As a nerdy teenager growing up in a small town in southern Minnesota, I spent an awful lot of time sitting around unpromising all-night restaurants like Perkins thinking and talking about qualities that I didn't possess. Like many 15-year-olds, I wanted a girlfriend, and I came to the conclusion that I hadn't earned one just because I didn't do anything that the girls in my town would find interesting.
Girls seemed to love boys who played sports, and while the local coaches somehow let me wander onto a field during regulation, I was too dreamy, distracted, and fearful to be a competent teammate. Girls liked music, but I couldn't sing or play an instrument, and I hated the music that was played on the radio, which was the kind that most girls seemed to like. Some girls loved boys who, like me, were neither jocks nor musicians, but in my town, these boys drove lifted trucks and went muddin' in the flats. Sadly, the lone vehicle I had access to, my mom's Volkswagen Golf, was not and would never be lifted, except perhaps by a tornado. And lacking Oakley blades and a feathered mullet, I didn't look the part anyway. Not that I was following any other popular fashion trends — I didn't look like Axl Rose in 1988 or like Eddie Vedder in 1992. At best, I looked like a rural Canadian's idea of Michael Stipe: lots of layers, lots of hats, lots of REI.
I knew if I wanted to have a girlfriend I'd have to try harder than most to bring something to the table. At home, I found joy in reading about 19th-century presidential elections and playing computer baseball games with fictional teams, and I suspected that each of those activities was somewhat hostile to romance. If Kevin Costner wooed starlets with sweet talk about Henry Clay, he kept it out of the press.
There was one thing I liked that I knew many girls also liked: travel. I wanted to see the world, and so did a lot of the Midwest's most interesting young women. The problem was, with the aforementioned borrowed Golf and my earnings as a janitor at the Steamboat Inn, I could take a girl maybe as far as Duluth before our parents would get mad. International travel and the other fervid promises of adulthood would have to wait.
Somehow, an issue of Minnesota Monthly featuring new Twin Cities restaurants fell onto my parents' coffee table. I don't remember if my parents intentionally subscribed to it or if it just appeared in our home, passed on like rhubarb from a neighbor's garden. Either way, I read about the ethnic restaurants less than an hour away in the Minneapolis–St. Paul Metropolitan area, and I was transfixed. I had no context for these places as a diner. My parents' kitchen plated dishes that were perfunctory and sustaining; our lone occasional meal outside of the Midwestern comfort zone was "stir fry," and it would take a generous or benighted palate to confuse it with Asian cuisine. Here, at last, through Minnesota's versions of the globe's culinary pageant, was my chance to experience other countries. Although I would've gladly gone to any of these restaurants alone or with friends, I felt that with this issue of Minnesota Monthly as my flying carpet, I could share this whole new world with a special lady.
When I first proposed a date to Natalie, a young woman I met through the high school theater, I knew she had an interest in world travel, and therefore, possibly, world cuisine. It sure is a confidence booster, I discovered, to have an idea of what you actually want to do on a date before you ask a person out on said date. She said yes, and, like any reasonable person, asked what the hell my plan was for our evening together.
How about North African food, I said. I was sure she hadn't heard that one before.
Sure, she said. What's North African food, exactly?
I have no idea, I said.
Natalie and I ended up dating for the next two years.
Her consent to my initial plan soon inspired her to suggest ideas for further cuisines to explore, and we became culinary cosmonauts, daring each other to further expand our palates and comfort zones as we fell in love with each other over larb and shakshuka. In the ensuing years, after beginning at St. Paul's Barbary Fig, we tried Minneapolis' Chez Bananas (Carribean), St. Paul's Acropol Inn (Greek), Eden Prairie's Kabuki (Japanese), St. Paul's La Cucaracha (Mexican), Minneapolis' Sawatdee Thai (Thai), Minneapolis' Blue Nile (Ethiopian), Minneapolis' Café Un Deux Trois (French), Burnsville's Mediterranean Cruise Café (Mediterranean), Stillwater's Gasthaus Bavarian Hunter (German), Minneapolis' Brit's Pub (British), St. Paul's Ciatti's (Italian), and Minneapolis' Ichiban (Japanese, again) for a start. My first wasabi was with her, my first spaetzle, my first salmon roe, my first dolmades, my first rad na. Each bite exploded into my senses like joyous bodies into a July swimming pool; I was changed, and perhaps she was too. Early on, I recall the inklings of a personal recalibration; food had been, briefly, a substitute for travel — now it would be the impetus. Having experienced the local versions of pad thai and osso buco inflamed my alacrity to experience these recondite meals in their countries of origin.
Natalie, who spoke a little Spanish, loved having a chance to use it, and began to equally adore the lengua tacos from a food truck parked outside the Busy Bee Café in St. Paul. Experiences like that, which we viewed as daring at the time (no one else we heard of was doing this) not only broadened our palates, but it also made us feel brazenly adult. Once we were gifted glasses of sparkling wine from the bar of a soul food restaurant; I like to think it was because we were comporting ourselves with such maturity, but more likely, it was a mistake on the part of our server. However, my most memorable experience was a time I acted my age; I once failed to bring enough cash to cover our bill at a short-lived Minneapolis restaurant called Strings, and had to make a shame-addled run for it. When they went out of business I was devastated; I felt that my $14 deficit was surely the coup-de-grace in their demise.
Neither the novelty nor the meals could last forever. I forced us in a retrenchment when I totaled my mom's Golf, and things got melancholy when I graduated high school and left for college out of state. Although Natalie, who was two years younger, eventually joined me on the same campus, we'd gone our separate ways by then as a couple. She ended up majoring in Italian, lived in Italy and Turkey for a time, got married, and settled in New York, where she can obtain food from virtually any obscure culinary niche 24 hours a day. I've since seen my share of the world as well, and now live with an equally adventurous girlfriend in the gastronomically satisfying city of Los Angeles, a city I've irresponsibly enjoyed.
Back when Natalie and I were in high school, the term "foodie" didn't exist, and we knew few people who may have preferred a night of Ethiopian food to a night at the Mall of America; it didn't seem like many of our friends knew or cared to know what we were up to every weekend. There was no internet, and there was no way of reliably knowing if there were other teenagers like us, out there every weekend, rabidly exploring international cuisine. Before we found our places in the world, Natalie and I needed people like ourselves, and when the blossom of romance faded, I found that our experiences together had poured the concrete for my truest foundation.
When she said yes to the Barbary Fig more than 20 years ago, I never would've guessed that I'd be returning there alone, as I did last summer, and that I'd feel tears in my eyes at the sight of the menu, and feel a merciless sense of homecoming as I sat in a familiar window seat. I was back in the first unusual restaurant I'd gone to of my own volition, the site of the first exotic meal I'd paid for myself, and to me, it was as emotionally unaccustomed and dilating as any funeral or wedding, and just as fiercely subjective. Is the food as good as I remember it? It's impossible for me to say; the memory of the initial meal has been spiced with a fondness that overpowers all subsequent experiences. Since the first time I sat in that restaurant in 1993, I've been looking again and again for such a feeling of novelty and exuberance, and I always will be — thanks to a Volkswagen Golf, a well-timed Minnesota Monthly, and an equally enthusiastic and dearly loved companion in Natalie.
J. Ryan Stradal edits the fiction section of The Nervous Breakdown with Gina Frangello, writes regularly for The Rumpus, and has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, McSweeney's, and Hobart, among others. He produces a culinary reading series in Los Angeles called Hot Dish. His debut novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking), is on sale now.