The Savvy Traveler 

What I learned about taste during my holiday road trip

A journey of a thousand miles starts not with a single step, as might be supposed, or even with a single suitcase. It starts with the first Egg McMuffin.

Of course, this is my own journey. Yours may start with two tabs of Vivarin and a cinnamon roll, or a latte and a banana, with the peel flung ceremoniously out the window at the first on-ramp. We all have our own rituals for eating on the road.

Travelers cannot eat the way they do at home. Can we agree this is impossible? The fridge has been replaced by a malfunctioning cooler, the dining-room table makes way for the dashboard, and the trusty microwave has been replaced by less savory-looking mini-mart models that have seen the inside-outs of too many overheated cheez-dogs.

Some travelers bemoan these changes; they become known as city folks, candy-ass tourists, or Californians. The savvy traveler adapts, thrives, and then comes to find a whole new sense of security in the away-from-home appetites that emerge.

Now, there may be people who lapse into uncontrollable veggie-eating and develop a fixation on dry, whole-grain toast. I don’t see a lot of them in my travels. Mostly I see other people like myself: We become pigs or kids or some happy combination of the two. Cleaning out the car at the end of a trip is like emerging from a dream, and the longer the trip, the weirder the dream: Did I really eat two packages of beef jerky, potato chips, 10 mandarin oranges, a whole package of cough drops, a Mounds bar, a McMuffin and three hash browns?

The funny thing is, much of what I eat when I travel, I only eat when I travel. I have no patience for jerky the rest of the time, but on the road it’s a soothing thing, salty chewing gum that lasts for miles. Ditto for the McBreakfast and all those oranges consumed in one 24-hour period.

It’s garbage, this on-the-road eating. But I don’t really want to change it, though I go through the motions of meal planning at the beginning of almost every trip. I start out with little bottles of orange juice and maybe granola bars, a gallon or two of water, my own thermos of coffee. But like a much-loved CD or the extra double-D batteries, these healthy ambitions get lost quickly in the inevitable entropy of travel. Granola bars crumble only to re-emerge two months later as empty wrappers from car-seat crevices (perhaps the seats have their own appetites, which include more fiber). Orange juice undergoes a miraculous transformation into weak, fast-food coffee (more caffeine, and the cups fit better in the rickety little cupholders). And any vows to eat salad for lunch and a well-rounded dinner come to naught somewhere between rest stop 15A and the “Next Services 52 miles” sign, when ranch-flavored corn nuts, a chocolate bar, and a breath mint suddenly seem like reasonable items on the lunch menu mainly because they’re the only things available in the roadside vending machine.

Not that I don’t have some standards when it comes to what I eat on the road. It can’t drip, thus eliminating many otherwise excellent foods such as mangoes, popsicles, and ramen noodle soups. It has to fit in the cupholder or the little change reservoir and be something that I can pick up without looking at. And preferably it leaves residue that I can lick off my fingers.

But basically I want something that has no relationship to my normal diet. I want to mark each trip as outside of my day-to-day life. I want to slip from conscientious to unconscionable as easily as we cross from one county to the next, and I’ll wake up tomorrow with the unspoiled appetite of a child.

Pass the corn nuts, please. The journey begins now.
Recommended Road Trip Reading

If you’re truly feeling guilty about your road-trip regimen, some intellectual rationalization may help. Call it research, take along one of these food books, and make your trip meaningful, if not dietetically sound.

• Food Finds: America’s Best Local Foods and the People Who Produce Them, by Allison Engel and Margaret Engel (Quill, 2000). A quirky and comprehensive road map to all the stuff that you’re going to miss if you’re not “from here.” The authors cover all the bases, including ordering info for the armchair travelers and visiting hours for those who like to meet the makers.

• Eat Your Way Across the U.S.A., by Jane and Michael Stern (Broadway Books, 1997). Truthfully, either this or the newer edition of Road Food will keep you well-fed. These enthusiastic yet discerning travel eaters can stop on a dime for a roadside joint with something tasty to discover.

• Travelers’ Tales Food, edited by Richard Sterling (Travelers’ Tales, 1996). Sometimes it’s not so much where you eat, but how. This anthology addresses the latter question with essays on eating from all over the world. A great way to get in the mood for exploration.

• Manifold Destiny: The One, the Only, Guide to Cooking on Your Car Engine! by Chris Maynard, Bill Scheller, William Scheller, Christopher Maynard (Villard Books, 1998). Combine dining with driving in an impeccably fuel-efficient way. This isn’t just a theory: These guys provide mileage charts for every recipe. Just tuck that tetrazzini under the hood and drive 45 miles (freeway) until it’s done. You’ll be the envy of everyone at the rest stop!

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