Fun with Food

“If this people has so atrophied its taste buds as to find tasteless food not only acceptable but desirable, what of the emotional life of the nation?”

In addition to billboards, the air along the highways is populated with sky signs for individual businesses, many of them familiar from TV adverts or long hours spent on the road. You look out across a town from the highway and see a forest of signs. In this medium you can see every store between the highway and the edge of town two miles away. They are largely recognizable brand names: Denny’s, Carl’s Jr., Super 8, Conoco, Wal-Mart, Starbucks. All vying for your attention, and ultimately, your money. Around here, when they say. “You can’t miss it,” they mean it—you really can’t. They’ve hit you with advertising on every possible surface.

We spent several miles driving behind a Frito Lay truck whose back panel advertised: “Food for the fun of it.” Not because you’re hungry, not because it’s healthy, but because it’s fun. That’s why we eat. Food is the center of social life. And it’s not just a little food, it’s mountains of it. Rice Krispies treats, chips and salsa, peanuts, cookies, sandwiches, potato salad, coffee with vanilla caramel hazelnut creamer, everything with high fructose corn syrup, or butter, or mayonnaise, no fresh vegetables in sight.

These days our food has almost nothing to do with nature. The tide was already turning in this direction when Steinbeck made his journey. “The food is oven-fresh, spotless and tasteless; untouched by human hands,” he wrote. This is no way to eat. “I remembered with an ache certain dishes in France and Italy touched by innumerable human hands.” (71) On our travels we once again observed the truism that everything tastes better cooked over a campfire: steak, mushrooms, bacon, potatoes. Take the best Kobe beef in the world, cook it indoors, and we defy you to find it tastier than a plain old sirlion grilled over an open wood flame. No sauce, no spice, just wood and smoke and meat. It doesn’t get better.

But as we made our trademark campfire burritos with the items we’d purchased at the local market earlier the same evening, we noticed a disturbing trend on the labels of the various packages. The packaging proudly informed us there was no lard, no saturated fat, no genetically modified ingredients, artificial colors, or preservatives in our tortillas. The cheese was “all natural,” the refried beans were fat free. Apart from the question of how on earth it’s possible to categorize something fat-free as “refried,” we were appalled by these efforts to protect our health. We’re treated like big babies who can’t be trusted to choose between healthy and unhealthy. We’re presented with only one option. And this is considered progress.

Steinbeck observed the nascence of this trend too. At one hotel, his “two water tumblers were sealed in cellophane sacks with the words: ‘These glasses are sterilized for your protection.’ Across the toilet seat a strip of paper bore the message: ‘This seat has been sterilized with ultraviolet light for your protection.’ Everyone was protecting me and it was horrible.” (38) Today every gas station and shopping mall offers toilet seat covers in its restrooms for the protection of the consuming public.

Even Steinbeck’s home territory in the Salinas Valley has fallen victim to marketing.  It’s easy to see why Steinbeck was inspired by this landscape. Green and blue mountains embrace green and gold valleys glowing gently in the early evening light. You can smell the life in the soil; the air is full of the rich scent of earth. Blue sky stretches tight like a drum down to the horizon. Small towns dot the landscape and people absorb and spread the warmth of the sun. But there are shadows too; long shadows of migrant workers across the acres of land they till, none of which belongs to them. There are flimsy clapboard houses and sturdy red barns alongside huge Victorian style mansions and enormous warehouses. They all cast shadows across the fields and up the hillsides in the setting sun.

There are still some small family farms here, but there are also agri-business giants, such as Dole, which is responsible for the plastic signs lining the road, telling us about coming attractions. “Coming Soon – Romaine Lettuce,” with a big red arrow pointing at the bare earth, just in case passing motorists don’t know where lettuce comes from. You can imagine the men in suits sitting around a conference table dreaming up a new marketing scheme: How to make vegetables sexy. Farm tours are advertised on giant signs; growing food has become a tourist attraction.

We noticed similar billboards in LA advertising the great outdoors with slogans like, “Rolling hills for your viewing pleasure,” and “You never know what you’ll find in the forest,” with a picture of a famous cartoon character superimposed on an idyllic woodland scene. We’ve reached a point where we have to advertise going outside. People have to be convinced it’s as good as TV.

Throughout this valley, the mobile homes Steinbeck wrote about with curiosity and cautious enthusiasm are parked in clusters with peeling paint, surrounded by slowly disintegrating cars and millions of dollars’ worth of equipment bought from John Deere on credit. Gonzalez, just south of Salinas, is a town of identical tract homes in one of three colors: adobe, beige, or grey. Salinas itself has at least two McDonald’s and two Denny’s, all of which are “always open.” Like children, we need the reassurance that comes with constant access to the familiar; we demand the paradoxical convenience of choice and predictability. It’s all a bit depressing.

Life in Desert Places

“And the desert, the dry and sun-lashed desert, is a good school in which to observe the cleverness and the infinite variety of techniques of survival under pitiless opposition.  Life could not change the sun or water the desert, so it changed itself.”

In all our travels, we’ve discovered that a lot of places don’t quite live up to the expectations created by their reputations. Florence, for example, was a disappointment. Or Madrid–meh. But Joshua Tree is not one of those places. It is everything it’s cracked up to be: gorgeous landscape, great hiking and climbing, and surprisingly abundant wildlife and plant life.

As we drove in the yucca were in bloom, huge flags of white flowers on one long stem, towering up to 12 feet above the ground.  Today we saw the whole desert abloom.  Pink, purple blue; yellow, orange, white.  Alissa grew up in LA but she’d never seen any of these flowers before.  It was a cool day, 70F in mid-afternoon, so the birds and lizards were out enjoying the sun as well. We were amazed by the colors and the smells, and we felt fortunate; this only happens for a few weeks out of every year, and we were there to see it.

We’ve also seen quite a bit of wildlife along the way.  In the Petrified Forest we saw an antelope cross our path; as the sun was setting he leisurely meandered up to the road and then ambled across it, oblivious first to our screeching brakes and then to our panicked bumbling with the camera.

In the Painted Desert we saw coyote tracks, and coming down the pass south of Prescott on Highway 9 we saw the real thing cross the road.  We’ve seen roadrunners and enormous hawks and several kinds of lizards whose names we are too ignorant to know.  There is so much variety here, in a place that we so often envision as barren.

We hiked to Lost Palms and Mastadon Peak, we climbed Skull Rock and saw the Hidden Valley. And even in the places that looked devoid of life at first glance, we found small surprises: a rock quail perched atop Skull Rock, lizards sprawled in the sun or digging tunnels in the shade; wildflowers clinging to the south sides of sheer cliffs, oases of water between palm trees, and even wild lilies in Hidden Valley.

There are stories of Hidden Valley being used by cattle rustlers and thieves of various stripes; tough, sun-browned men who were hard enough to eke out a living in a place where those they stole from were too soft to follow. Just one of the infinite variety of survival techniques Steinbeck mentioned. And it’s not so far from here to the origins of our species, who sprang from watered valleys in the middle of vast deserts, and developed their own ingenious techniques to change their environment in ways the desert-dwelling plants and animals could never have conceived.

Later as we roasted marshmallows around the campfire, Alissa asked how our primal ancestors would feel if they could see us using their primary tool, fire, to roast marshmallows. Matt said if they’d had marshmallows, they’d have done the same. Even with the marshmallows and the fancy tent and the fast car, when we’re out here under the vast sky full of stars, listening to the coyotes sing to the moon, it’s easy to feel that we’re not so distant from them after all.

Rubbish and Rest Areas

“Every few miles the states provided places of rest off the roads, places sometimes near dark streams. There were painted oil drums for garbage and picnic tables, and sometimes fireplaces or barbecue pits.”

We’ve never been to prison, but rest area restrooms are what we imagine prison toilets to be like. With the exception of the baby change station, at least. Everything is stainless steel: the toilets, sinks, mirrors, everything. The toilet paper holders are pad-locked, presumably to prevent the theft of a valuable resource. When you close the stall door, it makes the sound of a cell door slamming. A final, echoing, bone-chilling, despair-inducing Ka-Wham.

Steinbeck knew these places in their former guise, when they were apparently idyllic little oases scattered across a desert of black asphalt. It is true that America has an endless string of rest areas stretching from Seattle to Miami, Maine to California, but in our experience they are universally horrible. Derelict picnic tables on a patch of scrub grass eight feet square, provided for your convenience so you can sit and have your lunch while traffic whizzes by on the Interstate six feet away. The barbeque pits have been replaced with vending machines.

But a rest area is a lifesaver when you’re out on the highway 40 miles from the nearest town and you’ve just finished an American-sized 64-oz Coke. You live for the signs. You count the miles. Rest area ten miles. Five miles. Two miles. There it is! The big blue signs are like water in the desert. Until you see the traffic cones. Closed for repairs. This in a country where public urination is a crime, and the next nearest toilet is 35 miles in the direction you’ve just come from. Then what you wouldn’t give for a squalid toilet stall with two inches of standing water on the floor.

At one of these rest areas, under a bright noonday sun, we met a crew of teenage boys lounging on the peeling picnic tables, wearing their own version of a uniform: oversized T-shirts, baggy jeans, and baseball caps. Perhaps understandably, we assumed they were out for a joyride on a Saturday afternoon. Then again, you know what they say about assumptions and asses. Their van, parked nearby with all the doors open, was emblazoned with a logo: Environmental Youth League. Turns out they were spending their Saturday afternoon picking up trash by the side of the highway. They had stopped at the rest area to take advantage of both the facilities and the chance to sit and relax. They all turned their heads to follow the progress of the car as we pulled in. Inevitably, this is where we started.

“Nice car!”

We tried to grin modestly. Matt wandered over within conversational distance. “Yeah, I wish it was mine! Belongs to my father-in-law.”

“Wish we had something like it. We’re stuck driving around in this stinking box all weekend.”

Matt turned to look over his shoulder at the dust-caked van. It was hard to tell what color it was supposed to be, but the logo on the side was clear.

“So what’s the Environmental Youth League? Some sort of work-release program?”

Beautify this

The oldest of the boys laughed and shook his head once, from right to left. “Actually it’s a volunteer organization. We’re out here by choice. Just picking up the garbage people chuck out of their car windows, trying to keep the place looking nice.”

The “place” was a stretch of highway ten miles long, surrounded by flat, high prairie, with scrub grass stretching away to Kansas in the east and the Rockies in the west. The spring fields were high with wheat and alfalfa, the road tracing a black scar through green and golden grassland. These boys were like contemporary cowboys, riding the range in their loyal steed, righting wrongs as they went.

The trash by the side of the highway is nothing new. Steinbeck saw it long before we did. “American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash—all of them—surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles and almost smothered with rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much.” (22) For a while those rings seemed to expand with the growth of the cities, and gradually began to tail out along the highways, so that even the open stretches between cities were strewn with the detritus of American civilization. But these young men were personified evidence of a new social awareness. Having grown up with the garbage, they nevertheless saw it as Steinbeck did, as a blight on the open land.

Steinbeck wondered whether there would come a time when we could no longer afford our wastefulness and would be forced to adapt our lifestyles and methods of production to a necessary austerity. These boys weren’t yet able to influence the causes, but they were sacrificing their spare time to mediate the effects. They were even sorting the trash they collected for recycling.

We left them to their work with a sense of chastisement as well as renewed hope for the future of our open spaces. The appreciation for the natural world which Steinbeck wrote of fifty years ago is still out there among the young, even if its opposite is clearly written along the sides of the highway in discarded Coke cans.