Now this is strudel! I was seated at the dark wood bar of Demel’s, arguably the most famed and luxurious coffeehouse in Viennaâ€”where the coffeehouse was invented 300 years ago. From a vast kitchen not 20 paces from where I sat had come this insanely fine creation of apples, walnuts, golden raisins, and spices wrapped in an ethereal pastry and dusted with powdered sugar. Here was a barely sweetened, hand-created bit of regional cuisine that had launched an empire of afternoon indulgence. And nothing that appeared on any American menu could come close.
That’s the thing. Lots of restaurants have a line item under Desserts that says “Apple Strudel.” If you order it, you’ll be brought something resembling a thick cocoon of pastry filled with sweetened apples and spices. It might even be tasty. But it will never be as confident, as gossamer, or as satisfying from first to last bite as was this cloud of Viennese smugness I consumedâ€”along with a double macchiattoâ€”at Demel’s. I was tasting the Real Thing in its native habitat. It was never going to get any better than that.
Part of why I travelâ€”and I suspect it’s at least partially true for everyoneâ€”is to sample the food of the place. Food enshrines cultural attitudes, pride, folklore, and long ancient traditions as much as it does exotic ingredients and foreign cooking styles. To visit Italy, for example, and search for cheeseburgers, is to miss the point. It is to miss the priceless opportunity to be fully inside the space/time envelope all around you.
To resist schnitzel in Vienna is to reject the entire point of why this place is not Atlanta, or any other place in the world. And in that first bite of well-made Wiener Schnitzel, with its crunchy feather-light battered crust, and its juicy interiorâ€”with the squeeze of fresh lemon, the forkful of roast potatoesâ€”is a long-established and regionally specific flavor. It is a taste of the place. Those flavors convey an understanding of where you are, and whose history created it that can’t be gained in any other way. Even if there aren’t words to express just exactly what you’ve discovered in that meal.