[Jessica Smith Soto is a blogger for Meal Sharing, a startup that promotes cultural exchange by connecting travelers with locals for home-cooked meals.]
Some people travel to see the world; I mostly travel to taste it. I’ve followed my stomach to the bandeja paisas of Colombia to the quesadillas of Mexico City to the goulashes of Hungary and beyond. During three full days in Belgium, I literally consumed nothing but waffles, chocolate, beer, and fries with a variety of inconceivable sauces. My first week in France was spent in a blur of salty tears of joy over the insane goodness of aged cheeses.
My comfort food is constantly redefined by geography and passport stamps. As my collection of recipes and spice combinations increases, my definition of “delicious” is always reshaped, as is my waistline.
So after a combination of living, traveling, studying, and working in fourteen countries over the last five years, I find myself back in my birth country, wondering why I can’t buy a bucket-size package of paprika for $3 to use in essentially just one recipe.
I’m a Foodie with a capital F, and I’m not currently globetrotting. Washington D.C. is an international city, but as part of the unpaid labor force of interns, nightly restaurants are not an option. What’s my aching, curious stomach to do?
Enter Meal Sharing, a system where people who love to share food can either host or try a meal. Meal Sharing started in Chicago, my hometown, and I’d been wanting to try it out. It’s in over 300 cities now, and those cities are full of people who could potentially sympathize with the fact that I need to see the dessert menu before I order my entree, in order to successfully coordinate the meal. Travelers opening up their stomachs, cookbooks, and kitchens? I needed no more explanation. I signed up quick.
My first meal share was with a couple, Federico from Argentina and Irina from Romania, both twenty-four years old, new to marriage and to D.C. I was nervous about the evening, mostly because I didn’t know protocol and had no idea what wine to bring someone from a famous wine country like Argentina. I settled on something from Chile, trusting that if it went horribly, I could blame it on a entire nation that none of us had any affiliation with.
My friend Alejandra from Honduras came with me, since she has the kind of stomach I trust–the kind that ignores the brain’s preconceived notions of what good food means and fully follows her taste buds. Everyone needs the foodie friend that will try anything, and foodies need at least six of these kinds of friends.
Meal Sharing isn’t unlike Couch Surfing, the website that connects travelers looking to either offer or stay on a couch. Both sites appeal to travel-friendly folks and connect similar-minded people. After couch-surfing my way through Europe, it’s worked for me as a budget-friendly activity for those who like meeting new people. Federico and Irina are perfect examples of how Couch Surfing is shaping a new path for traveling: they actually met while Federico was couch-surfing his way through Romania. Irina had an open couch–and apparently heart–and now, two years later, they just celebrated their first month of marriage. Though they live four metro stops away from me, chances are I wouldn’t have met them otherwise. Through Meal Sharing, we got to have a concrete reason to connect but found so much we had in common. Irinia and I both studied in Hungary for a semester, and Federico’s family lives in the same part of California where I used to go to camp.
The meal was hearty, healthy, and lovely. Seasoned fingerling potatoes, tilapia, and a spinach couscous salad, along with my Chilean wine that didn’t quite sing to the taste buds, but everyone had the decency neither to falsely compliment its quality nor to expose it as a poor choice. Our conversation was mostly about markets and food in DC, ingredients, and travels. For dessert, Irina made Romanian crepes filled with either dulce de leche imported from Argentina or goat cheese mixed with honey made by her grandfather’s bees in Romania.
I may not have the resources to follow my stomach around the world all the time, but with the help of globalization, international trade, nostalgia, and Meal Sharing, I can still make it to international kitchens even within my own country! I can span the globe in a matter of spices within my own kitchen, and the evening only convinced me further that a life devoted to good food, good travels, and good company is a life well lived.