Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Maybe We Should've Named Him Gossamer

The meat of my experience in Montana consisted not of beard-growing or gold-mining or bear-cooking, as most of my Chicago friends seem to think. Nor was I able to make a single stromboli for Jim Harrison as predicted by Old Crazy Hair (sadly, I was given the high hat by his secretary despite a promising letter of introduction). Rather, I focused on running a pretty amazing mobile wood-fired oven operation set up by my good friend Ryan LaFoley.

Three summers ago I made a shorter trip to Bozeman, MT to help Ryan out, as he had just built his first mobile oven. You see, he had this nasty habit of driving around the Union's 4th largest state and offering ranchers the free service of tearing down dilapidated barns--if he got to keep the wood and tin. Naturally, he had to do something with all that dross, and what better than to build trailers to house wood-fired ovens? He got hold of a Mugnaini fresh off the boat and mounted it onto a trailer, building up a mysterious-looking shelter around it. Was it a smokehouse? An ice-fishing hut? I'd be thrilled with either, though people were not disappointed when we rolled up, hit the switches Impala-style and opened the hydraulic side panel, revealing the oven and a beautiful cherry-wood prep table built by this monster of a craftsman who would soon put his talents into a second oven, and ask me to come to Montana to drive it around and build fires in it.

In March, I got a message from Ryan: "Want to pause your life in Chicago, move to Montana and work long hours for low pay and no benefits?" Naturally, I was intrigued. He'd bought a 1954 Chevy dually truck, painted bright orange and ready for some heavy lifting on a 1984 tow-truck chassis. Like any sane person, he flew to southern California to pick the truck up and drive it back the 1,200 miles to Bozeman, stopping along the way to load up another oven on the truck's bed. Once back, the plan was to build out another housing for the oven, and this time add some other cool bits and pieces to the picture. Not wanting to neglect the original oven, he needed someone to operate the second.
I flew out, and the build out began. Let me disclaim everything that follows here by saying that the design is roughly 0% mine, and that the only labor that came from my back into this truck consisted of me holding up a board to nail in when Ryan ran out of hands. Certain kinds of minds are capable of this sort of task, and his and my abilities are on the absolute opposite ends of this spectrum. You wanna feel like a chucklehead? Get involved in a building project like this with my skill set. It was damn intimidating.

THANKFULLY, my reason for being there was not to contribute to the fabrication of the truck, with the exception of a few practical suggestions here and there. Instead, I stood back, worked on some recipe development and organizational issues for the business, and just watched this beautiful thing come to life. In the end, the truck had the wood-fired oven, a commercial convection oven with a generator and propane tank to run it, a hand sink with a huge water tank, copious amounts of storage space, a tailgate section that can be converted to a wood burning grill spanning the width of the truck, support beams for a spit to be installed over said grill for the roasting of whole animals and misbehaving cooks, side panels that slide off and convert to pizza rolling tables, and a really bad attitude. The "Orange Marauder"--as (pretty much only) I came to call it--growls and spits when you start him up and makes all kinds of rough noises and draws all kinds of stares. But he cleans up nicely, and parked at the edge of the Bogert Farmer's Market or in the thick of Music on Main in Bozeman, or in the middle of a field, with absolutely no resources, not even water, where we cooked a multi-course, plated meal including fresh pasta for a wedding of 80 people, well, the old boy looks great.
Seems there is a proliferation of pizza trucks around the country these days, and I still cringe when people say "Heard you went out to Montana to run a food truck!" But it is a good thing--another step in a (mostly) positive direction of making good food accessible and not crazy expensive and at street-level. And definitely a great presence in Bozeman. And though my role in the birth of the Orange Marauder was most minimal, I'll always get a little jump every time I see an old farm truck rambling down the road in front of me.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Highway Runs Through It

My drive to and from Montana was as exciting as it can be. There is no drive in the universe that can remain constantly compelling, and the space between the tree-lined lakes of Wisconsin and Minnesota to the Badlands of South Dakota can be downright mind-numbing (though the Badlands are damn amazing and if that doesn't do it for you, the coffee at Wall Drug right on their outskirts, served by a giant Jackalope, costs a cool nickel). David Sedaris audiobooks go a long way to keep one awake; so does having a (well-traveled) cat loose in the car. But nothing keeps me more alert than the promise of some good--and often times trashy--road food.

Somehow, any semblance of a fat-kid self-filter goes out the window when I'm on the road. Before leaving Montana, I took part in a beautifully healthy going away pot-luck full of food that came straight from the hostess's garden. I declared that in addition to the deliciousness, I was glad for the healthy lightness of the meal, as I was looking at roughly 2 days of straight up garbage ahead of me. On my way to Montana, I had a sublime roadhouse experience in the middle of South Dakota involving whiskey, beer and a perfect ribeye, details of which I wrote about upon arrival. When traveling by air, I invariably look for a Panda Express, a temple of sorts at which to worship the clumsily prepared ball of fried low grade chicken-like product covered in corn syrup they like to call Orange Flavored Chicken. Gross, I know, but I was thrilled when I read in Blood, Bones and Butter (great for the first two-thirds, at least, before it turns into a reader-as-therapist unloading of husband hating) by someone I hold in the highest regard, Gabrielle Hamilton (lest you think that last parenthetical comment was somehow partisan): "Our ritual meal of Wok Express fast-food Chinese at the airport before we will not see anything approximating Asian food--even such as this bullshit chicken broccoli on a Styrofoam plate--for twenty-one days was shared..." Hark! Someone else who cares about food slips now and then, too!

But despite the proliferation of the terrible little chains that have now replaced the wonderful roadhouses and diners that actually made home-made pie (rather than just calling it home-made pie) along America's roads, one can still find some gems if they avoid the truck stops. And in the road-food category, some chains aren't as evil as they may be made out to be by yours truly in pretty much every other post on F.o.t.D. True, I'll never touch a McDonald's (and please don't ask me to defend that statement or give a reason that hasn't already been spewed out into the universe by countless others--it's just a chip I've got on my shoulder), but I'll brake fast at a Culver's and get down on some fried cheese curds. And I'll destroy a sack of stupid little hamburgers at Shake and Steak despite their weird skinny fries. And the milkshakes at these places are a standard item each time I hit their drive-thru, despite the fact that we all know there is nary a trace of milk to be found in these thickened-by-strange-and-artificial-means-that-have-to-just-have-to-be-deadly-to-us drinks.
But the irreplaceable spots are those that don't have huge signs and websites and don't appear on many lists. And I'll admit, I spent some time compiling a list to post here. But I gave it some thought, and the thing is, a list is just what to avoid; these places have to be stumbled upon. And anyway, there are already great road food books and lists and whatnot out there already--if this is what you're looking for, you're already privy to these. But destination spots are not necessarily the best places for discovery (just take a look at Hot Doug's any day of the week--or any place Anthony Bourdain sets foot in). They may have great food, or great kitsch, but they're also going to be over run by those looking to buy the t-shirt or take the picture, or do whatever it takes to possess a small piece of the place, while forgetting to eat the food or experience the experience (you know, like those that take a picture of every painting in the museum but never think to look at what they're photographing; or those who take a picture of their food from every angle, post it to Facebook, and then check for likes and comments before taking the first bite). But the best part for me has always been rolling the dice on a place you know nothing about, a place that hasn't been seen on the Food Network, a place where you feel the slight tinge of discomfort that comes with being an outsider. And the only way to find these places are to drive past the exit ramp gas plazas. And take the back roads to get there--one of my favorite stretches of road in the country lies between Chicago and Canada, and was discovered by accident as I tried to circumnavigate a landfill of traffic a few years back. This route is full of supper clubs and roadside fruit stands and the occasional diner that does, in fact, make their pies right there.

Lest I cultivate the image of Wilford Brimley too much, I'll sign off, leaving you with the following: road food, much like diner food, is a hugely important part of any cuisine, like it or not. Without the advent of the automobile, and the need for tires, we'd have no Michelin Guide, and no lovely little European inns with amazing food. Nor would we have McDonald's, but let's overlook the sinister creature that has grown into. But here's hoping that all of us--especially those of us locked into awaiting the precious next restaurants in the metropolis--get out onto the road and take a shot at unearthing some of these relics.