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.