Bridget Gleeson writer + illustrator

Edible souvenirs

I used to collect keepsakes from my travels – batiks from India, espresso cups from Italy – but things got out of hand.

I just don’t have enough physical space in my day-to-day life to house all of the things I’ve picked up on my adventures. We live in an age where clutter is reviled and minimalism glorified – where reality shows document ‘junk removal’ from American houses. I had too much stuff and I realized was collecting these travel mementos, in part, to prove to others (and to myself) that I was there. I went to China.

This validation became a lot less important the more that I traveled. So I just stopped buying a bunch of stuff on each trip and turned my attention toward remembering a place through its food and wine.

It’s not that easy to recreate dishes you tasted while traveling. Usually I have to go to three different markets, splurge on imported spirits and even order exotic spices online just to make one dinner. But I love it because it brings back memories of a place; it also makes me appreciate the complexities of foreign cuisines.

Exhibit A: Chilean seafood.

Oh, how I love and crave machas a la parmesana (pink razor clams baked in parmesan cheese, white wine, lemon and cream.) I first discovered these when my older sister married a Chilean. My brother-in-law and his mother and grandmother – fabulous cooks – introduced us to paila marina (seafood stew), stuffed avocados, salmon ceviche, oversized shrimp empanadas and Chilean-style pisco sours (they’re different than the Peruvian-style ones made with cinnamon and egg whites.)

Here’s a shot of the lunch I ordered on a weekend getaway to Valparaiso with my boyfriend:

And here’s the homemade version that I prepared for my sister in Buenos Aires to commemorate Chile’s independence day:

Obviously, you can’t replicate the scenery. But my baked machas were almost as good as the real thing. I’ll be writing more about Chilean dishes in the future (just got the family’s ceviche recipe and I’m going to test-drive it soon.) In the meantime, I can’t resist sharing my recipe for a Chilean-style cocktail hour at home. The delicious pisco sour – made with pisco, the grape brandy that’s the national spirit of both Chile and Peru – is as easy as 3-2-1. 3 parts pisco : 2 parts simple syrup : 1 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice. Pair it with a stuffed avocado, a Chilean staple that’s simple to make. Slice an avocado in half length-wise, squeeze some fresh lemon juice and sprinkle some salt onto the avocado halves, then fill with shrimp, crab meat, or bacon. Genius.

Exhibit B: Spanish paella

A few weeks ago in Spain, we were invited to a lunch party in Pamplona. The hostess made paella:

The following week, visiting family in Wisconsin, I tried to replicate it:

Here’s the thing: it was all wrong. I didn’t have a large paella pan. Real saffron cost US $30 at the grocery store – I had to cheat with the seasonings. I accidentally added too much fresh parsley.

Here’s the other thing: no one cared. They didn’t know the difference! They ate every bite. Let’s face it – they’re just happy I was feeding them Spanish food and pouring Rioja instead of showing them five thousand vacation photos.