Monday, August 23, 2010

How much is too much grilled meat?

I had arrived in Nis (pronounced: nish), Serbia after a long day of bumpy bus rides from Bitola in the south of Macedonia. I did the obligatory exploring of my surroundings before tucking into the task of finding dinner. Searching out the first meal in a new place can be exciting while at the same time a little tense. The initial sampling of local fare sets the tone for my visit. It is the all important first impression, the one that can never be had again. Much like the opening track on an album or the first lines of any great novel I need to be grabbed by what I eat first, leaving me both figuratively and literally hungry for more. Could this be the best of meals or the worst of meals? While it may seem like I set the bar high, the truth is that I have a delicate ritual for finding sustenance, borne out of the mortal fear that one of my feedings will be anything less than spectacular. Perhaps more a habitual indecision in the guise of academic selection than a ritual, I find myself looking, rejecting and repeating until I feel a sound decision can be made on what to consume. It happens multiple times daily, but the first in a new place always takes on an air or importance the others lack. I've heard people say that there exist two types of people. Those who eat to live and those who live to eat. Dismissing for a moment how obtuse one would be to believe humanity can fit neatly into two groups, I'd have to say that on this one I fall dead center into the "live to eaters." Swish! Nothing but net!

On this evening in Nis, I encountered a promising situation not far from the hostel I was calling home for the next couple of nights. Out of principle I never shoot for the first meat I see, but never rule out doubling back for the kill. Nis is a university city and I found myself on the edge of a sprawling outdoor athletic complex slash idyllic urban park. It stands to reason that more treasures would be available around each corner, what with thousands of college age coeds about. What I had seen, made note of and passed by was a row of roadside stands grilling all sorts animal parts that would seem to fit well into sandwiches. Each stand identical as though they were squeezed like Play Dough through a mold and then chopped into sole proprietorships, they boasted a grill set in a bay window so you could watch the action, and then a separate window with refrigerated display case of various vegetables and dressing that incidentally also seemed fit to be stuffed into a sandwich. While my search for more options is under the pretense of academic investigation, there is an underlying fear that I might miss something good. That's what it comes down to. I want it all. I have this recurring nightmare where I'm telling a group of people who know my love of all things edible that I visited this city or that and one smug fellow says, "Did you try the such and such? You shan't have missed it!" He slaps me on the back with a sigh and haughtily says, "Well, there's always next time." I can't bare the thought of missing out on something great. After an exhaustive search of the area accessible by foot, I made my way back to the original source of intrigue.

As of late, conquering each and every secret that a city has to offer has become a tad more nuanced. Grilled meat and bread is a beloved theme throughout Turkey and the Balkans. The differences are subtle from place to place, and if you blink one might just pass you by. Turkey is all about the doner. Lamb or chicken piled high and wide on a skewer, held vertically and slowly roasted while rotating. It's an image I'm sure most have seen. Meat is sliced off thin and wrapped in pita. In Anatalya, I stumbled on wood fired doner kebap, which was every bit as smoky and delicious as it sounds. Unique to Turkey and my favorite by far is kokorech. Made by wrapping lamb intestines around more lamb intestines, and spit roasting the whole wonderful mess. They slice some of the lamb tummy roulade, chop it up and make a sandwich. Never have I filled my stomach with so much stomach. In Greece, the gyro is ubiquitous. It's doner kebap made with pork and if done right has some french fries stuffed in the mix. If you take it to go instead of sitting down it's half the price, plus you can walk to a park or church yard and be alone with it. Macedonia had an eclectic mix of grilled items. I sampled among other things, thinly sliced calf's liver drowned in olive oil and chopped herbs and pork loin stuffed with cheese and then wrapped in prosciutto. And bread, always bread. It seems the further north I go the the thicker the pita gets. In Macedonia it's like throw pillows. Always super fresh and crusty like only a brick oven could make it. Nis marked my first stop in Serbia, and the regional variation I stumbled on first is pljeskavica, or Balkan Burgers.

While myriad meats are on display in the grilling windows, the thin and wide burger patties are the what people pine for. Since I can't read the menu, ordering is altogether and exasperating and yet exciting experience that involves a plethora of pointing, gestures and quietly spoken English, more to remind myself what hand motions I should be making. I had inhaled a chicken thigh monstrosity of a sandwich before I understood that the pljeskavica is the main event. I had also noted that down the way was a grill spot that had a long line while the others served one or none at all. Here in lies a difficult decision. Do I waste one of tomorrow's meals - or opportunity for mind altering edible discovery, as I like to call it - by coming back to the popular spot, or do I man up and have a second dinner right now. I went back and forth on the issue, but I think you can all guess which direction I ultimately went in.

Later that night, unable to move or even breathe properly, I pondered the impossibility of having it all, of trying everything there is to be tried. As much as I loathe to admit, one cannot do everything, go everywhere and turn over every stone. There are choices to be made and inevitably if you are tuned into the proper frequencies, eyes wide open, then one will lead to the next. Attempting to go in every direction will tear you apart, in a sense. So will trying to eat every heaping pile of grilled meat in the Balkans. It is nice to look back and remember how each job in the restaurant industry I've had has led to the next. Realization of new skills and interests or even a chance meeting can open up doors to new experiences in a world where people tend to stay moving from post to post. Right now, not completely sure in what capacity I'd like to reenter the work force, I am trying to keep focus on figuring out what conditions will truly satisfy me, rather than considering everything in my path. The past, while opening up doors to the future should also send you on you way with the knowledge to succeed wherever you end up. In that sense all our jobs in this industry are connected, from executive dishwasher on up to executive chef. As I approach whatever may be next in my career I will definitely pick and choose with a discerning eye, but search with the same vigor and intensity that I devote to that integral first meal in each new place I visit.