Alton Brown has a theory: The U.S. Highway System, he posits, was expressly created to bring people to good food. To prove it, he hopped on his BMW 1200RT motorcycle and drove some 6,500 miles (10,461 kilometers) from the Atlantic to the Pacific, stopping at every worthwhile eatery along the way. We caught up with the Food Network star as he motored across the Kansas flatlands and asked for some tips on how to eat right while on the road. Feasting on Asphalt, his Food Network special based on the trip, airs Saturday, July 29, at 9 p.m.
Back to Road Trips Main Page >>
Eat BBQ whenever possible. Barbecue can't be frozen, can't be canned, and can't be vacuum stretched. It also has to be cooked by people who generally know what they're doing. Your best bet for authentic meals across the South is going to be what we call a "meat-'n'-three," meaning cafeteria-style dining where you have a tray and move down a line. You generally are served a meat and two or three sides. It's a southern tradition that is still relatively alive and well.
A good diner is hard to find. I've been staying off the expressways and doing all the things that a person should do to find good roadside eats. Out of the remaining authentic diners in the U.S.—diners that have large menus, short order cooks and waitresses that have been there for more than fifteen minutes—nine out of ten are in the northeast. Between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, you've got 90 percent of the real diners. Why? That's where the structures were manufactured, and they were easier to ship to those locations. It was pretty gosh darn hard to get a real diner shipped to the Midwest because they were difficult to move.
It's not the food, it's how you eat it. What's important about road food isn't the food itself, it's the communal aspect of breaking bread with strangers—of eating with people you don't know. That is something we're losing as we become more and more car-centric. If there is any purpose that I hope that I'm fulfilling out here, filming Feasting on Asphalt, it's to convey this message: eat together, break bread together.
Get the special—or the brain sandwich. Ask the cooks what they eat, ask the waitress what she would have, and go off of their recommendations. Normally, it's the special of the day. If that doesn't sound good, I go for what's the most unusual thing on the menu. For instance, outside of Evansville, Indiana, there was an old German tavern that served brain sandwiches. So, of course, I ordered the brain sandwich.
BYOC [Bring Your Own Condiments]. I'm traveling with kosher salt, which I cannot live without. I have some hot sauce, a favorite brand of mine out of Louisiana called Louisiana Gold. I've got some pepper, a pepper grinder. I've also got a small kit of spices that includes everything from cinnamon to curry powder. But by and large, we are treating our food very, very, simply—and we never take anything in with us when we go into a restaurant.
If cooking for yourself, get the right gear.
- You know you just can't beat the old two-burner coal and propane stove. I'm a huge fan of that unit: It is unbreakable and you can find propane anywhere.
- We've also got this really groovy expanded metal grill that has two fold out legs and just parks over the fire. You can have several pots and pans going, as well as grilling, all at the same time.
- We're also traveling with a fire tripod. We do a lot of things over the fire—you know, tying strings around chickens and just dangling them over the fire.
- All of our camp coffee thus far has been coming out of a percolator, and, I gotta tell you, I'd forgotten how great percolators are. The robustness of the coffee is well worth the time.
- I've got a cutting board with me that I can put on almost anything.
- I've got a folding thing called a knife locker, which is a thing that a lot of chefs use. It's a big, hinged plastic device that closes around the blade. Once it's closed, I can just chuck the knife wherever I want to put it.
- I also have my own personal kit, I have a titanium knife and spoon for eating, I have a leather potholder and I have some heavy duty skewers that I can stick in the ground and roast things over the fire.
When making your own food, you can never go wrong with breakfast. We've got a good supply of bacon, a whole dry cured Virginia ham, and we always have eggs. And, of course, we have coffee. You cannot not have coffee.
Always carry jerky. I make some of the best jerky in the world, I'm proud to say. It's a curious procedure (see www.foodnetwork.com): I dry it on furnace air filters that I stack up and bungee cord to the end of a box fan. That's my jerky maker, and it does an extraordinarily good job. We have about five pounds [two kilograms] of jerky with us right now I think.
Back to Road Trips Main Page >>
Pick up our August 2006 issue for America's best hikes and drives, including 11 undiscovered trails and four energy-smart road trips; Africa's top safaris; and a border odyssey along the Devil's Highway, by writer Tim Cahill.
Subscribe now and save!