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.

Leaving Los Angeles

“I’ve driven this thing all over the country—mountains, plains, deserts. And now I’m back in my own town, where I live—and I’m lost.”

Getting lost is underrated.

We spent several days in Los Angeles seeing friends. Alissa had lived there on and off for over 15 years. And yet she couldn’t remember everything. Once she’d known every freeway interchange, every route and several back-up options depending on the time of day and the traffic. Not anymore.

So we had to trust a computer. The GPS was on loan from an aunt, who insisted we take it on the rest of the trip and return it to her as and when. We’d rolled into LA, hot and covered with the dust of three different deserts, in time for a family BBQ. We told the story of how we spent day two of the trip desperately seeking a road atlas.

We had stopped at three gas stations before we found one with an atlas. Third time lucky. We went in and asked, and the man behind the counter looked puzzled for a moment and said, “I think we have one…somewhere.” He rummaged around and pulled out a full road atlas, the 2011 Rand McNally. It was their only copy. We thought that was odd until we got up to the register to pay, and he said, “So don’t you have a GPS or an iPhone or anything?” It wasn’t until then that it clicked and we realized how out of step we were. A map? Really? What luddites! We could already see our non-existent teenage children rolling their eyes in disgust. And as we were laughing about this over dinner, our aunt apparently decided that we did, in fact, require a GPS, and that it might somehow save us from some as-yet-unidentified horror. It was very generous of her.

We quickly found ourselves relying on the innocuous female voice emanating from the little box on our dashboard. And when it told us to take a wrong turn, we didn’t contradict it. Our instincts said it was wrong, but we trusted the technology. Turns out, technology lies. Or at least makes mistakes. But we had to drive 15 miles before we realized it. That’s how much a person is capable of forgetting in the space of eight intervening years.

After one day of driving in LA, we discovered that maps, and the attention they require you to pay to your route, are in fact much more reliable precisely because they don’t let you complacently sit back and be told what to do by the pleasantly bland and inoffensive voice of a woman who, it must be admitted, sometimes gets it wrong.  We managed to sneak the little black box back into our dear aunt’s study in the small hours of the morning, and we happily cruised up and down the coast with just our trusty Rand McNally and our own navigation skills. And we still got lost, but we had a lot more fun doing it.

That evening after several wrong turns and backtracks, we finally made it to Huntington Beach. We sat on the pier with Oreo milkshakes from Ruby’s and watched the surfers glide over the golden waves in the setting sun. Sometimes getting lost means a sidetrip or a delay; sometimes it changes your destination entirely. Either way, the moments you choose to relax into and enjoy are the ones that matter.

The Gas Canister Saga

“We’d be lousy explorers. A few days out and we get the mullygrubs. The first white man through here…his little jaunt took eight years. And he himself didn’t make it this far. Four of his men did, though…We’re soft, Charley.”

Epic battle of wills

I feel the need to tell you a story. This is a bit of an interlude, but I think it’s an essential aspect of the trip. Matt disagrees, but that’s as good a reason as any to insist on telling it.

This is the story of our gas canister. Somewhere in the middle of New Mexico, with the sun beating down and the two of us each drinking close to a gallon of water every day, Matt decided we needed a gas canister. Something to carry in the trunk just in case we ran out of gas on some god-forsaken two-lane road and were found weeks later, nothing but dry bones and a great big pile of molten metal and burned rubber.

So we stopped at True Value. This is a compromise between the Mom-and-Pop hardware stores that used to proliferate in small towns across the country and the giant Home Depot warehouses that currently sit just off the highway outside most major cities.

What we found was a place air-conditioned by a series of large oscillating fans, where there is still a gumball machine at the entrance, and they give away free American-flag keychains at the cash register. After searching up and down the aisles, we finally found a large red plastic gas canister hiding atop one of the shelving units against the back wall.  It was $10.99. Matt was horrified by the exorbitant price. He actually uttered the phrase, “I remember the day…” I pointed out to him that “the day” was approximately 12 years ago, which didn’t help. In any case, the gas canister was deemed essential to our emergency provisions, so we bought it, along with two gumballs, which were wonderful and horrible in equal measure.

We went next door to the gas station, filled up the canister, and I left Matt to cap it while I went in to pay. I came out to find him wrestling with the canister while a large man watched from the bed of his pickup truck in the next parking space. I offered to help, but since I am far from expert in these matters, I wasn’t much use. I sat on the hood of the car and drank my rootbeer while Matt wrestled with the recalcitrant plastic hose. After what seemed like forever in the baking heat, he wedged the closed canister into the trunk and we were off.  Temporarily.

Several miles down the road the car began to smell like gasoline. We pulled over and Matt pulled out the canister to find that it had been leaking. Several more minutes were spent in the sun, prodding and pleading with the red plastic demon. We were pretty sure we had it beat, but we wrapped it in a plastic bag just in case, in an effort to save the camping gear from being soaked in gasoline. While our tent is supposedly made of non-flammable material, it seemed best not to tempt fate.

We drove on through the desert and stopped at various points for photographs. At one of these stops, in my search for Wheat Thins and licorice, I made the tragic mistake of opening the trunk. The smell that wafted out was overpowering. I didn’t have to say a word. Matt made a sort of growly sound and yanked the by-now half-empty canister out one more time, laid it on the ground, and proceeded to contort himself around it in an effort to figure out “how the *#@$ ^&%” to make it close.

I helpfully suggested that perhaps if our emergency fuel turned out to be nothing more than a huge fire hazard, it wasn’t actually so necessary to our well-being. Matt did not find this suggestion helpful, so he ignored it and continued grappling with the obstinate canister. I tried again, suggesting that perhaps we should set it free to roam the desert rather than keeping it cruelly caged in the trunk. Matt grunted, wiped the sweat off his forehead, and went right back to it. Now it was a contest of wills, with both the red gas canister and my husband in his red shirt pigheadedly determined to win.

I had taken an endless string of photos and finished most of the licorice when Matt yelled, “Ah HA!” The canister went back in the trunk, and we got back on the road.

When we stopped for the night, the damn thing had leaked again, but only a little bit. I pretended not to notice. So did Matt. But as we drive along taking photos and notes, I’m sure that diabolical thing is smiling quietly to itself in the dimness of the trunk, biding its time.

So now if you read that two unidentified road-trippers have gone out in a blaze of gasoline and glory, taking their RX8, a bunch of camping gear, and one little red gas canister with them, you’ll know why!

Interlude

“I discovered long ago in collecting and classifying marine animals that what I found was closely intermeshed with how I felt at the moment. External reality has a way of being not so external after all.”

We hope our readers will be patient with an editorial blog this time. We’ll include random photos periodically, just to keep you entertained!

You may have noticed that we’ve posted less over the past few weeks. (If you haven’t noticed, that’s ok, we’ll forgive you!) This is partly due to circumstance, just the general busy-ness of life getting in the way, and partly a conscious choice. We’ve discovered, as much as we love this blog, that it changes the way we travel. Let us explain.

It’s become accepted wisdom that virtually everything in life is subjective. We can argue about questions of “historical fact” or “truth” or “faith,” but when it comes to something like travel writing, I think we can probably agree with the postmodernists, who tell us that what we see depends on where we stand.  In our case, we’ve discovered that what we see also depends on what we happen to be holding in our hands or on our laps at the time.

If I’m looking at a scene through the viewfinder of my camera, I see different things than I would without that lens. If I’m observing something with my laptop open in front of me, or even with a pen and notebook (the kind with paper, not a keyboard) in my hand, then I approach it differently. Instead of losing myself in observation and letting go of self-consciousness for a split second or, if I’m very lucky, for several minutes, I’m constantly in my own head. I’m thinking about how to put what I’m seeing into words. I’m narrating. It’s like the difference between genuinely listening to someone speak, and just nodding along while you formulate your next reply. It not only changes my reaction to a particular scene or situation but influences those aspects that stand out to me, how I remember events later, even my basic perception of what’s happening in front of me. It changes everything.

Recently, Alissa has been cheating on Steinbeck with Annie Dillard. Since Steinbeck’s been dead for almost 50 years, she didn’t think he’d mind too much. In any case, one thing she read in Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek really smacked her upside the head.  Dillard says that self-consciousness hinders our experience of the present moment. The second we become aware of ourselves observing something, looking over our own shoulders, the thing we’re looking at disappears.

She describes herself watching a muskrat on the banks of Tinker Creek. “He never knew I was there. I never knew I was there either. For that forty minutes last night I was as purely sensitive and mute as a photographic plate; I received impressions, but I did not print out captions…And I have often noticed that even a few minutes of this self-forgetfulness is tremendously invigorating. I wonder if we do not waste most of our energy just by spending every waking minute saying hello to ourselves.” (198)

We think this is hugely perceptive. One of the reasons we travel the way we do is to escape exactly what Dillard describes here, that constant inner monologue that inhabits us as we go about our daily lives. Writing this blog is wonderful in that it allows us to share our experiences with like-minded people, to have conversations and get feedback that would otherwise be impossible. It’s an amazing thing in that respect. But it also changes our travel experience. If we’re zipping along a two-lane country road and Matt whips out a notebook to write down something we’ve seen on a sign or record an impression he’s just had before it slips away, then he might miss something while he’s bent over the page. That’s a risk we’re willing to take, but it is a hazard all the same.

So we’ve taken a break over the last few weeks. We’ll be back on Saturday with more travel notes and (hopefully) witty observations, but for today we’re just going to leave you with our musings about blogging. And also with this photo, which we hope you’ll enjoy!