Road Foodie

Some people drive simply to arrive.

The Drive East – April 2008

Day One: Farewell to The ‘Bu
Malibu to Phoenix, 398 miles

California coastMy home state has shown her truest and most beloved colors this winter: From the smooth, Irish-green hills of San Simeon and her driftwood-scattered beaches, to the crystal-clear, snow-capped peaks of San Gorgonio above Palm Springs, I have reveled in the beauty that still remains, proud in the face of overcrowding and pollution. There are days and places here that make you forget the times we live in. I shall try to find them with all my might. But now, it is time for the East, and work, and reality.  And so we must go.

I have eaten well this winter.  In San Luis Obispo at Christmas, Niman Ranch short-ribs long-braised in Zuma Vista syrah helped us greet the New Year.  In Malibu, a friend’s sublime buttery sautéed salmon made me weep for the very little salmon we’ll be eating this season (due to the almost complete absence of a Chinook harvest).  And another friend, who comes late to cooking but has excelled at making wine, braised an ethereal lamb shoulder, then finished it with a sauce of more Zuma Vista (his own creation), capers, mint, and a judicious addition (by me) of several cubes of ice-cold butter at the penultimate moment (just to tame the acidity of the wine, you know).  In Palm Springs, even though the kitchen of our rental was sparsely equipped, we cobbled together an estimable Coq au Vin (again, Zuma Vista–though it is first and foremost a wine for quaffing).  In Hollywood at an English-themed Sunday lunch, we relished more of Niman Ranch’s bounty: a seven-hour leg of lamb preceded by our host Richard’s to-die-for take on Welsh rarebit (puff pastry pillows!) and, after a nice long three-dog walk around the lovely neighborhood, finished off (as were we) with a true trifle.

     Yes, all these excellent culinary adventures come with a cost.  In my gym in Malibu, windows were thrown open toward the beach and ISLO ribs could see the glittering Pacific from my treadmill.  There, my fellow strivers were buff sixty-something soap-stars; in Palm Springs, the gym was populated by incredibly fit gay men of a "certain age" (you’ll never know).  By the time I eat my way back to New York, I’ll be in dire need of my normal-person fitness center, located in a big old house and without some of the technological marvels I’ve become used to, but with all the opportunities for exercise one might need.

     Awaiting me back in the Hudson Valley is the half-Ossabaw pig I’ve ordered from my friends at Turkana Farms in Germantown. Last week, the slaughterhouse manager and I spoke as men about the butchering.  He seemed surprised when I told him I wanted all the leaf lard, and all the cuts with the skin on. I guess he didn’t know with whom he was dealing.  My friend Michael Flamini asked “How long will Girls on the beachit take to convert that into wearable fat?”  When we roll up to the little house in nine days, I shall begin to cook in the fireplace, make exquisite pizzas on my new soapstone pizza pan, a gift from Wildwood Ovens’ Michael Girard (also known as Pizza Boy), and eat teensy fava beans from Turkana Farms with sheeps’ milk manouri from Murrays. Bring on the spring!!

Pictures: My lovely California, Rubbing the slow ribs in SLO (San Luis Obispo), Two Girls on the Beach at San Simeon.



Day Two: Gilty Serendipity
Phoenix to Las Cruces, 390 miles

Bar at P. BiancoOnce again, last night, we made the pilgrimage to Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, billed as the “best pizza in the U.S.” by multiple self-styled experts.  It offers, indeed, a damned good pizza, but you must pay–and more than just money.  If time is of value, the circles of bread dough topped with this n’ that at Bianco are the most expensive in the universe.  Three years after our first visit, at the start of Drive Number One (this is Drive Number Seven), the wait is still two hours when we arrive at 6:30.  No reservations, you know: terribly, terribly trendy.  If it weren’t for the adorable and friendly bar, housed in a stylishly down-at-the-heels authentic Craftsman bungalow, the pizza alone wouldn’t be enough motivation. Once again we become bosom buddies with several fellow waiters (not the waiters, altho they’re nice too). A friendly young couple from Tucson invite us to dine at their home on our next drive through. It may be a year before we call, I say.

     After a bracing morning swim in the hotel pool, during which Stella runs around its circumference at high speed, yipping, we set off toward Las Cruces in the Podmobile (83k miles and counting). 

     390 miles and a short nap later in Las Cruces, we are taking a stroll around the lovely and little-known old square in La Mesilla before our scheduled dinner at La Posta, when what should occur but one of those serendipitous “Aha!” moments that make this trip endlessly enticing, and yes, worth doing over and over again.  Here at the corner of the sleepy square is a portentous double gate, a huge, wrought-iron construction opening into a small stone-and-tile courtyard that boasts a tinkling old wall-fountain and hark – a menu!  The ornate golden sign proclaims “Double Eagle.None of my searching has told me of this place, so I’m skeptical as we approach the heavy carved wooden doors that seem to lead within.  Suddenly, we are in a long, tall bar of truly mythical grandiosity, a room with 30-foot gold-and-turquoise-decorated tin ceiling, a Palladian four-pillar, twenty foot-high by forty foot-long mahogany bar, literally hundreds of Lalique sconces, and two glittering three by seven-foot Baccarat chandeliers. Not to mention several massive, museum-quality oilDouble Eagle Caesar portraits and landscapes from turn-of-the-last-century Europe, and, upon inquiry, fresh-squeezed lime juice for the soon-to-arrive margaritas (long-time readers of Roadfoodie will recognize this as a deal-breaker).  Settling in with our bartender Candace (her husband is an engineer at the nearby White Sands missile base), we read about the provenance of this unlikely temple of food and drink hidden away in a tiny town in the far southwest corner of New Mexico.  The private home it once was has a long and dramatic story – the Gadsden purchase was signed in one of the private dining rooms – and even includes a pair of star-crossed ghosts, characters from a Romeo-and-Juliet-esque story of forbidden love between the upstairs son and the (upstart) downstairs maid.  The boy’s mother, having banned the two from any further contact, discovered them in flagrante after doubling back for some forgotten item and, in hysterically stabbing the lovely maid with her sewing shears, kills the maid and mortally wounds her own son who dies three days later.  It’s not mentioned what the charming mother does after this, but the ghosts still appear in Polaroid pictures taken in the room where they were stabbed. No shit.

     Even though the menu is a little schizo for my snobbish tastes (Barbecue Chicken Quesadilla? Puh-leeze—pick one cuisine and stick with it!), we decide to dine in the adjacent and theretofore unsuspected massive-huge-gaudy dining room, with its 24-carat gold ceiling and life-sized stag-shaped corbels–because they do a tableside Caesar for two.  Quel retro delight!  I adore watching our waiter mash the anchovies with great care, whisk in all the requisite ingredients (hmm, I see they’ve coddled the egg; how p.c!), and toss the whole delicious mess with crisp leaves of romaine and homemade croutons.  Even the plates are chilled, and even I am impressed. This is a tradition I’d like to bring back, but if so I’ll use a decent salad bowl; the one here at the Double Eagle is beyond flimsy, made of faux wood in a laminated patchwork pattern last seen on serving-ware at my High Sierra summer camp in the nineteen-seventies. Ah well, I must celebrate the charming juxtapositions of life on the open road, crossing through the soft underbelly of our pimply adolescent of a country.  Thirty-foot, real-gold ceiling, laminated faux-wood salad bowl, and (big) glasses of Sonoma-Cutrer chardonnay for $6.50.  Search, and ye shall find.

Pictures: Bar at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix; Table-side Caesar at Double Eagle in Las Cruces.

Day Three: Miles and Miles of Texas
Las Cruces to Marfa, 260 miles

H and H Cafe and Car WashOn this trip, savvy as we have become, we’re instituting a radical new practice at lunchtime: yogurt.  Festive as it may be to eat bothMexican Plate and Flautas lunch and dinner (usually less than pristine and healthful items) and then sit immobile in a small compartment all day long, we have come to understand that, although art for art’s sake can be a great motivator, we tend to feel like huge unwieldy inflated melons embraced by too-tight elastic after a few days.  So in general and in the absence of some exciting lunch-ortunity, a drinkable yogurt will do the trick. It’s always so nice to feel actual hunger before dinner, don’t you agree?

     However, one of the new best friends we made at Pizzeria Bianco during the millennial wait, John, has given us a small but carefully thought out list of great places to try in El Paso, and one of them sounds too promising to pass by simply because we are not hungry: H & H Café and Car Wash.   El Paso is a funny city: it doesn’t quite know if it’s America or Mexico—it even boasts the best Mexican food in the world (makes one wonder if Mexico itself, a few miles away, might have some decent Mexican grub, too).  We call for directions, since this is a decision made on the fly without benefit of an internet connection, and a grizzled voice glides us right in.  Today’s specal is Flautas, and though I’ve never had them, I go with the flow. It’s not really my cup of tea, however: more tortilla than meat and not much flavor, so I pillage C’s nice Mexican Plate. We elect not to wash the car (underneath the hand-lettered sign listing the various prices, a smaller placard proclaims “Blame Congress for these Prices.” The minute we crossed over into Texas (where we’ll be for 3+ days), C. starts looking for ways to blame and ridicule the lame-duck lame-o in the White House, but I have an appreciation for Texas that goes far beyond its least-favorite son (who isn’t really a true Texan—just as he didn’t really win in 2000).  Soon after we pull out of El Paso (delayed by the need to get C. a new bathing suit; he’d inadvertently driven out of Phoenix with it on the roof of the car, where he’d temporarily placed it to dry) we are on Route 90 heading down into the sparse, dry wilds of West Texas on our way to
the hippest town in the Universe.
I am talking on the phone at one point when an actual tumbleweed cinematically rolls across the road and crunches under my wheels.

     When we hit Marfa, the historically-registered Hotel Paisano (home to the film crew of Giant in 1958, when it was filmed hereabouts) offers a cool patio with a tinkling fountain, warm and dry air whispering through the few trees, and a dog-friendly policy that extends to every part of the rambling old tile-and-adobe building.  We install at a table by the fountain and order a margarita (no wrangling necessary for fresh lime juice), and drop quickly into peaceful reading mode.  Stella chews on a piece of the firewood that’s provided for all the little iron kivas—one stands guard at most of the tables.  After the cares of the road are nicely banished, we take Stella out for a stroll around the few-block town, which seems to be undergoing a slow and careful architectural transformation: every third house boasts that smooth stucco, galvanized roof, no window-molding, low-water-landscape look with which I am familiar from Venice, CA.  The streets are generously wide and empty, save for the occasionally passing pickup-with-dusty-dog, and I revel in the caress of the parched air.  Road to Marfa

     Rounding the corner on the way back to what we now think of as “our table,” we spot tables, chairs, and people on the sidewalk a block away.  It must be the restaurant Maiya, we surmise (since that seems to be the only other watering hole in town), so we amble down to investigate.  Within half a block, I can sense a dog lover at one of the tables (and which one of those, I ask you, could resist Stella?), and by his intense force of will we are drawn in like a retracting dog leash directly to this glittering, laughing group–one woman and three men–who have just arrived from D.C. to celebrate the woman’s husband’s 40th birthday.  Within only a few minutes, we have discovered friends in common and a mutual joie de vivre that will in turn draw us, over the next 36 hours, to feel as if we were all old, old friends.  We are, in effect, willingly Shanghaied by the woman with the alarmingly blue eyes full of wild excitement, infectious laughter, and the hilarious potential of future fun to be had.

Pictures: H&H interior and repast; A blimp on the road to Marfa…



Day Four: Terminally Hip, One
Marfa, 0 miles

Paisano PatioLast night, after hosting our brand new friends to Prosecco on the Paisano’s patio, we dined solo at the bar at Jett’s Grill–conveniently located just off the patio—while they went back to Maiya for dinner.  Tuscan Flank Steak sounds promising, but is it nitpicky to wonder why teriyaki sauce was used to marinate? Marfa may be the hippest place in the universe, but this restaurant has yet to get in the groove.

     In the morning, we join the now-growing band of DC Revelers for an exclusive viewing of an installation at the Marfa Ballroom (the official gala opening is at 6:30, but at that hour we’ll all be commencing the birthday party—yes, we are now a part of the band—but Elizabeth, our perky blue-eyed Pied Piper, has wangled a private showing). 

     Through a tiny door, we file into what turns out to be the first of four environments—created by three artists—accompanied by the curator, a young, blond Australian girl.  We’re guinea pigs: the first large group to walk through the installation and the girl is at first flustered but soon moves smoothly into her spiel, her expressive hands illustrating the words.  The hangar-like space has been pared down into deceptively small and evocative post-millennial domestic-Americana spaces.  The first represents a meth lab somewhere in the mid-west: a bombed-out apartment sporting a burned out kitchen with all the visible signs of meth production. Sudafed and kitty litter, both crucial ingredients of the process, are in mad abundance, and a window lets us glimpse a bright white room full of heads—made of kitty litter—sporting neon wigs (a brief non-representational moment), and then we walk through a ragged hole in the wall–that looks like the Governator just blasted through before us–into an upper-East-side apartment.  Elegant white moldings and a luxe red carpet define this drawing room, around which are hung about twenty black-and-white photographs of Warhol-esque party-goers in various states of privileged, self-conscious revelry.  All were staged, in New York, for this installation, we learn, and all the characters are models.  Walking through another blasted hole, we are suddenly in a rustic and craggy post-Hippy kitchen, shelves crammed with glass jars filled with dubious once-edibles, wine-bottle candles, and mid-meal leavings that, upon closer inspection, are revealed not as food or representation of food, but rather rocks and minerals.  Through the back of a refrigerator, we pass into a room containing a pair of large speakers; here, the comments of groups as they walk through will be played back to them. 
     Eventually, we are decanted out onto the hot, bright streets of Marfa.  This meticulous comment on America’s schizophrenic existence would be considered cutting edge in Soho or Venice.

Marfa Food Shark Wandering from the Marfa Ballroom back toward the center of town, our straggling, gesticulating, and laughing band comes upon a huge, sleek bookstore, so large that every resident of Marfa could fit inside–with their dogs.  Can a community this size support such a generously-stocked, well-thought-out selection of books?  Perhaps it is subsidized; we spend happy minutes there, still getting to know one another, and where better than in a bookstore, where any book can spark the dawning realization of shared values, humor, experience?  The town is beginning to feel like a wonderful implausibility, and now, just across a bare dirt parking lot is another timely and incongruous surprise: the Food Shark, a lunch van that has been written up in Bon Appetit magazine.  Huh? Looking small underneath a fifty-foot flying galvanized roof the old aluminum van squats, surrounded by the town’s young, bootedFood Shark inhabitants and various passers-through, all engaged in either considering, ordering, or consuming the expertly-crafted Middle-Eastern fare; or chatting, or introducing their dogs.  The specials are tuna salad on pita, or an apricot-glazed meatloaf sandwich; we order one of each, passing up—for now—the eponymous Marfalafel. 
     A long train thunders past not twenty feet from where some of us are perched on stacked railroad ties (note to self: creosote is not good for jeans).  I am momentarily transformed into a young Elizabeth Taylor, de-training at a dusty, unpromising depot for what will be the rest of her life—just as her character did in Giant, a movie that did more than it should have to shape my feelings about Texas.  

Pictures: Hotel Paisano’s patio; the Food Shark; trains across Texas.

Day Four: Terminally Hip, Two
Marfa, 0 miles

Marfa Water TowerWe take a long, long walk through the “suburbs”; an organic architectural change is creeping along, gathering in momentum, and I wonder how the original locals are taking to it.  After a lovely nap, we make our way, as directed, toward the meeting place for the birthday party, the Thunderbird bar.  By now, the DC Revelers have swollen to about 25 (two or three of the intended are, sadly, missing–stuck at various airports), and we glide effortlessly into the low babble of like-minded people of various ages from late twenties to late sixties. 

     The patio of the bar is ringed with a tall, rough twig fence, thus delineating it from the dirt parking lot sprawled in front of the minimalist, dark bar that is serving some of the best margaritas ever known to picky-ish us.  Our special friends among the group, besides Elizabeth and her husband the birthday boy, Dan, have become the couple Andrew and David, the other half of the original foursome we fell in with last night, but now we are talking to everyone.  A youngish guy says to me “Yeah, you’re my sister Beth’s friend the cook, who’s driving across the country.” I am at a loss at first, since I’d thought I didn’t really know anyone here: “If you mean Elizabeth, I actually just met her last night,” I reply.  He breaks up: this is not the first time she’s adopted someone, I gather.  I’m enjoying being the focus of the process.  Soon, we set out to walk down to the Blue Javelina restaurant, where Elizabeth has arranged for a long metal table with—and now I am sensing that she is a true kindred spirit—place cards.

Boots in Bar     To say that the menu consisted of a choice between chicken and steak would be to imply something less than the delightful reality of this dinner--by twelve orders of magnitude or so.  First, platterfuls of quesadilla wedges and—the house specialty—garbanzo fries are stacked like a San Francisco bridge after an earthquake.  The fries are revelatory: chunky-creamy inside and crunchy-peppery outside.  My steak—a great big dry-aged strip crusted with faintly North African spices—is the best piece of beef I’ve been honored to put myself outside of since the aged balsamic-glazed carnivore-nirvana at Luques, in L.A. I am chat-chat-chatting with David to my right and Paul to my left; C. is getting to know Marcie and Walter (with whom, coincidentally, I shared a Thanksgiving dinner in Washington Depot, Connecticut, sometime mid-way through the last century).  This warm and funny and smart group has opened their arms to us; we are honored to share their personal celebration.  C. even makes a toast, quoting the Bard, of course, on aging

     Since every truly successful event has both a pre-party and an after-party, the now raucously loud and exceedingly friendly group decants back to the Thunderbird bar, which at this late hour is populated by multiple bearded, Creedence-esque denizens of Marfa and, presumably, elsewhere.  At first, our swollen numbers don’t really fit in, like pulling on a brand-new Tony Lama, but soon we are enveloped and cherished like a favorite slipper.  The vibe reminds me of Venice, where the culturally, racially, and economically diverse coexist like a lick of salt, a wedge lime, and a shot of old tequila.  I suspect we’ll all be going back to Marfa.

Pictures: Marfa’s water tower; Spurred boots at the Thunderbird bar. (Blurry? So were we.)


Day Five: Who Let The Dogs In?
Marfa to Fort Worth, 490 miles
Armadillo count: 3

Mural in OdessaDriving north out of Marfa on TX-17, we are treated to some beautiful country: luminously green oaks hug the creeks which in turn caress the bottoms of winding canyons made of grey rock.  It’ a luscious land quite out of keeping with the flats of West Texas we drove across going from El Paso to Marfa.  Nothing like the lusciousness of East Texas—or the Hudson Valley—you understand, but in a comparative way, it feels fecund. 

But not for long. Once we hit I-10, and then traverse the short hop across to I-20 (this is right where it begins, branching off from I-10 to describe a cross country route in between I-10 and I-40), the land becomes flat, dry, unproductive. Pretty much all the way to Fort Worth, where we are supposed to hook up with Grady Spears (the Cowboy Chef) with whom I wrote one of my most enjoyable, socially important tomes Cowboy Cocktails

     We’re listening to the inspired essays of the late Molly Ivins, in her book on Texas politics and Mr. Bush, in particular Who Let the Dogs in? Incredible Political Animals I Have Known She tells us that in the no-man’s-land of the two mid-Texas oil towns, Odessa is more liberal than Midland (Bush’s home town, gee), and here we are at lunchtime approaching Odessa!; a stop seems only politic.  We grub up at a div-ey Mexican joint just off the highway, accompanied by 15 or 20 guys wearing Halliburton uniforms.  This is Your Government in Action (Dick Cheney’s, anyway). The brisket tortilla is blameless but soul-free: I must stop remembering the flavors at Blue Javelina if I wish to live a happy eating life.  As in high school, the only possible way to go forward is to banish the memory of a love affair with someone who didn’t get the memo about being in love with you back.  Or, tore it up.

     My new writing buddy in L.A. Jenn Garbee tells me that Grady’s opened up a new restaurant.  So I do a little research and send anBar Sign e-mail, and he leaves me a message: he can’;t wait to catch up and show us his new deal, Dutch’s Hamburgers.  I see that this is a burger and beer joint right across the street from Texas Christian University. Warning bells go off: I will have to muzzle C.
But in the end, we get our dates mixed up: we were meant to come on a Friday, and here it is Saturday. Dutch’s is closed for a private party, and I can’t say I’m desolate. It’s a spare space designed to safely host college kids drinking a lot of beer, but the menu looks fun and I know Grady will do well there (and he deserves to).  We, however, deserve a real dinner.

Ft Worth Bar Chat     Lo! Right up the street is a Hoffbrau Steakhouse, an old friend from an Amarillo stop a few drives back (remember the lemon butter, and my riveting discussion of the role of acidity in tempering rich foods?).  There’s a massive crowd outside, but they are waiting for tables, seeming not to realize that eating at the bar is the best way to have fun, especially in a new place. So we’re seated in moments, chatting with the girl-bartender and explaining the Mojito to a hatted good ol’ boy two people down at the bar.  But the bartender doesn’t have mint.
“OK,; he says, I’ll have a Julep instead.” Seems we didn’t explain it all that well.
It’s a good enough little steak, and the vegetables are green and crisp. But I really must Move on From Marfa.  Lack of flavor shouldn’t be a problem tomorrow, when we’ll be eating dry-rubbed ribs in Memphis, the true land of juleps and Blues.

Pictures: A multi-cultural mural in Odessa; Texas beer sign; Bar chat in Ft. Worth.

Day Six:  The Tears of a State
Fort Worth to Vicksburg, 390 miles
Armadillo count: 4

Pool in ViicksburgI have a tendency to hyperbole. The best place, the tastiest steak, my favorite movie: such statements made more often than one might expect, I suppose, lessens their weight.  But I shall continue to take joy in the place I’m at, so to speak (textbook example of empirical thinking, no?).  So it is with a grain of salt that C. has absorbed my desire to revisit the fabulous Cedar Grove Mansion Inn in Vicksburg, where we stopped during the dog-less drive of 2006. To my delight, managment of the antebellum jewel has recently designated the Pool Court Room as dog-friendly (albeit with the princely sum of $50 additional).  So it’s on my radar for this trip and now on the schedule, due to its convenient location approximately halfway between Ft. Worth and Memphis.

On the drive from Ft Worth, we’re on I-20 all the way, but still manage to pass through some bits of my blue-jean-baby-queen college years: first,Tyler, Texas, where my Second College Boyfriend (4 years) did his law internship and met his wife (this was after my tenure, of course); then Shreveport, Louisiana, at age 18 my first entrée into the Deep South, tagging along with my First College Boyfriend (4 years; do NOT do the math, just assume I was a slow learner). The Swimmer

As the hours unroll, we concentrate on driving and listening.  The rule is, he who drives picks the sounds.  In practice, on this trip anyway, this means that when C. is driving it’s NPR or Molly Ivins, with CNN cued up at the top of the hour, if we remember.  When I’m driving—which is between one third and one half the time—it means state- or region-appropriate music with a nod to the news on occasion.  Today, it’s Lyle Lovett in the morning and a little zydeco in the afternoon.  When, occasionally, I am overcome by sweet memories of my blushing (or not) youth, I might cue up a little Hall & Oates, Steppenwolf, or Earth, Wind, & Fire. 

Cedar Grove is all I remember and more. The old-brick pool courtyard is elegant, ageless: I will build my next pool, one day, to match this one.  I particularly love the spitting lion fountains at each corner.  In the far reaches of the green and grassy compound there’s a small, gated cemetery, boasting four headstones from the 1860’s and ‘70’s—the original owner was a cousin of General Sherman. Since our last visit a new chef—John Kellog–has come to roost and he is hatching truly great things: for one, a pork tenderloin with mushrooms that boasts heirloom-pork-style flavor and juiciness (Note to self: is he brining it? How does such a normally dry and flavor-free cut of meat achieve this lofty height of tastiness? I am, uncharacteristically, stumped).

We dine at the bar, of course, and Joe-the-bartender tells us tales of Katrina’s devastation right here in upstate Mississippi—where most people didn’t even know it had hurt.  They were without power for thirty-one days.  Think about that for just a second.  All through the south on this trip we will hear about Katrina, from people who struggled through it as well as those who went to help when they saw the great, gasping need.  In 1976 (ish), just after entering the South for the first time, at Shreveport, I spent the summer in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.  They talked then with awe of hurricane Camille, of 1969.  Every single person of an age to recall Camille says, now, that she was a piece of cake compared to Katrina.  All of them know there’s a good chance this category will come again; everything that’s been rebuilt may go away, because we can’t keep our pollution in our own trousers and Mother Nature’s finally had enough. It is testament to the resilience of the people of Mississippi that their traditions continue as graciously as ever.

Pictures:  The pool courtyard at Cedar Grove Mansion in Vicksburg; Another plunge-ortunity for the black-and-white swimmer.

Day Seven: Growing Up
Vicksburg to Memphis, 251 miles
Armadillo count: 2

Breakfast at Cedar GroveThis is one of those really short days in the annals of B & C driving.  But there is a quandary that can only be solved thus: I want Vicksburg and the Cedar Grove, AND I want ribs and live blues on Beale Street.  Luckily, we are not in a hurry. So today we take State Rt 61 instead of I-55, thus avoiding Jackson.  (I spent a happy—if confused—summer in and near Jackson in college.  Confused because, then, I couldn’t understand the need to put a pork product into every vegetable dish. Silly me.)

The Mississippi and Yazoo rivers have been flooding in recent days, due to torrential rains further north, and as we drive straight north we see and smell the evidence; the first 20 miles or so, the air smells like the inside of a two-week-old vase of flowers.  Vegetation is rotting in the water, but to the locals I suspect this is a familiar, if foreboding fragrance.

Yesterday, when I told my mother how much we were enjoying our perch above one of the huge bends of the dividing, mother river, she said she likes to pretend Mississippi is not a member of our union. I am stumped.
“Because so many terrible things happened there.
I point out that these things happened quite a long time ago, but this is not a viable conversational tactic with my mother, who still bases her understanding and treatment of me on a 10-month period when I was thirteen years old.  Many adolescents do stupid things—I know Mississippi’s youth contained far worse things than mine did—but there is such a thing as rehabilitation.  The real possibility of rehabilitation is why we forward-minded thinkers work to abolish the death penalty (which ninety-nine percent of the international community thinks is apalling and barbaric, too). 

True, it feels slightly unsettling that virtually all the service-people at the Inn are African-American.  My guilt at the history of theAntebellum dining South—very much a part of my mother country (I still cry whenever I hear the National Anthem, in spite of everything that’s happened in the last 7 1/2 years)—prevents me from accepting the apparent status quo: if everyone serving breakfast or behind the bar at Cedar Grove had been white, I wouldn’t have stopped for a moment to consider any deep meaning.  But, they are not.  I wonder aloud to C, driving up Rt 61 amongst the cotton fields, if any American older than about 40 can truly claim membership in the post-race society that Obama has identified, and appeals to so powerfully.  No matter how bleeding-heart-liberal we may think we are, have we lived through times that will permanently stain our souls? I want so much–truly and viscerally—to be post-race.  Even more than I wish my mother would acknowledge that I have grown up

Time may heal all wounds, but some scars will be forever ugly and visible.

Pictures: Breakfast at Cedar Grove; the antebellum dining experience.


Day Eight: Consoled by Chicken
Memphis to Bardstown – whoops, I mean Knoxville, 390 miles
Armadillo count: 0

Dr FeelgoodMemphis has become a must-stop on this semi-annual hegira, just as Oklahoma City was, once (the Cattleman’s Café may have another day, but for now I am sated).  But overnighting in the downtown area is difficult.  The Peabody, for some obscure reason, is not pet-friendly (gee, there’s a claim to fame).  La Quinta options: either 20 miles to the east, or across the mother river in West Memphis, embraced closely by two thundering motorways.  And long-time Roadfoodie aficionadoes will scarcely forget my solo stay at the scruffy Super-8.

     Yesterday, C. had 86’ed my La Quinta option as “too far away.”  Through on-the-road (read: internet-free) sleuthing, we were able to come up with a Red Roof Inn only 4 miles from Beale St., so I effected a quick change in reso (in Brigit-speak: reservation).  Even if somewhat less salubrious than our usual digs, at least one would be able to do what must be done in Memphis: listen to music, drink bourbon, and eat ribs with heroic impunity. 

Once again, the Rendezvous is closed because just as in December, we are coming through on a Monday. (See last winter’s drive.) We chose to arrange this trip based on pizza in Phoenix on a Tuesday rather than the Rendezvous on a non-Monday because I have an actual work reason for researching great pizza joints.)  So I throw myself upon the mercy of two friendly concierges at the Peabody for dining advice—who says the service is only for paying guests? We’d stay there if they were pet-friendly!—and we dine at King’s Palace Café, which offers not just a luscious everything platter for two, but live crooning from a very large man with soulful eyes and a basso profundo that makes me quake–especially at the sad bits.  The we wander a few doors down to hang with Dr. Feelgood and his band, plus a plastic cup of Woodford Reserve on ice. 

     And now I would like to acknowledge that I Am A Lucky Girl.  To range Beale Street twice in a four month period, chomping down exquisitely tender and flavorsome pork and catching live blues, this is to Live Well (which is of course the best revenge for the recent Big Birthday).  Sleeping well is, as always, less important (mid-way through the ensuing night, the area right in front of our little room is suddenly lit up like a football field with twenty or thirty towering lights, so that an emergency helicopter can land at the hospital across the street; it feels like we’re sleeping in the middle of an L.Z.).

     About 50 miles into today’s drive, I realize I have made a ‘Ville-related error of vast proportions.  Another stop at the Lodge outlet isLoveless Cafe crucial, but I have mistaken Nashville for Knoxville, and thus, suddenly and violently, our bourbon-centric stop in Bardstown (home of the bourbon museum) get’s 86’ed—in fact the entire final two days of the journey get all shaken up.  New plans are made and old plans canceled, once again from the car.   As I should have remembered, the Lodge outlet is slightly east of KNOX-ville, not NASH-ville.  The only benefit of this change in plan is a lunch-stop at the famous Loveless Café, a ways west of Nashville, where I eat fried chicken that has been blessed by the Gods: it is studded with big crispy-fatty nodules of juiciness, and the dark meat inside that ethereal crust is as moist and salty as I ever could hope for.  Estimable fried chicken was the one thing missing from this drive, and now we are hole. The fact that the Loveless has featured on the Food Network, and that the (sadly ubiquitous) Bobby Flay has engaged in something called a “Throwdown” with the Loveless’ biscuit-making Queen Carol Fay, causes me some brief trepidation.  But once I sink my teeth through the layers of voluptuousness and wolf down one of the famous biscuits (slathered with the sine-qua-non of peach preserve), I decide to let them have their fame and my repeat custom as well.  The fame is far older than the Food Network, after all: Excellent Chicken at Loveless Cafechicken and biscuits have been sold here since 1951, when Lon and Annie Loveless first fed hungry travelers reaching the top end of the beautiful, history-rich Natchez Trace Parkway (we drove up the Trace in 2005, on Drive Number One–before the birth of Roadfoodie).  Later, it became the Loveless Café and Motel; the motel business was folded down in 1985 as mail-order business thrived.  Hams and jams are available for those who don’t live nearby, but for the fried chicken you’ll have to get your ass there in person.

     In spite of this bewitching lunch, by the time we reach Knoxville and our small wayside inn (La Quinta, again), I am grumpy, discombobulated, and, for the first time in eight days, weary of the road.  C. has absorbed my mood, and we consider skipping supper (Alert the Media!).  But, after a bath, some CNN, and a romp with Stella in the fields behind the hotel, we knuckle under and wander down through the dark and empty mall to some sort of concrete-corporate “restaurant” (not a chain—we will not fail in our resolve at this late hour).  There, we sit at the bar, assaulted by several varieties of televised sports, and share a thin-crust pizza margharita.  It is time to go home.

Pictures: Dr Feelgood on Beale Street; the Loveless cafe and Motel, Nashville; Chicken to Console the Peripatetic Soul.

Day Nine: The Cutting Edge. Or Not.
Knoxville to Front Royal, 420 miles
No more armadillos (sniff)

Black RoosterWhen the doors open at the Lodge cast iron outlet store in Sevierville, a few miles east of Knoxville, we are there (note to self, once again: it is not east of Nashville!).  I have a seemingly insatiable appetite—let us avoid the term “addiction”—for quality cookware.  Clothes, although I enjoy wearing nice things on occasion, an not hold a candle to my passion for a well-made pot, a super-sharp knife, an estimable citrus press.  So, although I was just here in December buying covered braisers for myself and a few friends (plus a huge and weighty 12-quart, footed Dutch oven), I am back to buy two more braisers.  (I left behind the blue one for future L.A. braises, so I clearly now need a red, east-coast braiser.  And, it is, of course, the perfect gift for soon-to-be newlyweds Pam and John).  The braiser—extolled in Molly Stevens’ excellent, required-cooking book “All About Braising— is my new favorite kitchen friend.

     Oh! My goodness! There, right across the street from Lodge is the Smoky Mountain Knife Showroom and National Knife Museum!  Though we really should be getting on the road for what is a relatively high-mileage day, we are seduced by the airport-sized building that promises all manner of blades and blade-related products and lore. 

Here, I must pause for a moment and share with readers an embarrassing incident from earlier in the winter: During our one-month stay in Palm Springs in January, we had a plethora weekend guests come down from LA to help celebrate my Very Big Birthday.  One of them, a private chef, is the husband of one of my all-time closest girlfriends, as well as the long-time cook for the “Governator” and his family.  As we attempted to cook together in the villa’s sparsely-equipped kitchen, Alex, an Alsatian native, said in his charming accent: Brigie, these knives—“ this partial statement was quickly followed by stern lip-pursing and rapid side-to-side head-shaking.  To put this more clearly, in just a few moments he had condemned my knives—the tools, after all, of someone who makes a (supposed) living writing about cooking—as, simply, not up to ar.  Apparently, my sharpening technique over the years has been less than perfect.  So, ever since that moment, I have been consumed by a rabid desire to fix my knives. The hulking knife joint in Sevierville seemed a good place to start.
An hour or so and much technical discussion later, I emerged with a better understanding of the road ahead, knife-wise, but no new sharpening products (Japanese knives, which make up the bulk of my collection, were not much supported inSoul Mountain Martini Tennessee).   Eventually, we hopped back in the car with a totally disgusted Stella (are we there yet, for God’s sake?), and headed due north toward Front Royal, Virginia, the final stop of our good food- and fun-filled ten-day journey across America

     Highlights of the day’s drive include a conversation with my cooking buddy, Linda, about the menu for our first lunch of the season, due to take place this coming Sunday in Great Barrington, Mass.  A woman who will eat almost anything, anywhere (and probably has), and cooks like a well-seasoned pro, she’s long had an aversion to fruit.  Spending the winter in Puerta Vallarta seems to have effected a sea-change in this attitude: “I’m making brie and papaya quesadillas!” she announces.  Mmm-mmmm.  It’s so good to be (almost) back in the land, and th season of excited menu planning with Linda.  Let the Revels Begin!

Pictures: Lunch: iced tea, a cup of chile and half a pimiento cheese sandwich at the Black Rooster in Marion, Virginia; an icy and welcome gin martini (is there another kind?) before dinner at the excellent Soul Mountain, in Front Royal (details in tomorrow’s post).

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