I had forgotten about how travel can feel like a negotiation between expectations, effort, and time. Too much and too little of so many things out of your control, exponentially multiplied by new surroundings (and the pandemic).
We left for Portugal the weekend after Thanksgiving in a flurry of tests and overpacking for weather that we misjudged. Funny how no forecast gives you less information about how you'll feel like "around 50 degrees".
I started this newsletter as a coping mechanism for what I assumed would be a temporary state defined by a lack of access. But it has become increasingly clear that those conditions aren't an anomaly, they're codified in our food systems. Shifting my mindset, I have found joy and solace in the abundance of a different type of exploration.
I was curious to see where that mindset would lead me while abroad and even more curious to know if I could balance content and contentment. And I mostly succeeded, thanks to a cursory knowledge of food-related terms gleaned from a momentary obsession with videos from a Brazilian convenience store mascot earlier this year and a time zone differential that prevented me from answering (too many) work emails.
Here are a few of the moments, bites, and sensations that have been playing on loop in my head, and as we finish 2021 heading into another winter of heartwrenching pandemic records, the traces of memory have been rendered unsnackable
a luxurious DIY pregame
By some circadian miracle, I never use alarms to wake up in the morning. They're mostly a tool for making sure my caffeine naps don't result in me waking up refreshed and alert at 3 AM instead of 8 PM. But in the days preceding this trip, I set several alarms at the guidance of a dubiously effective jetlag reduction app. The hope was that I'd be able to stroll off our 7-hour redeye fully alert, in case we had to kill time in the 4 hours between when we landed and our check-in time. Luckily we were able to check in early, and our room greeted us with an incredible view and an adorable Porto Tónico DIY set. The herbal, bitter notes of tonic paired with the viscous, candy-sweet port made me feel refreshed and grounded. Like the omnipresent hum of pandemic anxiety had been turned down a notch.
A veritable cornucopia of baked goods, endorsed by the indecisively chic
There was no organizing principle at Confeitaria Nacional that explained how or where to order, just frantic energy and hungry eyes. I knew I was in the right place when a chic older woman darted between the loose congregations of people queuing, waited for a bit, let out a huff of frustration, and walked out of the cafe. She returned moments later and made a huge order, signaling that these were pastries I would regret leaving behind. When it was my turn to order, I just pointed at everything that caught my eye and left with multiple boxes snug with sweets. The standouts, consumed in our hotel room with a soundtrack of an aughts throwback MTV marathon, were the Pastéis de Nata ( a creamy egg tart with a flaky shell that would have made a mess if it didn't disappear in two bites), Fatias Douradas (golden fried Portuguese style french toast with a hearty dusting of cinnamon sugar) and the Bolos de Arroz ( a sturdy, but tender rice-flour based cake, encased with an angelic coating of coconut shreds)
A suppressed feminine urge and a mushroom ideal
I have suppressed my feminine urge to put on a little outfit (seasonably inappropriate tulle and a bomber) then go to a wine bar and tell the somm "Oh idk, I think I'll do a glass of something funky. What do you recommend?" and browse the menu for " a little snack" but end up ordering an entire meal. But I could indulge it at Dahlia, where the pours were generous, and these geometrically scored mushrooms melted in my mouth, and we made frothy small talk with the lovely staff. Ideal
A recalibration in a puff pastry envelope
Never in my life have I felt more midwestern than the moment I gazed up at the technicolor National Palace in Sintra and thought, "Wow, this is just like Corn Palace!". But maybe that reaction was because I had severely underdressed for the bone-chilling winds and my brain was running a skeleton crew. The views were worth it, even as each gust snuck through the decorative vents of pants I own because of my competing affections for Yoon and Megan Thee Stallion. In the ruins of the Moorish Castle, we climbed crumbling turrets and gazed into the distance with the fear that we could be blown over the edge. Sightseeing in x-games mode. When we needed to refuel, we stopped at a snack stand for paper cups of molten hot chocolate and Travesseiros de Sintra, puff pastry pillows overflowing with soft apples folded into an almond meal cream.
Toffee studded bites of denial
Traveling in the off-season lends itself to both accidental luxuries and gaffes. Once you give in to the siren song of a good deal, there's no way to tell if it'll lead you to adorable manatees or precarious rocks until it is too late. Our first day in Porto was dreary and raining, and I camped out in front of an ineffective space heater as soon as our bags were in our room. We went out into the world to explore for a few hours and returned to a room with no heat or hot water. I snacked on these wafer cookies studded with bits of toffee as we tried to strategize a solution to cope when the management company offered no solutions. We booked a different hotel as soon as we woke up and I left them behind in the chaos of making it out the door. I still cherish their service in my time of need.
Alt caviar and shatter-crisp skin
It is the time of the year when I lean into a regimen of layering every form of moisture on my skin, so my beauty does not slip away into the dark days of winter. I wish I could find a moisturizer that applied with the same silky smooth sensation of the beurre blanc paired with the crispy-skinned sea bass and bursting seaweed caviar at MiTO.
Pasteis de Nata with a view
Politically, I stand in solidarity with the greater custard tart diaspora, and I tried to show my support by eating as many Pasteis de Nata as possible. I ordered more than I thought I needed whenever I had a chance because they had a pesky habit of disappearing when I thought I still had more. At Castro, we saw the tarts transform from empty diminutive molds to lightly charred tarts popped out onto trays to cool and just as quickly onto our plates and into our mouths.
A cocktail menu rival that rivals Noah's Ark
We drank through most of the menu at Toca da Raposa with ease. The flavors were harmonious, with a mischievous wink towards the animals that inspired each drink. The cavernous space defied every single attempt I made to capture it, yanking me back into the moment.
Skrrt Skrrt and a Bottle of Port
In the shadow of the Douro River, we wandered past the crowds to a small strip of cafes. We were nearly run over half a dozen times by a group of men jockeying for each other's attention by double parking their custom cars. We found a seat away from the chaos and tried to figure out which of them was the Dominic Toretto of the crew as we sipped glasses of port.
The persimmon sorbet from 1927 Gelataria Portuense shone like a jewel when paired with a cinnamon gelato that defied melting despite how long it took me to take this picture.
Runner Up: An experiential potato chip reveal
I have experienced few moments of delight that match the experience of poking around our hotel room and discovering that there was a lightly heated drawer that held nothing other than a bag of salted potato chips and roasted nuts. I didn't even eat the chips, just knowing they were there was charming enough.
p.s. it feels like I should acknowledge the end of the year but I have nothing to say except thank you. If you've been here a day or a year, you were my favorite part of this year.
I’m still figuring this out, but hopefully, you enjoyed v.53 of unsnackable.
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