I do love food (too much – I’m still trying to learn to balance) and I thrive on new experiences. Making new recipes at home, as well as tasting someone else’s cooking, is a chance to embark on a mini journey of flavor.

My idea when starting this blog was to post about my wanderings (as in, world and domestic travel) and my culinary wanderings (as in, experiences with food – eating out and in). Well, blogging while I was bombarded with new places, people, and subject matter in Germany in the Summer of 2009 turned out not to be my specialty. I was constantly on the move, trying to soak everything in, which made it hard to edit photos and to write (in English – when I was supposed to be immersed in German) about my experiences with enough background for anyone else to understand it.

But, now, we’re fully settled in New Jersey. We’re starting our fourth year here together (my fifth year!). And we’re even further settled into a new house with more space. I’ve cut back on responsibilities at school (and we’re cutting back our budget). So, maybe this is a better blogging atmosphere for me.

I’ve recently been posting quite a bit to the website Yelp!, adding reviews of places I’ve been, or that Charlie and I have been together, mostly in the last year. I think I’ll be expanding and reposting several of those reviews here.

The Yelp! website has the following star scale to guide reviewers:

1 = “Eek! Methinks Not”

2 = “Meh. I’ve experienced better.”

3 =  “A-OK”

4 = “Yay! I’m a fan.”

5 = “Woohoo! As good as it gets!”

Cafe Du Monde, New Orleans (taken by iPhone)

For the most part, except if the visit was very recent, the places I remember were my very favorites. The result is that at the time of this post I have never given any place a 1. I’ve given two places a 2 (one was a recent visit and bad service; one was because I was stretching to think of someplace I’ve been displeased with to balance out my ratings). I’ve given two places a 3 (and I felt really bad about one of them, even though it’s a nice rating!). I’ve given a whopping eight places 4 stars (which is pretty stinking effusive). And I’ve awarded the highest honor, 5 stars, to six different establishments.

I trust Yelp! because the reviewers are real people with real budgets and real preferences. We’ve used it to pick several restaurants and hotels and have, basically, never been led astray.

So, what do my overly-enthusiastic reviews mean about my reviewing mantra? Am I just uncritical? Have I, perhaps, majored in my favorite restaurants and forgotten about the poor or average dining experiences?

Kara, “The Simon Cowell of Life”

I am trained to be critical in some things: biblical scholarship, for instance. And, according to my husband, I’m really critical about “everyday life.” He’s taken, on occasion, to calling me “The Simon Cowell of Life” (referring to Simon Cowell of American Idol fame; he was my favorite of the judges the one season I watched, by the way).

But, thinking about my reviewing stats (see restaurants above; or, just ask me about TV shows or movies I’ve seen = probably 75% positive), I felt like I needed him to clarify. So I asked him: “In what way am I the ‘Simon Cowell of Life’?”

Under some duress (since he doesn’t want to be critical), Charlie said, “I just notice it with anything that’s on TV, you feel the need to criticize things. Sometimes it feels like, ‘What did that person ever do to you?’”

I asked him to clarify. He said it’s mostly “people’s appearances and voices on shows.” (I can actually think of two very specific examples of the latter that drove me c-r-a-z-y!)

My husband insisted, “I’m not trying to be meeeeean.” But then he went on: “To say you’re the ‘Simon Cowell’ is like to be so brutally honest that it’s mean. Maybe that person didn’t deserve such a harsh critique.”

Hmmm.

Cooking Brussels Sprouts at home

I mean, I think he’s right. I can get bugged by something (a systemic evil, administrative red tape, electronics not working, a mistake I’ve made, a terrible Boston accent on a show, a grammatical mistake) and harp on and on and critique it ad nauseum. My verbosity and my willingness to “speak the truth” combine in a nasty way sometimes. (Note to self: Work on that.)

But how does that part of me—the critical Simon Cowell part—become (if you’ll allow the metaphor to extend slightly further) the Paula Abdul of Food. That is, I love it all, with the rarest of exceptions.

Kara, the appreciator of little things in life

More flattering than the Paula Abdul comparison, I guess, I’d say, I appreciate the little things. I notice beautiful trees on the side of the highway as we’re whizzing past them and point each one out to Charlie. I worked hard during seminary and college to find something I liked in every class I took, which made education a wonderful experience, even outside of my interest areas. When I don’t like something at first (music, an artist, a vegetable), I try it again to see if I missed something about it.

And as a kid, disliking the food I was served wasn’t an option. We were praised for adventurous eating. In that regard, I blame my parents both for my wide expanse of tastes … and my wide expanse of backside.

So, sometimes when I read other people’s Yelp! reviews I think: “Ouch. Why are these people so picky?!” I mean, I can find something I like at McDonald’s, at Ruby Tuesday, at random roadside grills in Turkey, at open air cafes in Vienna (see photo below for proof!), at the swankiest restaurants in Princeton, etc. Anywhere.

Our shared dessert of Struedels in Wien (Vienna)

I don’t think it’s that I’m undiscerning. I have favorites and some things impress me more than others. There are places I’m happy to have gone once and there are places that, as I exit, I’m planning my return trip. There are recipes that I toss out as soon as I’ve made them, and others that I mark with a quick “We loved this!” notation.

But on the whole, I like the experience of trying new food, or familiar food at a new place.

So what if my Yelp! reviews make me look like a wide-eyed big-eater from Idaho? That’s not so far from the truth. And I hope to recount here on “the Wandering Palate” what I’ve tried and just how good it was.