Eat real on the road!

by on February 14, 2007
in Commentary

Alton Brown of Good EatsI’m still thinking about Alton Brown. I blogged recently about becoming interested in cooking (at age 44? After 15 years of marriage and family? What can I say, late bloomer!), and mentioned that Alton Brown is one of the program hosts over on Food Network, and that he rides a BMW. He strikes me as the type of person I’d have something to talk about over the super-unleaded nozzles at that tiny gas station outside Rose Creek, MN… bikes, old highways, vanishing Americana… and road food.

He’s got a couple of shows on Food Network… “Good Eats” is terrific, a sort “Beakman’s World” with food. (Brilliant “Jaws” parody aired this week where Alton’s Richard Dreyfus character was recruited by the besieged townfolk to kill a giant scallop that allegedly ate somebody’s toe, and he ended up cooking scallops for guests on the Robert Shaw character’s boat… cripes, hilarious!)

But I digress. It’s his limited-run series “Feasting on Asphalt”… where he travels across the US on his BMW with a few pals looking for authentic local food – and, I’m guessing, an authentic on-the-road experience – that I’m concerned with here. The series was shot and aired in 2006 and was recently re-run. His travels remind me of the street rod trips we took in the early 90’s where we’d purposely go in search of local diners. Back in those days, I was self-publishing a street-rodding newsletter called “Family Rodder” where I wrote a lot about the cool stuff that made two-lane travel so satisfying, and occasionally lamenting how our mode of exploring America had evolved.

On the bikes, we’ve discovered more than a few gems: a mom-and-pop place going into Belle Fourche, SD, next door to the paleo-themed motel where we stayed on last year’s Sturgis trip… the Old Home Fill ‘Er Up and Keep on Truckin’ Cafe, still operating in Pisgah, Iowa despite the absence of C.W. McCall and Mavis; a place in Beresford, SD that delivered awesome ham steak and ribeye meals to our motel room because we were too tired to stumble across the road…

My lament – and the point of “Feasting on Asphalt” – has been that most of us just don’t travel the way Americans used to… we built the Interstate system and it got the trucks off the 2-lanes, but it also encouraged everyone else to hurry, too… to blow past those towns… now you have to make an effort and take the “business route” if you want something local. And because of that, we’ve “progressed” ourselves right out of an opportunity to explore, to learn something.

Here’s some hard truth: Eating local is a lot harder than sliding to a stop at McDonald’s right off the interstate. But, I believe it’s absolutely imperative if you want the full road experience. It’s certainly the only way you’re going to experience culinary variety, or get a sense of what regional food is, when you travel. Eating local also supports local communities – economically as well as culturally. It assures that small towns get to keep some of what makes them unique, and that the profit they earn from your meal doesn’t go to some corporate home-office out of state. Finally, there’s the concept of “shared adventure” in discovering an unfamiliar local place… the best dinners with friends on the road are had when you step into a hole in the wall and have something to talk about because you took a chance, for better or for worse. Of course, you’ll occasionally get a clinker of a meal this way. But it shouldn’t always be about getting good food – it should sometimes be about getting authentic food.

When Robert Frost said, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference” – well, he could have been addressing the pre-ride meeting of the local HOG club. Or Alton Brown, perched on that BMW in his driveway, anticipating the journey ahead. “Feasting on Asphalt” is proof that Alton, at least, was listening. Are you?

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