(This is another special post by Suzy. I hope you enjoy it.)
One of my favorite ways to enjoy a road trip is to try the local restaurants. Independently owned or local chains are best. If caught short, or pressed for time, there are always reliable, national chains. But the fun really begins when you take the time to stop for a meal at the local place. Some of the best, and worst, food I’ve ever had was at some of the most diverse places we have we have found “on the road.”
In April 1957, when I was in fifth grade and my brother, Jim, was four years old, Uncle Sam moved us from San Diego to Philadelphia. Actually Daddy’s orders had us going to Guantánamo Bay, Cub, and we were to follow as soon as housing there was available for us. Housing for U.S. military dependents was at a premium, and assigned by military rank and size of family. We never actually made the move to Cuba, but that’s another story.
Jim was at the stage many children go through where only one kind of food will do. Some kids choose chicken strips or nuggets, some grilled cheese sandwiches, others peanut butter and jelly. Jim liked cold cereal–Frosted Flakes were at the top of his list. It didn’t matter if it was breakfast, lunch or dinner; it was cold cereal. Moma would try to have him opt for oatmeal for a little variety and he would refuse. At lunch she would suggest a sandwich or soup and he would turn it down. At home, she would make dinner and he had the choice of eating what was served or waiting for the next meal. Since the next meal would be breakfast anyway, he would asked to be excused from the table and would wait for cold cereal in the morning. On our trip across the country this created a bit more of a challenge. Breakfast, obviously, was uneventful. Lunch a bit more difficult as the chains we know today were fewer and further between in the Fifties. We would stop at a local burger joint or a cafe. At the cafe, he could insist on cold cereal because they usually served breakfast as well as lunch, and sometimes dinner, so they had cereal. On the other hand, a burger place, especially those that were a box with a window or where the waitress would come to the car, didn’t open till lunch, so they never stocked cold cereal. We ended up at a cafe. That took longer and Daddy would spend the entire meal consulting his watch. He was granted only a limited number of days travel time for any move, so every mile we traveled each day was important.
The number of miles we could go in a day seems small now, but the Interstate system was in its infancy and the U.S. highway system went through every village, town, and city. Moma always had trouble reading a map, so unless we went into a one-road-through town we would often miss a critical turn and end up with an unscheduled sight-seeing trip. Then, attempting to relocate us on the map and read the up-coming street sign as the other cars guided our choices would cause frustration in the front seat.
One of Daddy’s requirements for a place to eat was that it be on the far side of any metropolitan area so that he and Moma could take a breather after navigating a strange town. Hence, we would pass up likely looking stops because they were at the onset of our passage through town or in its busy center.
When we finally picked a place we would need to figure out the menu. Not everyone wanted cold cereal. I never was a fan of mayonnaise, especially the gelatinous cream colored style that came in industrial size jars with wide mouths. I’m sure that you are familiar with the really flavorless kind they would scoop out with a spatula and smear in a thick coat on the bread. Yuck! I would scour the menu for something I recognized, but that didn’t say “mayo.” My eyes would light on an item, Moma would read the description, then remind me of something there that I disliked. Daddy would say that if I ordered it, I would eat it. Again he would be looking at his watch. Some of the foods I tried this way I was hard pressed to make myself eat again for a very long time. Others, like the broasted chicken and fries in a basket, have never been equaled.
Dinner was even more of an adventure. One of Daddy’s criterion for a motel was that there be at least one place nearby where we could get dinner and hopefully breakfast, or one to do each. Motels at the time didn’t feel it necessary to feed their guests. Some did include a cafe attached, but not all. Motels didn’t include breakfast, neither cold nor hot. We spent one night in Williams, Arizona. The motel was about a block away from The Steak House. That dinner set the standard for steak houses as far as I was concerned. As Daddy told the hostess that there were four of us, my eyes were drawn to a glass case filled with various cuts of uncooked, deep red beef with little signs describing the cut, behind which was a butcher shop. After we were seated, the waiter brought a tray of raw beef selections, in case we hadn’t noticed the display, I guess. Being cautioned that I could point, but not touch, I made my selection. When the entrées arrived at the table each piece of meat had a small color coded plastic steer standing in its center to tell us the degree of done ness. I still remember how delicious that meal was.
Several nights after Williams, we stopped in a larger city. I was tired of beef. Jim still wanted cold cereal. Moma tried to convince him that a “real” dinner would be better. The waitress took pity on our parents and assured Moma that she could get a bowl of cereal for Jim. She then turned to me. I brightly told her, “The loin lamb chops, medium rare, please.”
Daddy sighed, “But this is cattle country.”
“Is that the most expensive thing on the menu? Did you choose by the price?”queried Moma.
I was now embarrassed and, therefore, became stubborn insisting that I really did want the lamb. I’m not sure that I even remembered what lamb tasted like. After the waitress left with our orders, I got a history lesson on animal husbandry and land use in the West. The emphasis of the lecture was that it was best to eat locally grown and prepared foods. Especially when traveling. Yes, our parents were locavores even before the term was invented.
Eventually we arrived at our grandparents’ house. Living in Philadelphia, Grandmom shopped at the corner grocery two blocks south, the local butcher two blocks north and one west, and the bakery two blocks south and three west. Dairy was delivered several times a week to the little insulated box at the back door. Food was done in either American or German style. Grandmom enticed Jim to try baked beans. When he declared he liked them, she saw that he got them every dinner. To this day, he laughs at how often she served him baked beans over the years.
Somehow our parents survived the eating trials we presented and we learned how to eat a variety of foods in different styles. Traveling still provides some of the best eating experiences. We did find a few treasures of comparable quality and preparation on our current trip. Wichita has a place called “Scotch and Sirloin” that offers super tender and well seasoned beef, without viewing the raw selections. In Des Moines, it was “Irina’s Russian Restaurant.” They carried over fifty selections of vodka and some very nice wine. The waiter told us that the area of Russia that Irina emigrated from had a similar climate to Des Moines, so she could get very similar foods and ingredients. However that works, the meal and service were a treat.
Eating on a road trip is great, except, maybe, when you are in the middle of “nowhere” and are hungry. More often the problem is that there is too much good eating.
The last word:
My family also did a lot or road trips, often without the urgency of getting there in not quite enough time. I do remember that in the fifties, Dad believed that a good way to pick a good inexpensive place to eat was to follow the truckers.
Today when in Europe, I look for bicycles in front of small places. Sometimes you can’t communicate well, but you always get good food, good service, and a few laughs.
Keep your sense of humor.