As legend has it ...
Ice cream enthusiasts have been very curious to hear more about Marco, frequently asking us where he comes from and how we met him. Since the answer to the first question is tough to answer with any certainty, the latter takes us back to an intercontinental train ride we took years ago. It was a long slow journey that took nearly a week, and it is difficult to remember exactly which leg of the route we were joined by our mysterious hero, but he came to us quite literally out of a dream.
As the train’s movement creates a whirring of sounds and colors that tends to induce drowzeeness, we had awoken with hunger and immediately started discussing some of our favorite dishes we had encountered along the way. Breads and soups, smoked meats, sauces and exotic spices were all tumbling off our tongues. As our mouths began to water, a mustached man huddled in the corner of our compartment stirred. Neither of us had noticed him until he spoke up, “I assure you our love is one and the same, but I beg you both to please stop this torture as they won’t be serving supper for another couple of hours.”
"...neither of us had noticed him until he spoke up"
He introduced himself as Marco, and kept us entertained by drawing and narrating a new world map of all the “hole in the wall” restaurants and familial kitchens we still needed to visit before we could officially consider ourselves international flavor aficionados. He had a certain impeccability with his words, quite successfully transporting us to other countries with his vibrant travel stories and passionate descriptions of worldly dishes. We joked with him that we would buy his guide book if he ever wrote one, at which he pulled from his worn leather pack a bundle of small colored journals. He stared at them for a minute, deliberating, then picked one from the middle and said humbly, “There are some tasty stories in this one-- a few recipes I think you’ll enjoy too.”
If we had known how deeply that journal would inspire us in our ice cream endeavours, and in our lives, we would have begged him to share more. In fact, there are so many questions we now wish we would have asked Marco, but since he did say we’d see each other again someday, we’ll have them ready for next time.
Marco’s journal only vaguely mentions his childhood, and gives no hint of place or year, so we’ve spent countless hours cross referencing his journal entries with volumes of international city records, captains logs, written accounts of inaugurations and ceremonies, local folklore and even history books. The results of our search were rather peculiar because what we found were hundreds of separate accounts from separate places, and even separate centuries, that mentioned a distinguished mustached traveler named Marco.
For instance, a friend sent us this newspaper excerpt from his grandmother’s attic, an interview with the supposed first man to establish a Thai restaurant in the United States:
That night is easy to remember because it was the only night of the dry season that it rained that year, and coincidentally the same day I had installed the now commonly imitated ceiling of colored umbrellas above my Bangkok street cart. Of course, none of the other food venders had even considered the idea of rain, so they all went home within the first half hour of the downpour. I myself was considering packing up early when I heard, above the sound of the rain on my umbrellas, strange but beautiful music.
It was music unlike any I had ever heard before because it was being sung loudly in ten alternating languages by a man and no less than seven street dogs howling the melody in beautiful harmony. None of them made even the slightest acknowledgement of the rain, though neither the dogs nor the man himself could have possibly been any wetter. They stopped mid-song when they saw, or perhaps smelled, my steaming curry. I remember begging them to finish the song but the man with the soggy mustache insisted on first buying a bowl of curry for himself and each of his canine backup singers before they resumed.
That was the first night I ever saw Marco, though he came back every single day after that for six weeks before moving on to wherever he went next. His patronage alone enabled me to buy a bigger cart, and in the years to follow, I sold every last drop of curry I ever made, mainly to the multitude of foreign pilgrims who arrived claiming that Marco recommended my cart as the “Mecca of Curry.”
"...it was being sung loudly in ten alternating languages by a man and no less than seven street dogs howling the melody in beautiful harmony."
Then there is the Marco we’ve all at least heard of. From history books to swimming pools, Marco Polo himself sounds an awful lot like the man we’ve met and researched. Not everybody knows that the Chinese emperor, Kublai Khan, hired Marco to join his high court as advisor, storyteller and diplomat to foriegn nations. Although he was Italian by birth, Polo’s Chinese nobleship also afforded him a “Golden Passport” which meant anywhere he traveled in the world he would have the support and protection of Khan’s powerful Mongolian army. In those days, the road was long and full of dangers for traveling merchants and fellow spice traders, but his Golden Passport allowed him to indulge his curiosities and walk without fear among the people of the cultures he encountered along the way. His constant exploration and connections in faraway places made Marco Polo not only a king among spice traders, but also a captivating author, as he gave Europeans one of their first glances into an otherwise undocumented Asia.
Oddly enough, the more we researched, the more we began to question, “Is Marco one man? Many men? Some kind of otherworldly time traveler?” We even read into philosophies and theologies of African cultures and Eastern religions that believe in what Plato describes as “an immortal soul that participates in frequent incarnations.” Then we realized, who are we to tell people what to believe?
Of the facts we gathered, we can say with confidence that Marco is a man of many worlds. Old world and new world; mountains and seas, cities and countrysides, he is a man of the land and its people. He has shared tea with kings and eaten supper with stray dogs under street lamps. A devout wanderer, Marco’s life is led by his keen sense of smell and his hunger for not only colorful conversation, but local delicacies.
Most people Marco meets find his mustache comforting in an almost fatherly manner, and largely because of this (along with his relentless wandering) he knows almost everybody. Or perhaps not everybody, but he certainly knows the majority of men and women across the world who a traveler might seek for a distinct skill or service. Need a locksmith in Bruges? Marco knows all 42 of them. Looking for a giant wheel of aged parmesan? Marco can put you in touch with his old bandmate, Giulia, who just happens to be the daughter of Parma’s most trusted cheesemonger. Marco’s endless list of associates, confidants, and “distant cousins” makes him a human rolodex of worldwide scale, which makes us thankful to have him as our guide through an entire world of flavor beyond ice cream’s traditional favorites.