Road Rations: Cars, caffeine and the culture of convenience

It’s the car-culture call to arms, as American as Mt. Rushmore and as loud as Las Vegas, the siren song for legions of cooped-up auto owners. It signals a change of scenery and the chance for adventure — not to mention bloodshot eyes, backaches and piss-poor public toilets.

Road trip!

Two days and 1,200 miles? No problem. Amtrak? Greyhound? Who needs ’em. The car’s got a CD player, a sunroof and cruise control. Not to mention a console between the seats. That’s key. Because the appeal of the road trip extends beyond getting from point A to point B, beyond our love affair with open road, our need for speed, all of it. Road trips represent the freedom to go where we want and do as we please. Wanna give a passing trucker the old airhorn fist pump? Go for it. Chinese fire drill at the next stop light? Absolutely.

A supersize cola and chili cheese fries? Now you’re talking.

Food is integral to our love affair with automobiles. Consider the ’50s drive-in burger joint: Sharp fins, rolling fenders and gleaming chrome; pompadours and poodleskirts; window trays and rollerskates — an American icon built around the idea that eating in your car is cool.

In the decades since, the cool has turned practical. Today, automakers tout the number of cupholders in their vehicles, and minivans are equipped with tailgating tables and in-floor coolers. And practicality has turned cool, as well, as evidenced by the meteoric rise in the late ’90s of the PT Cruiser — a compact station wagon with a surfin’-safari makeover. Soccer moms now have flames on the fenders of their grocery-getters.

* * * *

The appeal of the road trip — and its close connection to food and freedom — starts before we ever get behind the wheel of a car. Kevin Seymour, my best friend since the first day of kindergarten, lived a half mile down the blacktop from a tiny red-and-white convenience store with no gas pumps. Van’s Grocery stood on a sandy lot next door to nothing and across the road from less. Even so, we rode our bikes down to Van’s every chance we got for a couple root beers, a bag of Fritos and some Big League Chew, shredded bubble gum in a foil pouch that featured a caricature of some scruffy slugger with a lump in his cheek.

I loved Big League Chew, in part for the connotation, and more so because my parents would never get it for me. When I rolled into Van’s on my bike, though, the folks weren’t with me. I could flip through MAD magazine if I wanted, gawk at the well-endowed bikini model on the cover of the hot-rod magazine, and steal a sidelong glance at the adult magazines, wrapped in their black plastic sarongs you could almost see through. Nobody said boo.

* * * *

Another shift has occurred since the 1950s. The drive-in has changed to the drive-thru. No longer a destination themselves, the biggest burger joints serve your food in to-go bags, nearly as fast as you can order it. Now the cars come to the server, who scarcely has to move. Even the cups fill themselves.

Why the shift? Because we expect to go farther faster, and with so much ground to cover, there’s little time to eat. Although food is necessary for life, on the road, sustenance is almost an afterthought. Eating serves as a stimulant and a distraction. It’s idle amusement — we tickle our taste buds to stay awake.

Check the numbers: Driving burns roughly 110 calories per hour, depending on your weight. (Somewhat more, perhaps, if you’re driving a stick; more still if you’re in heavy traffic). 110 calories an hour. That’s a single serving of Mt. Dew — the high octane stuff, not diet. According to the label, a 20-ounce bottle of Dew contains two and a half servings, totaling 275 calories.

In theory, that single bottle of non-diet soda should fuel you for 150 miles behind the wheel.

On the road, Mt. Dew is liquid defibrillator — it keeps your eyes wide and your heart pumping, but it doesn’t stick to your ribs. The calorie count says you don’t need anything else, but that growl in your stomach suggests otherwise. So you eat. Maybe a Snickers from the rest-area vending machine. A bag of chips from the Shell station. (Not the little bag, either; 99 cents for six freakin’ bites, when the big bag’s only a couple of bucks!)

It ain’t sustenance if you don’t need the calories. It’s just eating — but it tastes good and passes the time. A burger and fries from Hot’n’Now? Supersize it; what the hell. Chicken-fried steak and eggs at a truck stop? Why not? Road trip!

* * * *

The earliest road trips as a child are formative, setting your expectations for adult excursions. To this day, I rarely drink root beer or chew bubble gum unless I’m driving, and I still can’t resist Big League Chew …

From third grade until I started football in high school, Dad would take me out of school each October to hunt and fish the Tahquamenon River and the swamps near Paradise in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In the early days, the highlight of every trip was our traditional late-night breakfast at Big Boy just before we crossed the Mackinac Bridge going north.

I’d often be sleeping when we rolled in — I’d rub my eyes and look up through the amber glow of the parking lot lights to see Big Boy himself, cheerfully chubby in red checked overalls, smiling down at me like an old family friend, a giant burger held aloft on a platter above his head.

I wasn’t up for the burgers, though. For me, Big Boy was, and is, all about french toast. Thick slices of fluffy golden sweetness, dusted with powdered sugar and served with whipped butter and a warm maple syrup. It was better than my mom’s (which I loved all the same), better than Big Boy’s signature burger, better than dessert, even!

Big Boy, Happy Chef, Perkin’s or Country Kitchen — on the road day or night, I still check the breakfast menu first. Two eggs over easy, hashbrowns and toast? Biscuits and sausage gravy? Pick your poison, or better yet, pick ’em all. Breakfast isn’t just for breakfast anymore.

* * * *

Further evidence that eating on the road isn’t based on need: You eat things while driving that you wouldn’t think to any other time: Slim Jims, Corn Nuts, prepackaged sub sandwiches, pork rinds, you name it. Fruit by the Foot? Twinkies? Some road rations scarcely qualify as food; others may be food, but are barely edible. Doesn’t matter. On the road, people will eat anything.

Case in point: As a kid, I saw my dad buy a package of hotdogs from a gas station “meat case” in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He put them on the dash of our old van as we drove south, and by Mackinac City, they were warm through. Roll ’em in a slice of bread, and voila! Lunch on the road, no stopping necessary.

I’ve told that story a time or two, and the general response falls somewhere between revulsion and concern: Aw, man! Did anyone get food poisoning? Nope, I say, and those dashboard dogs looked a lot better than the day-old brown one rolling slowly under the gas-station heat lamps.

Has anyone ever eaten that last, shriveled dog? Count on it. Some dark night, some saddle-sore road warrior pulls into the Kwik Mart just as the night manager turns off the big sign. He fills up, pours the last of the coffee — the thick stuff — into a foam cup, sees that last weiner and hesitates.

“Go ahead,” the night man says. “You can have it.”

He takes it, of course, because hey, free hotdog. It’s dry and a bit chewy, I’ll bet — like the ancient teriyaki beef sticks I picked up with my fishing license at the sporting goods store in Gunnison, Colorado, last summer. Brendan and Gabe, age 7 and 5 respectively, were scoping out the candy selection, which hung in little plastic sacks on long rods next to the bait cooler.

Bren was eyeing the candied peanuts; Gabe had his heart set on sour gummy worms. The beef sticks seemed healthier somehow.

In the parking lot outside the store, several Hispanic women were selling fresh peaches and chili-pepper ristras under a makeshift awning made from old two-by-fours and a blue plastic tarp.

“Those peaches look good!” said Bren.

“Yup,” I said, and smiled at the women as we walked by.

“Why are they selling peppers out here?” Gabe asked.

“Just trying to make a little money,” I said, handing him a beef stick.

His face fell. “I wanted candy,” he said.

“Hey,” I said. “Some people don’t ever get beef sticks.”

He took a bite, and his face read lucky them.

The truth is, when my dad bought those hotdogs and warmed them on the dash, he was making do. We had bread with us, left over from our fishing trip, so a package of hotdogs made a meal on the cheap.

Convenient? Yes, but more important, cheaper and less wasteful than buying snack food.

* * * *

Patterns become habits over time, and our road-trip routines become less and less rational. My college buddy Damon was a sucker for a Denny’s late at night: always the same order, their version of ham and eggs, dubbed “Moons Over My Hammy.” His love for ham and eggs ran deep and true, but he could never bring himself to call the dish by name. His ears red, his eyes fierce, he would simply point to the picture when the time came to order and dare us all to laugh.

My wife and I have our own routines now. Case in point: Each time we cross her home state, we stop at the world-famous Wall Drug, the tourist mecca where we met. In addition to offering free ice water, cheap coffee, western art and souvenirs, Wall Drug makes the best homemade, frosted donuts in South Dakota. The Husteads give ’em away to honeymooners and veterans, and, as it turns out, former employees like Jodi and me.

So every time we’re headed west, we find ourselves watching the horizon for the 30-foot green brontosaurus that marks the Wall exit; find ourselves scoping the license plates of the cars, pickups, RVs and Harleys that line the main drag in front of the drug store (which now occupies an entire city block); find ourselves herding four kids past the Western wear counter where we met and through the boot department where I passed three summers daydreaming about marrying her.

Invariably one of the managers recognizes us and puts an order in for a dozen donuts on the house. We leave with an assortment — creamy chocolate, sweet maple and sugary white icing — and I don’t make it to the freeway again before I’ve swiped the first maple.

We don’t need donuts. We’re an hour from Grandma’s house, and Lord knows she’s planning to feed us. But westbound on I-90, what else can you do? It’s Wall Drug — dig it?

* * * *

Dad still travels pretty lean — a bag of pretzels, a couple apples and coffee. Occasionally he’ll splurge for jerky, but a $5 bag will last days.

Me? I eat 16 ounces of Cheezits in two hours flat and chase it with a quart of chocolate milk. That should be enough to fuel 24 hours of hard driving, easy.

“Well,” I belch. “That should hold me for a few minutes.”

I’ve never had to “make do.” My cupboards are full, and my fridge is stocked. I have my own kids, and we travel with coolers of food, most of which is ignored as we move from town to town and treat to treat. We don’t waste the food we’ve brought per se — it gets eaten, as an afterthought, when we reach our destination.

We say grace before meals, even in the car, but it’s generally said with salty lips over greasy fingers. We eat on demand and drink on a whim. It’s straight-up consumption, not sustenance. We’re living to eat, not the other way around.

* * * *

You know you’re a road warrior when the routine slips into the subconscious. Confined to a car on day seven of a 10-day tour to the Rockies and back, I absently open a bag of Doritos. It’s half gone before my head registers the growing brick in my belly. Enough junk food, I think. I need to eat better.

I remember the women selling peaches in Colorado, and I can almost feel the juice sticky on my chin.

“Oof,” I grunt. “We really need to buy more fresh fruit.”

“We can stop and pick some up,” says Jodi, “if you’re hungry.”

* * * *

Blogger’s Note: Yeah, it’s another re-run. This genius creative type I used to work with (the guy behind Cerdo in the “Friends and Good People” menu to the right) and his Squad 19 buddies got the idea of doing a series of prints and selling them to raise money for America’s Second Harvest.

The prints were all representative of convenience-store and road-trip food, the idea being that while we’re eating to pass the time, some people don’t have enough to live on. The project was called Fuel, and the boxed set of prints was accompanied by a book that, among other things, contained this essay.

Thanks, Steve, for letting me be a part.

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