When I was in my early 20s, on break from university in England, I spent a whole month in Budapest because I’d read in a guidebook that there are three great world cuisines: French, Chinese . . . and Hungarian. The author of the book was Hungarian, and I was naive. But still, because I was willing to go anywhere for a really good meal, I spent those four weeks happily wandering the streets of Budapest, sometimes devoting as much as three hours around mealtime to the search for the perfect fish soup Szeged-style or venison steak with mushrooms. I didn’t consult any reviews. I didn’t ask the few people I met for their recommendations. I wanted to sniff around and discover these culinary jewels by myself.
Later, when I lived in Japan with my wife and we started traveling around Asia, she didn’t quite understand my approach to finding the perfect meal.
“I’m hungry,” Karin would say when we arrived in a new city and I was gearing up for a nighttime perambulation. “Let’s just get something quick. Something easy. Something near the hotel.”
My wife has a strong utilitarian streak. She’s half Scandinavian: Enough said. When she was in her early 20s, she was a tree planter and developed the habit of eating the same thing over and over: cheese sandwiches, peanut butter and powdered milk sandwiches, raw garlic and Miracle Whip sandwiches. Food was fuel, and taste took a back seat to cost and shelf life. Ten years before we met, I was in Budapest searching for the perfect goulash, and she was in a VW bus eating bowl after bowl of gruel. In terms of food appreciation, we came from opposite sides of the tracks.
“If we live to an average age of 75,” I explained to her, “we eat only 82,125 meals in our lifetime. That’s 82,125 chances — minus the pap we eat at the beginning and the pap we eat at the end — to get it absolutely perfect.”
Karin misunderstood me. She thought 80,000 was a lot of chances.
Our marriage teetered precariously on the edge every time we went out for dinner in Hong Kong or Seoul or Beijing. I didn’t want to eat at this restaurant because it was a tourist trap. Another restaurant had an unimaginative menu. A third place smelled bland. At the fourth place, the culinary feng shui was somehow not quite right. I wanted to spend just a few more minutes (and then perhaps just a few more) looking for the exceptional restaurant. And Karin, ravenously hungry, wanted to knock me over the head and drag me into the nearest food stall to eat the first thing at hand.
“You have 82,124 other chances to get it perfect,” my wife groused. “I’m getting cranky. I want to eat here. I want to eat now!”
So we came up with a compromise: the range extender. This is something small that you eat to enable you to continue your quest for the perfect meal. It can be anything: an onigiri in Tokyo, a raw herring sandwich in Amsterdam, a taco in Mexico City. In Macao, for instance, the street vendors sell a kind of meat leather called bakkwa: sticky red sheets of highly spiced, reconstituted pork. Imagine an exotic Slim Jim that’s been steamrolled and left out in the sun to crinkle. One sheet of that stuff can add a full hour to your search for the perfect Macanese meal, that irresistible combination of Chinese and Portuguese cooking. One sheet of bakkwa can stop your partner from talking about hunger, exhaustion and homicide.
You might call the range extender a mere snack. We called it a marriage saver.
Not long after we hit on this compromise, my wife and I found ourselves in Sweden, the land of half her ancestors. Suddenly, Karin was evaluating all our meals in Stockholm on the basis of a spectrum with her grandmother’s cooking at one end and the Ikea cafeteria at the other. My wife was on the lookout, in particular, for kottbullar, the famous Swedish meatballs, to see if a restaurant in Stockholm could outdo her mormor’s recipe.
There we were on our final night in Stockholm, trudging from restaurant to restaurant searching for the perfect kottbullar. It was my wife’s turn to urge us on to search just one more block. It was my wife’s turn to seek out range extenders. And it was my turn to abandon perfectly good restaurants because they didn’t measure up to my wife’s idea of what our final, perfect Swedish meal should be.
I was starving. I was exhausted. And I was deliriously happy. Despite her history of Miracle Whip and raw garlic sandwiches, my wife finally understood the significance of the number 82,125. The range extender was no longer a compromise. And the perfect meal was just around the corner — for both of us.
Feffer starred in the one-man shows “Edible Rex” (from which this is adapted) and “The Bird.”