Unfolding the Map
Did you know that counting wall calendars in diners gives you an idea of the quality and price of the food served there? Neither did I. Thanks to William Least-Heat Moon (LHM), you can try out this theory on your road trips. Click on the map to check out where Gainesboro, Tennessee lies.
"There is one almost infallible way to find honest food at just prices in blue-highway America: count the wall calendars in a cafe.
No calendar: Same as an interstate pit stop.
One calendar: Preprocessed food assembled in New Jersey.
Two calendars: Only if fish trophies present.
Three calendars: Can't miss on the farm-boy breakfasts.
Four calendars: Try the ho-made pie too.
Five calendars: Keep it under your hat, or they'll franchise.
One time I found a six calendar cafe in the Ozarks, which served fried chicken, peach pie, and chocolate malts, that left me searching for another ever since. I've never seen a seven-calendar place. But old-time travelers -- road men in a day when cars had running boards and lunchroom windows said AIR COOLED in blue letters with icicles dripping from the tops -- those travelers have told me the golden legends of seven-calendar cafes."
Blue Highways: Part 1, Chapter 14
I've said it before in some of these posts, that I really get tired of the interstate food stops and the chains that serve the exact same thing. Yet I have a confession to make. A couple of nights ago, my wife and I went up to Santa Fe to hear Nicholas Kristof speak. She was late getting me, and we were going to cut it close in getting to the speech on time. Neither of us had dinner. She suggested that before we get on the freeway, we stop at Burger King. So we did.
Yes it was fast and convenient, damn them. And I suppose spending $10 or so dollars on them in this circumstance was not the end of the world. But I don't like doing it. It's not an anti-corporate thing. It's simply that I like trying new things. In Blue Highways, LHM says:
"To the rider of back roads, nothing shows the tone, the voice of a small town more quickly than the breakfast grill or the five-thirty tavern. Much of what the people do and believe and share is evident then."
Blue Highways: Part 1, Chapter 14
I don't believe that you get the character of a place through the McDonalds or the Burger Kings. Sure, locals go get things to eat there. But in the local places, decorated with what the owners and the patrons think are important, and with food that symbolizes and may even contain the experience and emotions of someone who lives in that town, you literally find the flavor of a place. You aren't going to get that in a chain restaurant.
I have a co-worker who actually prefers the chains. His favorite restaurant is Red Lobster. He prefers the sameness of the chains because he's kind of a finicky eater. He doesn't like cheese, for instance. He knows exactly what he's going to get in these restaurants, and he's picked out the dishes he likes. The sameness comforts him.
It's that sameness that grates on me. It makes me feel like I'm in a box. Give me the local food, the places where the locals go, any day. Let me shoot the bull or even flirt with a local waitress, watch the local businesspeople mingle with the local farmers and even the local neer-do-wells. I want to see the guy who's sitting with bloodshot eyes from staying up all night in the booth across from the young lovers looking at each other over their Cokes, who are sitting behind the old couple who eat methodically, barely looking at one another. I want to hear the rustle of the newspapers of the old guys at the counter while the waitress asks Charlie how his wife is doing after her surgery. That's the flavor of a town!
My wife and I are making a road trip tomorrow to California to see my mom. I will do my best to channel our eating away from the chains, though it may be hard since we will have our dog with us. If I have to eat at one, I will do so. But when we can, we will eat local and gain more from our local experiences. After all, LHM ended his breakfast at a Gainesboro local diner by engaging the mind of the local waitress and driving off with a smiley button named Bob that she gave him. Try to find that at a chain eatery!
Note: We started our trip before I was able to post this, and ate at a local place in Salina, Utah. I could only see two calendars on the wall. And, like LHM seems to imply, it was only okay. But it was neat to listen to the locals talk.
If you want to know more about Gainesboro
Next up: Nameless, Tennessee