From 2012’s food issue – Richard Grant’s culinary road trip across America
For range and depth. New York is probably the best eating city in the world, with Los Angeles and San Francisco not far behind. But when you’re driving across America, it’s all too easy to succumb to gastronomic despair. The same franchise eateries cluster at every interstate exit ramp, offering variations on the same style of food: bland, unhealthy, tasting faintly of chemicals and utterly devoid of interest. The Arby’s chain is a typical offender, selling roast beef sandwiches in which the texture of the meat and the bread are almost indistinguishable, and the flavour nearly non-existent. Then, of course, there are the likes of Mickey-D’s, Burger Thing, Junk In The Box, Pizza Butt, Dead Lobster and Taco Hell.
The obvious solution is to fly between the coasts, but I’ve always loved the long drive across the continent – the way the American landscape widens and unfurls into its full magnificence as you drive west, the feeling or delusion of freedom that comes during a long unhurried road trip, highway hypnosis and the way American music sounds with the landscape streaming past the windows. The blues never sound betterthan in a car driving across Mississippi, except when you stop into a backwoods juke joint and hear it live. Nowhere else does Bob Dylan sound better than out on the highway, and preferably during a thunderstorm at night.
Some people get bored and impatient with the long days of driving across mostly empty landscapes. For me, it’s pleasure, relaxation, adventure and therapy. It’s how I solve my problems, close chapters in my life, and come up with new ideas. The hard part is finding something good to eat, but even that can be achieved with a few simple strategies and pieces of equipment. Gather round, good people, and I’ll tell you how it’s done.
First, the question of coffee, the basic human fuel for long road trips. The stuff they sell at gas stations, motels and restaurants is nearly always weak and insipid. Starbucks will do in a pinch if you can find one on the road, but I travel with a moka pot (aka stovetop espresso-maker), a small high-powered campstove, and a pound or two of first-rate ground coffee. If you’re outfitting your journey in New York City, the Porto Rico coffee company does an excellent job at a good price. A small cooler or ice-chest is also useful, and you might as well begin by stocking it with cold cuts, cheese and fruit, and purchasing a good loaf of bread. This will help you get across the bleak culinary stretches of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and it may be a thousand miles or more until you taste good bread again. For emergencies, I advise some dried fruit, nuts or trail mix, a few cans of organic chili beans, and a bottle of bourbon in case you get caught short in a dry county (yes they still exist) or a state that restricts alcohol sales on a Sunday. Pack a knife, fork, can-opener and corkscrew. And finally, procure a grill that you can prop over a campfire. They sell them at camping stores, or you can use an oven rack or an old bicycle wheel.
The most direct route across the country is through the Midwest but I recommend a southerly course, primarily for reasons of barbeque, barbecue, BBQ and Bar-B-Q.
In most of the English-speaking world, the word means to grill directly over wood or charcoal, but true southern barbeque is something else entirely, and one of Ameri ca’s great culinary triumphs. The meat is cooked slowly for many hours in a smoky chamber of some kind – originally a pit in the ground, now usually a big, heavy-duty steel contraption built for the job. The fat melts slowly, the meat stays moist and absorbs the flavour of the woodsmoke and whatever rubs and marinades the cook has applied. The technique was devised by slaves and poor southern whites to get the most out of cheap cuts of meat, like the ribs and shoulders of a pig, or a beef bris-ket, and done right, it comes out amazingly succulent and tangy – “so good it makes you wanna slap your momma” is the traditional southern phrase for that foot-stomping. hot-damn moment of barbeque ecstasy.
Topped with a sweet smoky red sauce, or a yellow mus-tard-based sauce in parts of Alabama and the Carolinas, served in a sandwich bun, or on a plate with beans, coleslaw and potato salad, pork barbeque can be found all over the south. Look for smoke rising from a small ugly building, stacks of real firewood, cars and pick-up trucks parked outside, and formica tables. Don’t be misled by giant highway billboards advertising barbeque restau-rants. The best ofthem tend to be unassuming. I can recommend Ridgewood in Bluff City, Tennessee, Wilber’s in Goldsboro, North Carolina, The Rendezvous and the Cozy Corner in Memphis, and the Betty Davis Grocery in the backwoods near Holly Springs, Mississippi. And if you happen to be coming through Memphis in May, don’t miss the World Barbeque Championships, where 50,000 revellers gather on the banks of the Mississippi for a carnivorous orgy of eating, drinking, music and dancing. and you may see a topless women wearing foam-rubber pig snouts.
A proliferation of websites are now devoted to the problem of finding good restaurants on the American road, and while I fiddle with them constantly in gas stations and highway rest areas, the results have been disappoint-ing. The problem is that the websites are crowd-sourced, meaning that most of the people reviewing the restaurants are amateurs who don’t know what they’re eating or talking about. Witness the consistently high marks awarded to the Subway sandwich chain on urbanspoon.com, or the greasy diners raved over by the punters on roadfood.com. Chowhound.com is a little more discerning but when hunting restaurants online, it’s far better to find the recommendations of professional food writers like Jeffrey Steingarten, Jonathan Gold, or the Mills Brothers.
When I reach an unfamiliar town, the first thing 1 look for is an independent bookstore, because the people who work there almost invariably know the best places to eat and drink in the area. Hotel and motel clerks, on the other hand, are totally unreliable when it comes to recommending restaurants, and will usually steer you towards the nearest fern bar or corporate franchise. Also, if a town can support an independent book shop, it can usually support a locally-owned restaurant serving good local food. The best example of the symbiotic relationship between books and food is the small university town ofOxford, Mississippi. On the central square are four different branches of Square Books, one of the best bookshops in America, and two fantastic restaurants – Ajax Diner for rich, soulful southern food, and City Grocery for gourmet southern food with a New Orleans influence. Just up the road is a sister restaurant to City Grocery with the unforgettable name of Big Bad Breakfast.
Generally speaking, you find better food in regions with a strong Catholic influence, and Louisiana is a prime example of this tendency. The northern part of the state is overwhelmingly Protestant and the food is bland, grease-clogged and abysmal. Then, as you travel into southern Louisiana, which was settled by French, Italian and Spanish Catholics, and is organised into parishes, all your culinary worries are over. New Orleans is justly famed for its seafood, its gumbos, jambalayas and etouffes, and even the humblest bayou gas stations sell delicious homemade boudin sausages, fried oyster “po-boy” sandwiches, and spicy hot tamales (a mixture of ground corn and meat) wrapped in cornshucks.
Moving west from Louisiana, the traveller confronts 95o miles of Texas, a daunting prospect perhaps but certainly preferable from a gastronomic standpoint than crossing Oklahoma and Kansas. The best bet is to drive without eating to the hill country of Central Texas, where the barbeque shifts from pork to beef. At the risk of alienating many friends in Tennessee and Mississippi, I have to say that Texas brisket smoked over tangy mesquite wood is the very best barbeque ofall. But don’t take my word for it. Go to the small town of Lockhart, TX, and arrive with a ravening hunger. This is the barbeque capital of Texas with four great restaurants in close proximity, including the unmissable Kreuz Market (pronounced “Krites*) where the meat is served without sauce on butcher paper.
You will also need to find room for the spicy homemade sausages called hot links.
Austin, the state capital, is a delightful place to eat with a lively local food scene, world class markets and the first good Mexican food on the journey west. Here again we see the Catholic influence, this time coming from south of the border and manifesting itself in the use of garlic, peppers, bold and spicy flavours. To fortify yourself for the next stage of the journey, why not start the day with a plate of huevos rancheros – fried eggs on com tortillas with refried pinto beans, a dark spicy red sauce and hopefully not too much melted cheese?
Well sated, it’s time to strike out into the vastness of West Texas, where trees and the colour green fade out ofthe landscape, the horizon stretches away and the sky expands to an almost unimaginable vastness. You can drive 4o miles between human settlements and most of them contain no food worth stopping for. But I’ll take a three hour detour to eat at Reata in Alpine, TX. The cuisine is gourmet cowboy: home-made bacon wrapped around asparagus spears, smoked quail, and a pan-seared pepper-crusted beeftenderloin that I salivate to recall.
If you love hot spicy food, as I do, it’s always a happy moment to cross the state line into New Mexico. The Catholic influence is strong and nowhere else in America do you find such fiery cuisine. It’s similar to Mexican food – corn and flour tortillas, beans, meats in sauces – but New Mexico farmers grow large, hot and exceptionally delicious chilli peppers, and they give a food a distinctive taste. The red ripened chillies are dried, then ground into a powder and cooked with cumin, garlic, flour and chicken stock into a sauce. The green underripe chillies are roasted and peeled, and then stewed with cubed pork, hominy corn, onions, garlic, cumin and often beer. Like all chilli-heads, I delight in the narcotic euphoria that hot food can produce, and a good green chilli stew produces it like nothing else I know. My usual ports of call are Chope’s in La Mesa, Los Cuates and the Frontier Restaurant in Albuquerque, and Marla’s in Santa Fe.
To my eyes, Utah has the most beautiful scenery in America, and to my palate, the dullest, blandest, most wretched food ofall. The state was settled by Mormons and while they proved wondrously adept at organising communities, irrigation projects and building business empires, you search in vain for the great Mormon artist, writer, composer or chef. In a Mormon cookbook that I flicked through in appalled fascination, the recipe for “Chicken Aloha” contains only two ingredients: a pound of frozen chicken breasts, and a can of pineapple chunks. Perhaps it’s unfair to blame Mormonism for the food in Utah, because it’s bad throughout the intermountain West – the entire region between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada mountains in California.
Here is where your grill or bicycle wheel comes into its own. This vast, austerely beautiful region of mountains and deserts is mostly public land, meaning that it’s easy to find a place to pull off the road and gather some fire-wood. It’s also a good place to find game meats for sale.
Elk is delicious, with a flavour somewhere between venison and beef. And bison, also known as buffalo, is even better. These huge shaggy animals were almost exterminated in the nineteeth century, but now they’re being raised on private ranches for their high-protein, low-cholesterol, rich-tasting red meat.
Let me leave you in the wilds of the Intermountain West with one of my favourite recipes. Here is a quintessentially American meal that you will never forget.
Ingredients: bison steaks, 1lb per person approx. Salt.
Method: Using a rock or stick, scrape out a depression in the ground. Surround it with rocks. Place grill on rocks and adjust them as necessary to make a stable flat grilling sur-face. Remove grill. Gather firewood, preferably from dead juniper trees. Make a large roaring fire within the circle of rocks. Rub salt and pepper into both sides of steaks.
Drink beer and admire the sunset while the fire burns down to ashy glowing coals. Place grill on rocks over coals. Place steaks on grill until seared. Flip steaks and cook no more than medium rare, or the lean meat will dry out. Allow the steaks to rest a few minutes. Devour.