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.

Re-Learning American

“At Custer we made a side trip south to pay our respects to General Custer and Sitting Bull on the battlefield of Little Big Horn…I removed my hat in memory of brave men, and Charley saluted in his own manner but I thought with great respect.”

As we flew down the highway in Wyoming between Billings and Casper we kept shouting out the names of the restaurants we passed: Dairy Queen! Arby’s! Wendy’s! Junk food we can’t get abroad. Things we associate with childhood road trips, comfort food, cheap fare for college students who spend most of their money on books and beer. It was the same in the supermarket. We walked up and down the aisles pointing and shouting like crazy people: Cheez-Its! Beef jerky! Barnum’s animal crackers! Junior mints! Barq’s root beer! The list is endless. Every road trip requires a bag of emergency snacks, little things for munching between rest stops, late night provisions to help you stay awake, something to eat should you get stranded in the middle of nowhere. Our bag of emergency snacks grew bigger and bigger, then surreptitiously multiplied into two bags, then three.

We passed the Cracker Barrel, the Pickle Barrel—you’d think our food still comes in barrels. Maybe the names are meant to lend an air of authenticity, of home cooking, fresh-from-the-root-cellar kind of food. For some reason it evokes apple pie. It worked—we stopped.

The Perkins in Sheridan (home of the historic Mill Inn—once a flour mill, now “The Best Rest out West”) still has glass partitions from the old days of smoking/non-smoking sections. Breakfast was country-fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, waffles, bacon, and eggs.

The waitress took our drink orders and expected us to be ready to order food 30 seconds later when she reappeared with two glasses of milk and two cups of coffee. But the menu was 12 x 24 inches and 14 pages long. It took us awhile to choose.

Every time she put something down on the table we said “Thank you,” and she responded with “You’re welcome,” which sounds nice and polite but very quickly turned into a farce in which we said “Thank you” six times in 20 seconds and she felt obliged to say “You’re welcome” each time, and we all realized this was getting ridiculous but didn’t want to stop saying “Thank you” for fear of seeming rude, so we kept up our Laurel and Hardy routine until she walked away and we breathed a sigh of relief. We’re sure she did, too.

Once we ordered, the food arrived in less than six minutes, and she asked us if we wanted anything else. How would we know? We hadn’t had a bite yet! When our silence stretched beyond ten seconds, she dropped our check on the table and said, “Thanks for visiting.”

We left the smooth highway and tested Kit’s off-road capabilities (don’t tell Dad!) to get to the battlefield at Little Big Horn. The land itself has absorbed the memories of that dismal battle as it had absorbed the blood of brave warriors, and it seemed to exude that melancholy back to us as visitors. Under a steel-grey sky, we paid tribute to those whose lives were lost. The sculptures of Native warriors seemed to infuse that lowering sky with their lingering spirits.

As I-90 met I-25 in Buffalo, the temperature plummeted rapidly through the 50s and the 40s to the high 30s. Rain drummed steadily on the car roof and the road began to swim as we moved south. Our hopes of outrunning the weather proved to be in vain.

Just north of Casper Matt asked, “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve seen a tree?” Central Wyoming is known colloquially as moonscape, and although it has a beauty of its own, it is indeed very, very flat. All along the highway at intervals are huge, 12-foot high sections of wood, and from a distance they look like bleachers at high school sporting events. They’re snowdrift fences. Apparently you can fence in the snow. The fences are set up at intervals along the windswept highway in this open country where the snow blows fiercely across the flat plains and forms huge drifts. They capture the snow around them and prevent drifts from blocking the roads. There are also red-and-white striped barriers at intervals along the highway. They look like the barriers at railroad crossings. It never occurred to us that you could close a whole interstate, but apparently you can. Or “They” can. “They” can also fine you $750 or put you in jail if you ignore the barrier. It’s serious business. It’s a reminder of what winters up here are like.

And then, as if to prove the point, it began to snow. As we drove east out of Casper we both tried to ignore the snowflakes stealthily infiltrating the ranks of raindrops. Over the next two hours our progress was measured in tens rather than hundreds of miles. The snow got heavier until we were experiencing a mini-blizzard. Three to four inches of snow accumulated, with larger drifts accumulating around the snow fences, and visibility was down to 100 yards at times.

When we turned south toward Cheyenne, the snow stopped as if on command. We needed sustenance after the snowstorm, so we stopped at Wendy’s, where we encountered a Texan in the parking lot. The first thing we noticed was his twang. The first thing he noticed was the car.

“Is that the model with the rotary engine?”

“Sure is.”

His boot heels rang against the asphalt as he walked beside us. “That’s a nice car. My buddy down in Dallas used to have one. Couldn’t get it serviced. No one worked on the rotary engine. Had to give it up. Shame, too. It was a nice car.”

We smiled our way across the parking lot, but once inside the restaurant we let the conversation die. We just went quiet. He let us join the line ahead of him, and we gradually turned our backs to him and started analyzing the menu. We could have asked what he was doing in Colorado, whether he lived in Dallas, anything, but we didn’t. Britain has infected our social mores. You don’t probe, don’t ask questions; you passively receive information and once it stops being freely and gratuitously offered, the interaction is over. The only acceptable way to keep a conversation alive with a stranger is to discuss the weather in grim, soul-crushing detail. The first step in re-learning American turns out to be re-learning how to connect with strangers.

The next step is re-learning how to speak American. We always forget how much our speech patterns have changed. For the most part our accents are as they ever were; that will never change. But speaking to Americans in America, we still use Scottish lingo. So Matt tells a confused Shell station attendant that he was “phaffing about” with something; Alissa says weekend with the emphasis on the second syllable. This morning Alissa was queuing at Starbucks when she gave Matt a fiver to pay while she went to the loo. No she wasn’t. She was standing in line at Starbucks when she gave Matt five bucks to pay while she went to the restroom. The little differences are endless.

And we have definitely adopted a British speech volume. No one in America can hear what we say. Alissa asked for a chai latte at a perfectly normal British conversational volume, and the woman at the till (Wait, it’s not a till, it’s a cash register) shouted back, “A what kinda latte?” Yesterday Matt was speaking to the cashier at the supermarket and she kept interrupting him mid-sentence and talking over him. At the time we thought she was just being rude, but now we get it: she couldn’t hear him.

One thing you notice as an American abroad is how loud we are. Maybe it’s something to do with that friendly openness we’re famous for. Maybe it’s something to do with (over)confidence ,the idea that what we have to say is something everybody within earshot really needs to hear. Maybe it’s just that our voices have to carry across America’s wide-open spaces. But apparently it affects our hearing too.

We’re not only going to have to re-learn words and expressions, we’re going to have to re-learn volume.