• Saturday, July 29, 2006

    Road Trips and Road Food

    I’ve always given directions that go something like this: “Go three blocks till you get to the Chinese takeout place on the corner, turn right, two blocks to the Irish Pub, by the way if you’re hungry stop there…”

    I love to “discover” an out of the way, hole-in-the-wall place with great food. In Seattle’s Public Market, I asked the vendors where I could get a good meal. Got steered to a great place (whose name I now forget) but which I later read about in food magazines. I like to think I discovered it first. In New Orleans, we asked the cabbie where he eats when he’s off shift. Where could we get real New Orleans food, not necessarily tourist style New Orleans food? He recommended Mother’s. It was great. The recommendations of locals will often lead you to a great places and great finds. I love the little Gumbo cookbook we found on one of those recommendations.

    I started to think about the recent crop of food shows connected to road trips. Interesting when you think about the price of gas, but maybe that’s what these shows are trying to capitalize on, people stuck at home who might otherwise be on a road trip. So we get to drive and eat vicariously. I’ll go for a spin, but hold the pickled pig’s foot.

    Tonight’s armchair food trip started with 's new show “Feasting on Asphalt.” It reminded me of some old food memories from road trips. We got a little lesson on the history of the American Diner and C. & I remembered old diners we’d been to, his was an upscale SoCal gourmet establishment, Veal Oscar, and such. He was a young kid and the memory of the fancy food, the unique building and his first after-dinner mint came right back to him.

    One of my favorite diners in college was one we referred to as “the Hunan Used Car lot” owing to the fact that the old retro diner functioned as the office for the used car lot that preceded the Chinese restaurant. It was just a kick to eat excellent Hunan style Chinese food, in an All-American steel and formica diner, on a former used car lot, in the middle of nowhere, upstate New York.

    Another favorite diner of my college years was a regular fixture in our lives as college students at SUNY New Paltz. One of the waitresses was so slow and forgetful, we quietly nicknamed her “Flash”. Another was a robust woman who always had a smile for you. She was like a surrogate mother to a lot of the students who were regulars there. Both Flash and Charlotte were great examples of what gives these establishments their unique charm.

    On my only cross-country road trip, I developed a rule for assessing a restaurant’s likelihood to disappoint. If they advertise the view, the food’s not that good. This has served me pretty well over time. That road trip also included a diner waitress who warned me that Wolf Creek Pass (where we were headed after dinner) was “so steep, when I drove up there, my dog looked out the window and threw up.” She tried to tell us that the all-weather radials might not be sufficient against the coming snow and steep, winding road. We were young, used to driving in snow in New York, what did she have to warn us about? (Okay, she was right. But we held onto our dinners. Barely.)

    Paula Deen’s boys now have their own road show, too. “Road Tasted” focuses on the small, Mom & Pop kind of shops, family food businesses that they helped their mother develop before “The Bag Lady” became one of the reigning queens of the Food Network. Jamie and Bobby bring that unaffected Southern charm to their show that is a large part of their Mother’s success. They show an open affection for real people making good food

    We’ve seen “Rachel Ray’s $40 a Day” Easier to accomplish if you (a) tip lightly and, (b) consider happy hour drinks part of the meal. (For the record, I don’t; and I do.)

    I have yet to read Jan and Michael Stern’s books on road food. How long can it be till they’ve got a road food show?

    Here’s an interesting website dedicated to the whole road food concept.

    A must read is the Cheese by Hand blog their motto is “Discovering American One Cheese at a Time”

    One of my all time favorite road trip meals was my picnic in an olive grove.
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