Every other year my husband and I drive from Virginia to Minneapolis for the holidays with our little dog, “Niesha”. It’s always a fun trip, visiting family in several cities along the way, and fraught with danger and excitement – Will the weather hold? Will we get sick of listening to our iPod “Christmas” playlist? And my biggest concern – what will we eat on the three day journey? So we pack up the family sleigh with glitter bespangled packages, the puppy nestled all snug in her crate, David in his sweatshirt and I in my cap, and food… lots and lots of food.
As we drive through beautiful West Virginia, we see familiar symbols emanating from hamlets and valleys and soaring into the sky on poles hundreds of feet off the ground, letting us know that “civilization” is not far away – the arches, the crown, the bell, the way, etc. – but all I see are mirages or mere suggestions of real food dotted throughout the interstate food dessert. Indeed in every state we drove through – Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota – we were greeted by the same symbols. It doesn’t make a difference what state you’re in, if you’re road tripping in America, the same “friends” follow you.
So, I want to pose some questions out into the void and offer some of my own suggestions.
When I was a kid we had the good fortune to travel throughout the U.S. and I remember how exciting it was to try restaurants and foods that were unfamiliar to me and that did not exist in our home town – so I ask what has happened to regional diversity? Do we really need the bell, the crown, the way, and the arches, everywhere we go? Are we that insecure? Do we not have any creativity? Shouldn’t communities promote their local fare as a way of supporting their citizens and showing pride in their region?
Just because I’m a chef doesn’t mean that I don’t love a good burger and fries. I’d just rather eat it at a local, quirky mom and pop with 50 year old family recipes. There’s a name for a system where there’s so much streamlining that diversity gives way to uniformity and every store looks the same no matter where you go – it’s called communism – I know, I traveled throughout the Soviet Union before it fell to the mom and pops.
Here’s my suggestion:
Every so often, choose slow food and scenery over fast food and flight.
When traveling to Ohio a few times a year, we avoid the dreaded Pennsylvania Turnpike and the Breezewood Gateway area and instead travel on I-68 through the lovely hills of West Virginia. There’s less traffic, beautiful scenery, and it only adds 30 minutes to our drive. Over the years we’ve explored the various exits and now eat at some great local restaurants that are delicious and regionally diverse. For those of you in love with your iPhones, get some info on local food options where you’re traveling and check them out instead of just getting off at the rest stop.
Another suggestion – brown bag it. Or in our case, green cooler it. I’m pretty conscious of the food that my family eats and try to pack yummy, snacks, sandwiches, fruit, waters, etc., for our road trips. We’ll try having a picnic off of an exit or just snack in the car. It takes some extra planning, but when you don’t have time to explore and you’re in a food dessert, you’ll be glad you did. Traveling is hard enough and is made even worse when you feel disgusting after eating fast food.
After Christmas, on the way back to Virginia I did not take my own advice and did not pack the cooler. Three hours into the trip, I got really hungry right in the middle of Wisconsin. If you’ve ever driven through Wisconsin you’ve seen the ubiquitous signs for “cheese chalets” and “cheese factories” . So after watching David scarf down a sandwich full of anemic tomatoes, from “the way”, I suggested we stop at the next cheese chalet we came across.
The next chalet was located in a town called Mauston about 2 miles off the interstate. I’m so glad that we stopped. I’m no longer a cheese curd virgin – I can cross that off my bucket list! They were delicious and I loved the squeaky sound they made on my teeth – a great snack! The ladies behind the counter had so much pride in their product, their cheese maker, and their local farmers.
The Carr Valley Cheese Company is over 100 years old and is family owned. While I was there, several locals stopped in wanting to buy gifts for relatives or just buy some curds for a snack. Everyone was so warm, friendly, and familiar with one another – true small town hospitality. I was really sorry that I couldn’t stay to watch the video about the cheese making process.
So the next time you’re traveling, spend 20 minutes on the road less traveled by, have a cultural, and unique gastronomical experience. You’ll be glad you did.