Tuesday, July 30, 2013

21st Century Road Food

I love summers in the Keys, the heat, the bright sun, the drama of thunderstorms, the empty streets and unlimited highway travel. And because I like it so much I also greatly enjoy taking road trips out of the Keys. The best trips are when the children are in school and their harassed parents are too busy to be clogging freeways and rest areas and back road access to interesting places. Unfortunately my wife is a teacher and her free time coincides with the little dears and their families' vacations so there is a certain amount of inevitable cross over.

Celo, North Carolina

My schedule allows many more spontaneous weeks off here and there in the year because I work a peculiar schedule, somewhat lopsided, a week of almost all work and a week of almost all off and I love it. Exhaustion followed by tons of time spent with my camera and my dog, the perfect schedule. So sometimes I get to go for a ride by myself and sometimes I get to take my dog to Pennsylvania to get my scooter rebuilt. So the long and the short of it is I have a lot more experience of being on the road than you might expect from someone who lives in a community pervasively opposed to taking a trip more than five miles from their homes.

When I am on the road alone, food is a tool and you know what that means, fast cardboard and caffeinated caramel water with fizz. Actually inconvenience stores are doing much better when it comes to choices, and though we can't get away from the whole packaged, transported and chilled lifestyle you can find apples and bananas at gas stations along with sandwiches made from bread that is at last trying to have substance.
I have traveled enough to know that it is decidedly different across the pond. However to be fair let's remember a couple of points. When you stop for road food in Italy you are eating products made in a country the size of Florida, more or less. Cross a border and you won't find any foods that resemble Italian food in Austria, France or Slovenia. Individual cultures produce their own foods and that's what makes travel in Europe so interesting. Yet here in the US you can find the same products from Key West to Seattle, equivalent to traveling between say Gibraltar and Moscow. That has its good points and it's bad points too.

The joy of travel here in the US is the natural grandeur, the simplicity of a uniform language and currency and a largely amalgamated culture. No passports, no language barriers and perfect freedom to drive uninterrupted, unquestioned and free from interference. The European Union has done a lot to break down barriers but they aren't the United States of Europe by a long chalk, which is great for us who visit. Also if you find a dish you like in Italy once you cross the Alps get your taste buds ready for everything to change. And in my opinion no one makes uniformly delicious food like the Italians. You may prefer French cooking and someone somewhere prefers German cooking to Italian cooking but that's not me.

Latitudes Cubano sandwich with sweet potato salad.

And you know what I find interesting? The US is catching up. This amazing country has proved over and over again it has the capacity to re-invent itself, that is the true meaning in my mind of American exceptionalism. This country has been corned for three generations and we are all suffering for it. It's not that corn is bad but too much of anything is bad and we are dying of an excess of corn. Corn syrup clogs every packet of ready made food and we are fat as a result. It's not just over eating, it's also eating too much processed food. And we eat it because scientists manipulate it to appeal to our bodies, not our minds. Salad doesn't stand a chance compared to manipulated fat sugar and salt. This problem is becoming world wide as multinationals spread the gospel of fast food. Slow food is the ironic name of the movement born in Italy and growing world wide to get people to eat well.
Roast pork and balsamic vinegar sauce in Reggio Emilia, Italy
The irony as far as I'm concerned is that technology is coming to the rescue. That sounds all wrong when you agree with me that techno-food is not a good thing, convenient yes and cheap too but not good. Techno food requires uniformity and quality is represented by consistency and repeatability. Technology is our friend. Look at this log, I couldn't do this without the energy that makes computing possible, digital technology makes photography affordable, at a very crude level I grant you, but this kind of picture taking works for me and Google stores my pictures for five bucks a month, virtually unlimited storage on picasa at that price. For next to nothing I have my own printing press. Amazing stuff eh? Technology is at our finger tips or on our heads if you notice motorcyclists riding around with tiny video cameras planted on their helmets making them look more than usually asinine. I am no fan of video, home productions bore me as the art is in the editing and I like still photography to highlight my words. If you don't believe me go to YouTube and search "motorcycling the Florida Keys" and prepare to be bored. Actually you've probably already done that and now you know why editors are such valuable technicians. Nevertheless I see lots of absurd looking video gadgets employed in the most unlikely places:
So now we all have the power of the electron in the palms of our hands (or the tops of our heads) and this has changed road trips for my wife and I. Our tactic used to be pick a back road, drive and look for lunch. Now when we want lunch on the road my wife whips out her iPhone and starts searching her various preferred websites. Hmm, southern soul food? Seafood? Barbecue? Vietnamese? And every single one of these places has a big sign in the window begging us to like them on social media websites.
No Name Pub, Big Pine Key

It used to be that tourist traps could survive based on one time customers and I'm sure there are still many dives that can continue to pull that off but as today's youngsters become middle aged and hopefully have money to spend, restaurants will have to survive in a Trip Advisor/Facebook world and that is already happening and destined to become the norm.

World class Thai food in a Brunswick strip mall, Georgia

On our recent journey to Asheville we took off on Highway 301 to take a break from the freeway and we stopped at a local restaurant filling with locals who had, judging by their formal dress, just finished with church. Oh good we thought, this place looks popular. It was but it wasn't terribly good, bland, unseasoned and apparently serving a crowd of hungry locals with no choice. Everywhere else was closed as we discovered after lunch and drove away through a somnolent southern town shuttered for a Sunday. We'd have done better to have stuck to Interstate 26 and looked for somewhere to eat in Columbia. Oh well, live and learn.

And the lesson learned is that in order to eat well, and sensibly and to support worthwhile local businesses we use our phones. Think about the power of the phone, not only is it a web search tool! It is also a reservation agent the old fashioned way with a call placed to the business, and then it is a guide that will lead us directly to the restaurant no matter how much it is hidden away in a suburban strip mall. Local five star secrets are exposed by smart phones and smart users. It amazes me.

Flakowitz Jewish Deli Boynton Beach,Florida

I know I am probably at the back of a long line of people who have already figured this out well ahead of me, but this new way of travel has the potential to make huge changes across the landscape of America. I hop we will move past the tired image of crappy food mass produced and uniform in every respect as the sole source of roadside eating. I'm not saying fast food has no place, because God knows when I travel alone...! But what I am saying is that we can support and sustain local kitchens in a landscape that has been overrun by uniformity. I know it's a quixotic thought considering how many visitors to Key West demand chain food, this in a town filled with quirky local stuff and pretensions to local ethnic cuisine (imagine that America!) so it's not going to be easy to change eating habits bit it's no longer required to live in New York Chicago or Los Angeles to find world class food.

And what the smart phone means is that interstates no longer need to be viewed as the road to hell. They aren't involving or even interesting but they are fast and efficient and can even be tasty. A friend of mine used to say you have to drive more than a mile from the freeways to find decent food to eat. That may still be true, technically, but you can find your way to a good lunch with no trouble at all these days and a twenty minute detour can be well worth your while. Especially as people you've never met will be giving you their advice over the Internet and like good neighbors, directing you well. What an amazing world we live in. Lucky us.