most of the fries left on it and scrapped those fries onto my plate.  I was astonished.

                So why is it that this is the one restaurant that I ate at where I remembered the name of the place.  After all, it was a real greasy spoon.  I’ll tell you.  It was the one place in all my travels, in dozens of countries, in three months that had cold Coca Colas.  Yes...... I mean ice cold.  For that reason alone I will always have a special place in my heart for La Luna, the greasy spoon.


Tom Sparkman  August 3, 2002