As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of my major pet peeves when traveling is having a bad meal. Any meal, even breakfast, must offer me some kind of pleasure, for as a person who can go for quite a long period of time without food, I see no other reason for eating one. In fact, when it comes to food consumption, I can think of nothing worse for the spirit (and the body) than settling for plug–food that plugs up your gut and makes you full, but is otherwise lacking in any aesthetic, gustatory or nutritional value.
Of course, what comprises plug is a deeply subjective thing. This was made evident to me while listening to a recent CBC interview with a Hormel executive. Did you know that the international demand for Spam is so high that the factory has to remain open 364 days a year, closing only for Christmas? It’s true. And did you know, that Spam, that gelatinous porky treat, is so beloved in Maui that it is practically the national dish? Also true. On a trip there last May we attempted to enjoy a fist-sized sushi-like Spam Mitsubi, but it was unbearably salty, despite the copious amount of sticky white rice.
I am also reminded of the subjectivity of plug when I see my teenaged students sitting in the halls before class, lavishing affection on their burgers and fries. But though I might feel a bit queasy in these moments, having not walked under the golden arches since our last dirty south road trip in 2009, I can at least recognize a kind of nostalgic value here, remembering my father’s mortifying habit of ordering styrofoam-encased Big Macs and then complaining to the hapless cashier about the sogginess of the buns.
For me, what is even worse than the worst of the fast food chains are the generic family diners that are the interstate traveler’s constant companions: the Denny’s and Friendly’s and Applebees, with their garish patriotic decor, their antiseptic smells, and their bland and characterless food. M would argue that Waffle House–whose appearance on the horizon, it has been said, is a truer signifier of the south than crossing the Mason-Dixon line–is somehow external to this categorization. But after eating a decidedly plug-like breakfast in a WH outside of Memphis, I suspect that its symbolic value will not be enough to draw me in on our next visit. Fortunately, with a little prep work, it is extremely easy to travel around the country without eating at any of these joints.
Revelation #3: You can eat well and still get to where you are going.
The last time we hit the dirty south, M did some research on Road Food, that paeon to all things sandwichy and mom & pop that grew out of Jan and Michael Stern’s book of the same name, and dug up some amazing stops. This time, because I knew that having Coco along would mean a different approach to eating on the road, I went to work, determined to find good, local, one-of-a-kind joints with reasonably-priced food that could be eaten outside, in the car, or on a dog-friendly patio. I was mostly successful.
What is great about the Road Food website is that it is curated, unlike many of the vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free sites that simply identify restaurants based on a specific set of criteria, but make no attempt to evaluate the quality of the food produced (on one such site, the first half-dozen restaurants listed in Dayton, Ohio, are Olive Gardens). Of course a curated site is only as good as its curator (some people do actually like the Olive Garden).
With Road Food, you can feel confident because folks with good taste and a passion for regional fare are at the helm. This is a very good thing. However, as the name implies, Road Food is about just that, road food, which tends to be hearty, meaty and deep-fried. If you are looking for fried chicken (we were) and barbecue (check), there is no better source, but one must reach further if one wants to eat a vegetable or two along the way.
For this I turned to sources like The New York Times’ “36 Hours in (enter city)” section–which, incidentally, was also useful in helping identify interesting neighborhoods to spend the night in–and the blogs of friends and trusted sources, sussed out over days of leisurely surfing. Conducting this kind of research at the last minute is stressful and feels like work. Better to start perusing as soon as your trip is conceived so you can take pleasure in the process and have time to cross-check reviews and map routes in advance. This is key if you want to embark on a culinary expedition and still make your destination each night. Though having an iphone means having GPS and google at the ready, what saved us time and energy was knowing exactly how to get to where we were going.
So what did we eat?
There was some pretty good Cambodian in Kingston and pizza with friends in Toronto; a bacon and egg sandwich with hoisin sauce at The Yeti in K-W; barbecued chicken and ribs and mac & cheese at Slow’s in mid-town Detroit; cod fritters on the patio of the friendly–we were sitting on the sidewalk until they ordered us to bring Coco and sit at a proper table–but otherwise forgettable, Olive, in gritty downtown Dayton; and a massive plate of eggs, sausage and grits at famed Louisville breakfast joint, Lynn’s Paradise Cafe, which we ate in the parking lot, in the shade of a broad, leafy tree.
There was Prince’s Hot Chicken and a slab of home-made banana-walnut-pineapple cake in Nashville, and some perfectly acceptable white woman vegetarian sushi in a decidedly unhip “hipster” neighborhood in Memphis; the aforementioned Waffle House breakfast; and a delicious Southern Sunday brunch buffet of chicken-fried steak, fried catfish and okra at Two Sisters, in the depressed and depopulated downtown of Jackson, Mississippi. Here too, as in Louisville (and Nashville) there were nearby parks with shady trees for us to hunker down in and eat our lunch. In Nashville, there was country music in the air and a truly bizarre life-sized replica of the Parthenon in the distance. In Jackson, to our great discomfort, we were watched over by an elderly gentleman who sat nearby, a presumably loaded gun holstered at his waist.
On the way home, we had to change our route at the last minute and so had to keep our eyes open and our fingers crossed. As a result, our meals were less interesting and less palatable; once again, a testament to the value of planning things out in advance. There were burritos (and more burritos) and a hamburger at a mom & pop diner in Delaware that was inexplicably served without condiments on a plain, dry bun. Though we did eventually manage to acquire some mustard and ketchup, our request was met with eyebrows raised. Luckily, we had friends on route who kept us well fed. We had an excellent dinner in the very cool town of Athens, Georgia–I had a tasty Southern Bouillabaisse–but missed out on what seemed to be an excellent diner breakfast as we were anxious to get on the road and not able to wait for the hungover kitchen staff to get things going.
If there was one major disappointment in the food department it was discovering on our second-to-last night that we were in a house without the internet–you heard me right, no internet–and therefore unable to research a lunch stop on Chesapeake Bay. Still, with the abundance of crab and clam shacks on route, and the visual and olfactory delights that met us at every turn, we were able to sate our hungers if not wow our palates. We also had bellies still aching from the food orgy that was our time in New Orleans (more on that later) and so headed back to Canada feeling quite satisfied with our journey.