eating my way west, part II

In my last post, I managed to sneak a bit of food-talk between paragraphs of moving-onset nostalgia. I shared my last D.C. supper, as well as a random sample of the meals that welcomed me to California. I shared the wild fun of cleaning out a freezer you’ve occupied for three years, and my worries of falling back into road trip temptations.

And I promised there would be more. Traveling across this vast country is a food-lover’s joy ride: as with souvenirs and roadside stops, everything is tinted with kitsch. Food is no exception. Along our NY-PA-OH-IN-IL-MO-OK-TX-NM-AZ-CA trail we’ve found Cheese Barns to rival Wisconsin’s and all manner of fried eggs, flattened burgers, and iceberg lettuce salads. Thank goodness we haven’t bought, stopped at, or eaten any of it.

Our first real respite from McDonald’s (yes, we gave in to the Egg McMuffin’s seductive power, but it was so early and our bellies so empty!) came at the hands of our friends Bill and Emily. Everything at what they called their “Love Fest” was fresh, local, and organic: There were curried empanadas, sun-dried tomato polenta triangles, and cheese to snack on after the ceremony. For dinner, fresh salad, cold-smoked pork, and wood-fired chicken were served.

The best part of sitting down to witness my friends’ vows in the 30-degree-and-humid heat, however, was the “Sapphire in Bloom” cocktail I got to nurse in my adorable Ball jar glass:  a blend of Bombay Sapphire gin, St. Germain Elderflower liqueur, honey, soda, and fresh herbs over ice.

Back on the road. I wouldn’t think about food so much if driving weren’t so mind-numbing. Of course we embarked well-equipped: a recording of my Grandpa reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and enough RadioLab podcasts to earn a BSc with.  But after a while, the hum of the road sort of lulls you into a trance. And we all know what goes well with that state of being: food, in all it’s munchy, boredom-reducing glory.

I’m just glad I packed good chocolate (for sweet cravings) and carrots (for crunch). One thing this adventure has made me more appreciate of is my mother’s ability, rest stop after rest stop, to provide ample sustenance to a family of five on our long summer trips. It’s a little easier to bulk buy for a family of five than two, but the memory of a cooler full of her lovingly packed sandwiches has made my mouth water more than a few times on this trek.

In place of towing our mothers along (and mine’s so small she might just have fit!), we moderns have Yelp, the wonderful on-the-road food finder. Between the wedding victuals and what I know awaits in California, Yelp helped us lasso down dinner in Oklahoma and New Mexico. On our way from Springfield, IL to Amarillo, TX (where we’d be greeted in the morning by locally-roasted coffee, fresh bagels, berries, granola, and yogurt at the home of one of Mark’s former babysitters), we found this little Pho shop just outside of Oklahoma City. It didn’t hold a candle to Pho 14 in D.C., but its house-made broths of noodles, shrimp, bean sprouts, basil, and thin cuts of beef truly satisfied.

Part of the fun was getting pho in Oklahoma, of all places, where they apparently have to explain what pho is on the sig—so much different than living in a city where whole suburban complexes are devoted to the cuisine. You’ve got to hand it to them for at least trying to expand beyond Outback Steakhouse!

Yelp also delivered us into the hands of this wonderfully kitschy (this time in a good way) Tacqueria at 415 Lomas Blvd NE in Albuquerque, NM. Reviewers raved about their “old Mexican” cuisine, service, portions, and prices. We pulled up in a small gravel parking lot next to a mechanic shop, and unfurled our crunched-up, Jetta-ed bodies into the 34-degree New Mexico afternoon.

We plunked ourselves down in the tiny dining room, which looked like it once catered to fried-egg eating, coffee-sipping morning laborers. The stools were topped in faded blue pleather, and behind the open counter at least four each of cooks and waitstaff moved. I don’t even remember if the place was air-conditioned (which it probably wasn’t) due to the agua fresca that was soon placed before me. I chose the tart tamarindo (you guessed it, tamarind), while Mark sipped on a sweeter horchata made from ground almonds, barley, spices, and sugar.

Now I’m no expert in Mexican cuisine (CA, here I come!), and I don’t know what the heck “old Mexican” is supposed to mean, but I was impressed with my choices: a ceviche tostada, a crispy corn tortilla topped with ceviche-style shrimp, fresh lime juice, cilantro, and tomatoes, and two tacos, one langue (beef tongue), and the other adobada (pork). These two came with ample toppings and loads of fresh cilantro. Mark had a platter brimming with all kinds of goodies I can’t now remember.

My guess is that this more traditional style of Mexican is just simpler than a lot of the food I’ve been introduced to so far here in the U.S: tofu burritos a la Syracuse’s Alto Cinco, for example. I’ve had some pretty bad Mexican here (a soggy, greasy, and warm taco salad in Nixa, MO comes to mind), but it’s the kind of food I’m always hunting for. This tacqueria provided a hearty and fresh, cheery and prompt meal to two weary travelers. Whatever kind of food it is that they serve, I’m a fan.

One state away from our destination and with help like this, the report looks good: I’ve managed to stave off cravings for kettle-cooked chips, Nibs, and Twix bars at bay with ease. Sure there have been more sodas than usual, but for me as long as it’s got “diet” (or even better, “zero”) in the title, it passes the test. Sure there have been indulgences (wedding cupcakes, post-Grand Canyon soft serve), but what’s not to celebrate when love and breathtaking views show up?

Lastly, I come to the brewpub responsible for two out of three of our dinners in this wild and colorful town. It’s our last night in Arizona, and in Flagstaff, home base for our daily hikes in the Canyon and Sedona’s red rocks. I sit typing at one of the Grand Canyon International Hostel’s open windows, where the noise of mid-week revelers is broken only by the sound of trains rumbling by every hour.

Usually Mark and I like to try new things, whether it’s a new restaurant or recipe. Besides a few signature dishes and favorite restaurants, when it comes to food, we generally don’t like to repeat ourselves. That is, unless we find something that just works, like post-hike dinners on Flagstaff Brewing Company‘s patio. Beer seems to be on our minds more than usual here in Arizona: our first night in town we ate and watered ourselves at the Lumberyard Brewing Company just down the street from the hostel, where we had their decent IPA, nachos, and a surprisingly good Black Bean Hummus Reuben.

After logging about seven miles in the hot sun on the Grand Canyon’s south rim (and the previously mentioned soft-serve!) we happened upon FBC. We were ravenous, and so after briefly glancing over the menu, found ourselves a seat on their courtyard patio. I had a Greek Salad with some of the most garlicky dressing I’ve ever tasted (which again greeted me this morning!), but Mark’s Black and Blue Burger was the to die for meal of the evening — if it doesn’t clog the arteries, first! A black peppercorn-crusted patty topped with blue cheese, two onion rings, and chipotle mayo? I’m just thankful he let me have two good-sized bites. That’s love.

After our hike today along Oak Creek (near Sedona), and upon agreeing that the Flagstaff evening scene was considerably cooler than Sedona’s, we came back for more. You can’t say we didn’t try: we scoped out two other restaurants, but none of them appealed to the patio-happy delirium we’d experienced the night prior. Back we went. This time, as you’ll see pictured above, one of us decided to try the Pear Burger (a roasted pear and blue cheese burger drizzled with balsamic glaze), while the other went for the house-made Black Bean Burger with avocado, tomato, and roasted green chiles. I’ll let you figure out who ordered what.

Arizona surprised me, I must say. It really has so much more going for it than sketchy immigration policies, and the white hair and golf courses I expected. A real wilderness culture, not to mention some darn good beer and burger action, lives among its red canyons and hot pine forests.

Maybe, when California rests from courting me, I’ll come back for a little bit more.

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Road Food Part 5: Fool’s Gold

In Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, young Winfield gets mocked for thinking fool’s gold the real thing.

Having been on the road for 6 weeks, I’ve come to a similar conclusion about restaurant food: pretty as it is, in the long run it leaves me dissatisfied.

I didn’t get sick of gourmet right away. First, there was a glorious honeymoon filled with goat cheese, reduction sauces and amuse bouches. So before I sing a love song to simple food, here’s an ode to the most memorable meals I’ve eaten here in the rocky state of Colorado.

Take the Sicilian Castillo olives I tried at Eat! restaurant in Edwards. These little jewels took the term “olive green” and gave it a shot of tequila. A rich, bright jade, their meaty firm flesh dissolved into an almost lime-like linger.

Followed by a white bean puree-goat cheese-artichoke-tomato panini and a simple salad, the meal warranted a photo or two.

Over in Beaver Creek, the slogan “not exactly roughing it” came through loud and clear at Rimini gelato. Rimini, a town in Italy, is the center of the gelato world, and I’d be happy making this place the center of mine.

And then there’s Terra Bistro, who despite my cravings for simple home cooking, still has a corner of my heart.

On visit number one, the delivery of baked kale chips turned up the corners of my leaf-loving lips. Light as paper and shimmering slightly with olive oil, you can munch these in guiltless quantities without destroying your appetite.

On July 4th I stopped in just to see if they’d sell me a container to nibble on, and left with a box on the house. A mountain creek and an hour of solitude were the perfect companions.

As for the mains, on our first visit I wandered from my usual veggie fare and ordered the Amish-grown organic beef. Thin-sliced rare hangar steak came perched atop a blue cheese crostini, sharing the plate with an heirloom-boston lettuce salad drizzled in a thick molasses-balsamic glaze.

There was the the sesame-crusted salmon with carrot-tandoori tomato sauce at Paradigms in Eagle, and all the wholesome organic lunches at (the appropriately named) Eco Goddess over in Carbondale. The lake trout crusted in thin slices of baby potato at Kelly Likken in Vail was expertly crafted, and the halibut with grapefruit butter at Dish a morsel of perfection.

So what’s my complaint then, surrounded by all this wonderful food? How could someone like me, whose love for good food borders on obsession, turn down a great meal on someone else’s tab?

The choices have grown too cumbersome. I’ve become impatient through all the sitting and waiting. The disappointments are draining me, and the thrills remaining seem thin. I am ready for trips to the market, chopping, mixing, and knowing what I am putting into my body. I want to feel the slippery flesh of a mango, tear papery leaves of basil, and squish dough under my palms once again.

It’s been fun. The pampering, the service, the delight at new things. But I’m ready to go home.

Road Food Part 4: Meet the Virnigs

I’ve safely arrived in Eagle, Colorado, but before I get to the amazing food here, let me tie up the last few days of the Missouri leg. In my last post, I’d begun to wax poetic about how home cooking redeemed the area’s slew of chain restaurants.

The day after that amazing Indian meal, we found ourselves on the Virnig family farm. For the rest of our time in the Nixa area, we ate like queens around their harvest table. Healthy, organic, pasture-raised queens, that is.

Doug and Mary Virnig have eight children: Jessie, Laura, Emma, Madeleine, Tucker, Adelaide, Helen and Rachel. They live in an old farm house on the outskirts of Ozark, Missouri, where they raise beef and dairy cows, and tend an ever-expanding garden. We had dinner with them the Tuesday night before we left, and managed to squeeze ourselves into their lives for the next three days.

They won us over with their homemade burgers and fresh devilled eggs — which I had the pleasure of making, with the help of two pairs of little hands.

In the days to come, we feasted on homemade tostadas, guzzled kombucha tea (the kids were pretty excited to learn that I make it, too), munched on stovetop popcorn sprinkled with nutritional yeast, and sipped raw milk around a fire.

The Virnigs haven’t always lived like this. Neither of the parents grew up on farms. They’ve morphed, in their life together, from town to country folks.

Their  journey toward self-sustenance is well thought out. This is no trendy organic dream. It’s a well-researched, tenderly executed dance with the earth God has set them upon.

As I lived and worked beside them for three days, the Virnig family became more than just a story.  From early-morning family time cuddled in blankets to outdoor labor to afternoon dips in the cold creek,  they refreshed me.

I know life isn’t perfect for them, but their joyful generosity imprinted itself on my heart. With grubby hands, skinned knees, and an a wide open door, I left feeling lucky to tell their story. It’s a debt not even our gifts of fresh fruit and Lola’s chocolate cake could repay.

Road Food Part 3: Coming Home

I should have known better. For all my disappointment at Missouri’s impoverished restaurant landscape, all I had to do was go home. In our last few days in the area, we found our appetites again— simply by following our noses down driveways and through front doors.

This week made up for all the bland burritos, dishwater coffee, faux-italian and “fusion sushi” (drenched in cloyingly sweet chili sauce). And thanks to my photojournalist colleague Mary, every precious bite was beautifully documented.  So beautifully, in fact, they deserve two posts. (I chipped in a few pictures, too).

My lesson for News21 summer trip #1: Real food in this part of the country isn’t broadcast on interstate signs. It’s strewn across scratched harvest tables and served up in suburban kitchens.

Our last Monday in Nixa, the family of a boy we’re profiling invited us for dinner. The spread included everything the Indian family calls everyday, and everything we call special.

There was pre-feast chai, homemade, with a thick sweetness that lingered through the afternoon. It was accompanied by cookies with the odd flavour of mango. Girl Scouts meets tropical lands.

And then there was one of my favorite snacks: the addictive mixture of chickpea-flour crunchy bits mixed with dried lentils, peanuts, and spices. Served up in a classic steel thali plate, the taste took me far from the flat Missouri prairie, and back to a toy train winding through the Indian Himalayas.

After dinner we had little cups of homemade pistachio ice cream, topped with threads of saffron. I ate mine, and then I ate Mary’s.


These were some of the happiest moment of my trip. Add to the mix gracious hosts, warm conversation, and a young boy whose story is worth telling the world, I went to bed grinning at the small things.

Part two tomorrow

Road Food Part 2: Breakfast Saves

In the “buckle of the Bible belt,” touting food as the harbinger of salvation could be seen as sacrilege. After a five-day string of meals I’d plot somewhere between barely edible and “for sustenance only,” Gailey’s Breakfast Cafe brought praise to my lips.

The historical downtown drug-store cafe turned hip brunch join came to our rescue after a rushed morning. We’d spent five hours gathering interviews at two local churches, and by the time we’d set our gear up and down twice (not to mention engaging and entertaining the locals with our wit), we were ready for something heartier than cereal.

So too was everyone else hanging out in downtown Springfield’s struggling core. There are a few gems, clustered together in a few square blocks, and this is most definitely one of them.

Gailey’s conjures up images of simpler times, when bacon and gravy biscuits and white bread were a-OK. Times when people could come get a prescription filled, order a coffee and an egg salad sandwich, and sit down on a shiny bar stool to chat about the day.

With simple but creative menu items and open, cheery windows, Gailey’s brings old-school charm to urban mod. In the other room, there was an acoustic guitar-harp duo to add mystery to the din of chatter.

The only regret was that they closed an hour after we arrived. There was only time to eat, check our email and make some phone calls. Then, out of pity  for the endearingly friendly staff, we were on our way.

Our way is likely to snake by Gailey’s at least once more before we leave.

Gailey’s Breakfast Cafe: 220 E Walnut St., SpringfieldMO 65806. Tel: (417) 866-5500.

Road Food Part 1

A warm —read: stifling — foodie greeting from Nixa, Missouri, land of chain restaurants, strip-malls and “Authentic Mexican” food. The quotes around that last one are meant to hint at the painful truth that here, we’ve found the exact opposite. This is Cielito Lindo, the best I’ve had so far but still barely passable:

I’m sad to announce that Fresh Cracked Pepper is going to look a little different over the next 10 weeks: I’ll be busy working on a multimedia journalism project on youth and technology (site to officially launch in August, but visit the link to see our trip e-journals), and so won’t have time to bake anything except my bod, running around in the hot Missouri sun.

Instead, over the next few posts I’m simply going to share what’s fueling me along the way (much like in my NYC post). From artichoke panninis at Panera to fresh smoothies at the local library cafe, my meals will be windows into my days.

Eating on the road, and on the run, starts out as a novelty but quickly descends into cravings for home cooking. Even restaurants advertised as “home cooking” (there are those quotes again!) often offer just the opposite. Let’s face it: it’s hard to get the taste of the fruit of your labor when it’s someone else’s.

I’ve been here in Southern Missouri for two full days, and while it hasn’t been too bad, there’s been nothing worth drooling over. My colleague came out a week ahead of me, and I’ve benefitted greatly from her travails along the Nixa food scene.  In the little free time we have, however, we still find ourselves hunting for that memorable Missouri meal.

Last night’s dinner, eaten on a patio spilling out into a parking lot, wasn’t too shabby. I spotted a Vietnamese restaurant called “Bambu,” set next to a natural food store where I later bought some Kombucha.

To help explain the diversity in restauarant offerings in the area, I will quote a young woman we talked to later last night: “What kind of food?” she said. Vietnamese, I replied.

“I’ve never even heard of that!”

one lunch

In Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, there’s an entire chapter named after “One Onion.” In it, the ubiquitous allium becomes a symbol for generosity, goodness, and salvation.

Recently, one lunch blew open some big questions in my own life. Perhaps not as weighty as the ones Dostoyevsky’s 19th century characters posed, but big enough for me.

The lunch came in an oval white dish in a New York City cafe. It was simple, fresh, and affordable — an American rendition of bibimbap, the Korean name for a mixed rice dish.

Just lunch, really. In and of itself, much like the character Grushenka’s onion. But as I let the egg’s soft yellow drench the delicately chopped vegetables, I couldn’t silence the questions: What would it be like to walk through those doors every morning? To work in the tall tower rising up around me, full of the cubicles of some of the world’s most successful writers and editors?

Usually when I’m stabbing cubes of fried tofu with my fork I’m not also having one of those moments of profound smallness. But this time I was. All around me success seemed to shine its toothy, too-perfect smile. All I could seem to muster was one halfway to hopeful.   

That lunch stood in for something else, a life neither close nor far away. Food prepared by someone else. Outside all the amenities of a city fiercely alive. Wilderness packaged up in a park not much bigger than a postcard. 

We ate well, and copiously. Cupcakes, sandwiches, pastries and fruit. Two days passed in the whirlwind of avenues and boulevards, stairs pointing to greatness, alleys threatening dead ends. I came out alive, but with more questions than ever, pushing against me like subway doors.

One lunch. A world just brushed up against. A window into an afternoon into a day, a week, a year, a life I can’t yet see clearly. A sigh of satisfaction with the present, with a Sidecar of uncertainty.

New York put flowers in my food and a Sonatra song in my heart. Back in Syracuse, the questions it left are proving a little harder to digest.

In the meantime, here’s a recipe for bibimbap. 

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