About two years before the fire, I did a complete elimination diet (fast with water, then add one new ingredient every couple of days, seeing which ones the body likes, and which it doesn’t). What it left me eating, basically, is green vegetables and meat. In other words, my usual diet these days is “No.” No gluten, dairy, or sugar; no nuts, legumes, or nightshades; nothing preserved, enriched, or flavored; nothing aged, brewed, or fermented; no pork or shellfish (the rabbi was right); no soy or corn; nothing red; no sea salt; and nothing conventionally raised, or prepared, packaged, convenient, complex, tasty or much fun.
Yeah. Try sticking to that diet while you’re living in your car, in shock, driving from motel to motel.
So what did I eat? I tried to keep my cooler bags loaded with carrots, celery, cucumbers, apples, hardboiled eggs, Trader Joe’s sweet-potato chips (tastier, sturdier, and less oily than the Terra brand, and less expensive), Trader Joe’s unsweetened baby pineapple rings (sometimes you have to eat something sweet), and an unseasoned, roasted organic chicken from Whole Foods. You know, there are more Whole Foods Markets in this country than you might imagine, and only on a couple of layovers -- Hot Springs, Arkansas, for example -- did I find myself hard up and having to eat a conventional bird from the local Piggly Wiggly. Actually, in Hot Springs I despaired of ever finding something safe for me (hush puppies are awesome, by the way: salty deep-fried doughnuts!) (but oh the runs), until I asked the nice clerk at the AAA, “Is there anyplace around here I can get a piece of chicken that isn’t fried?” And there was!
But asceticism gets old, as I’m sure you know, and food is one of our most primal sources of comfort and pleasure. So I didn’t completely adhere to my healthy diet for the whole trip. I compromised.
The first compromise was coffee. All through California, Navada and Utah, I kept dozing off while driving. Seriously: rumble strips saved my life several times. It didn’t help that I wasn’t sleeping well at night, or that I felt I had to put in the miles every day and get somewhere (if I had had a vehicle I could comfortably sleep in, I would have pulled over a lot more, I think). But finally I caved, in Aspen, Colorado (a spectacularly beautiful autumn town), and went to a lovely little coffee shop for WiFi and caffeine. Shazam!
Back before bodywork, when I lived in Vermont and was an advertising mogul (not really; but relative to now), I used to do marketing for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. I never had a coffee habit before then; but to understand and clearly, compellingly describe and sell the subtle differences between 40+ different kinds of beans, I had to start drinking the brew regularly. I loved it; and I got quite hooked, and learned how hard it is to get off of. So I wish I hadn’t started again this time -- especially when I admit that it’s not just the caffeine, it’s also the doses of cream and sugar that go with it (stevia in coffee? double bitters). But my desire for self-preservation won out over my health concerns (isn’t rationalization wonderful?), and here I sit almost two weeks post-drive, still not weaned off the stuff: the travel mug in my car is still seducing me with its song of “Dunkin’ Donuts... Dunkin’ Donuts...”, whose coffee I like far better than Starbucks’ -- which, to me, raised on Green Mountain, tastes like old burned bus tires.
I also compromised on beef. It has been my preference, lately, to eat as much of the natural, organic, free-range kind as possible. But you know what? They don’t have that everywhere. And sometimes, you just want a meatball. So I compromised and got my meatballs at Whole Foods, where even theirs are conventional beef, and extended with breadcrumbs, and flavored with cheese, tomatoes, peppers, and probably sea salt -- which, in case you don’t know, makes everything taste better because it's metabolized similarly to MSG. But I rationalized that I probably had a headache already anyway, from the no sleeping, and the driving, and the caffeine, and so I filled up fast on my compromise meatballs and didn’t even really enjoy them, because sometimes you give in to the immediate gratification of satisfying an urge even while knowing full-well you’re going to pay a big price later. And I did.
So the meatball thing didn't work out, and at some point I started going to Hardee’s for burgers, because I noticed that they advertise “all-natural beef”. And no matter what that actually is -- even if the cows aren’t spoon-fed wheatgrass and caressed with lullabies before slaughter -- I think it has got to be significantly less toxic than the pink slime most fast-food joints serve up. (Though my sister Carol, a notorious cynic when it comes to human behavior and capitalism, was careful to point out, “How do you know? How do you know it’s not the exact same hamburger as the regular one, just twice the price?”) And it was in my life’s very first Hardee’s restaurant, in southern Virginia, where I had the scariest meal of my trip.
I’m a New Yorker, born and raised. They tried to new-age the New Yorkiness out of me when I studied bodywork and lived in California, but really, there’s only so much you can reprogram using quartz crystals and Nag Champa (that’s a kind of incense). I still sound New York, look New York, think New York, root for the Bronx Bumblers (dismal), and carry an internal imprint of Bernie Sanders -- who was born in Brooklyn and mayor of Burlington when I lived there in the ‘80s. (Some of you who saw me perform occasionally over the past few years at Harbin, know that I do a pretty good Obama; I think my Bernie’s better!) Anyway, I was driving south from my sister Suzy’s in slightly upstate New York, to my sister Carol’s in very rural North Carolina, and I had just crossed into Virginia at the Maryland border. At some point I might write more about the aesthetic, cultural, and infrastructural differences that appear at state lines; but for now I’ll just say that nowhere did I find those differences more tangible and vivid than on Route 13, crossing from Maryland into the Confederacy. Flags! Billboards! Fireworks! Cigarettes! Gas! Less Tax! More Trucks! Southern Boys! It was a shock passing from very serene peninsular Maryland, which felt relaxed, comfortable, and quite familiar to me, into this dystopian Disneyland of southern self-identification. But I drove on for a couple of hours, and found myself hungry for beef and near a Hardee’s, so I went in.
Let us visualize a bearded, Jewish-looking New Yorker, parking his German car with California license plates, and walking into a busy, neighborhood Hardee’s in the rural south, dressed to be noticed in a brand new Bernie Sanders FEEL THE BERN T-shirt! Perhaps not the smartest wardrobe choice. I opened the door, took three steps inside, and knew I wasn’t welcome. All conversation and activity stopped: the whole place became still and silent, all eyes turned toward me, and the little “Danger!” hairs on my neck prickled to attention. I actually felt afraid. Normally, I’d shake off something like that, and just go about my business and let everybody else go on about theirs. But remember that I’m a little off my center these days, and it shook me. I had planned to eat there; but instead I decided to just get my food and get out. So I went to the counter as everyone watched and listened, and ordered my “all-natural double with no bun, no mayo, no ketchup, no mustard, no onion, and no tomato, please.” “You just want meat and lettuce?” “Yes. Could you do it as a wrap?” “I suppose.” And I sat down at the closest seat, eyes front, pretending to be absorbed in my phone, while behind me in the still-silent room, I felt daggers. Now, I could be making that up; I could be projecting like crazy. But I am a trained intuitive, and trained at reading the tone of a room full of people: and that room was hostile the whole time I was waiting. Then, as I picked up my order and was walking toward the door, a big guy in the booth nearest the door, a white man of around 50 with a beer-gut I’d estimate at least 48 inches, half-stood and called out at me, “Hey!”, in a not-friendly tone; and again, louder, angrier, as I pushed through the door, “HEY!”.But I just kept going. I drove to the strip mall next door to eat, and after I wolfed my very drippy burger (without a bun there’s nothing but your lap to catch the grease) I dug through my duffel bag and found a bright orange “Tennessee Volunteers” baseball cap that I had picked up at a thrift store in Arkansas. From then on, every time I wore one of my Bernie shirts (I have three different ones), I wore that cap as well. I thought of it as camouflage, to put people at their ease; or at least to confuse them. Either way, nobody has given me any trouble since.
In addition to burgers at the occasional Hardee’s (it got friendlier after the first one), I also looked for beef brisket at barbecue joints all over the country. I ate a lot of different briskets, actually (and cole slaw). Hands down, the absolute best meal of my trip, by far, was the brisket I stumbled on in Memphis. I hadn’t expected barbecue when I got out of the car. I was at a Whole Foods, planning on one of those tasteless unseasoned organic roast chickens. But you know how sometimes the newer, bigger Whole Foods have huts in the middle, for alcohol, or coffee, or whatever? This one had a barbecue joint: The BBQ Shack. And their beef brisket was, no kidding, orders of magnitude better than any other brisket I’ve ever had in my life -- smoked, barbecued, braised, roast, or otherwise. What was great was the was the quality of the meat, the aroma and intensity of the smoking, and most significantly the flavor and nature of the rub. This moist, pulled-apart juiciness had a thick slathering of something savory and complex that infused the meat with flavors and caramelized around the outsides in a crispy, richly seasoned crust. My oh my. The cole slaw and the collard greens were just passable. But this beef: to die for. (And I read online that their smoked duck is even better!) The BBQ Shack at Whole Foods, 5014 Poplar Ave., Memphis, TN. Eat there.
And that’s my one Foodie Award, and all I have to say about food for now, except that as I write this I’m eating home-made chicken soup, and enjoying it very much. I hope you enjoyed my little culinary detour, and found it a tasty and filling read.