Before I go, I have something to say

Traveling on Our Stomachs

I used to love road trips. I always stocked up on candy just before leaving, and now I’m not sure if that was a way to celebrate the trip, or to survive along the way. Whatever the mission, I knew I had to visit a gas station first and buy some M&Ms, Necco wafers, Chuckles, Twizzlers, or what-have-you. Necco wafers are basically tasteless, even the so-called chocolate ones, but when eaten in a moving car, one at a time as the mile markers rush by, they are manna.

Nowadays, I’m more likely to stock up on “healthy” snacks, tossing – who am I kidding? – carefully positioning in the cooler a cache of Honeycrisp apples, Cara Cara oranges, washed and cut celery (inner stalks only), and a well-sealed container of homemade hummus with which to allay the boredom and/or actual hunger that seem to descend the moment the car escapes the county line.

I keep a towel in the car to put over my lap while eating especially messy things, and a stash of plastic cutlery and napkins in the glove box. I started doing this after the time Bob and I bought lunch at the Athenian Grill, and, upon arriving at Eagle Point Park, discovered they’d neglected to put anything in the bag with which to eat the meal I’d ordered. Bob could handle his gyro just fine, but pastitsio is a Greek casserole of macaroni, ground beef, and a beautifully flavored bechamel sauce, not exactly finger food.

On the road, we are confronted with the eternal question: Where should we stop for lunch? This dilemma was unheard of in my parents’ day. We never left for a Sunday drive without a full meal packed into a basket and a cool metal Thermos jug that dispensed homemade Kool-aid into metal cups at the press of a button. The main course was usually Mom’s oven fried chicken, plus her incomparable potato salad on the side and Tollhouse cookies for dessert. Sometimes Dad prevailed, and we’d feast on hotdogs, which he insisted on calling “wienies,” grilled over a fire he would expertly bring to life with a few sticks and twigs.

My family scaled fences to get to a spot on somebody else’s farmland, never seeming to worry about trespassing. The quilt would go down, and we’d settle in to eat, hungry after the long hike to the picnic spot.

Long car trips shouldn’t work up an appetite, since all we’re doing is sitting there – all but the driver, that is, maneuvering around rogue semis and shredded tires while the rest of us blithely whine, “Are we there yet?” I have a friend who believes that even when he drives for hours, eating shouldn’t be necessary, because he is a diehard cyclist who would much rather ride his bike even to get to Boston for a conference (a feat that would merit a day at an all-you-can eat buffet.) Me, I’m no good at ignoring meal times, whether or not any calories have been burned since breakfast.

Early in our time together, I impressed Bob on a long trip by packing a lunch and, once he’d spied a nice park in a small town near the highway, bringing out the blanket I carried in the back of the car just to throw over a picnic table. I’m sure he thought he’d found the Betty Crocker of his dreams, and I apologize now for the delusion.

Instead, I point out every Starbucks sign we pass on I-90, even though I don’t like coffee and their chai can’t hold a candle to the kind I brew at home. But I’m always up for a decaf mocha, whether blistering hot or lightly chilled with my requisite three ice cubes. For true sustenance, he’s happy with a cellophane-wrapped sandwich from the truck stop, but me, no, I’m sort of, you guessed it, picky. For years I would only sullenly agree to stop at Subway, because there are, I swear, sixteen Subways for every McDonalds’ on the highways and byways of America, and I outgrew Big Macs long ago.

It wasn’t until I figured out how to get a really good sandwich from Subway that I finally looked forward to eating there. What I do is order a six-inch veggie on wheat with provolone, toasted, then loaded with spinach, tomatoes, ripe olives and – magic ingredient – enough banana peppers to get one in every bite. It’s tasty, and healthy. Healthy enough that I can then get a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup at the next rest stop and feel completely guilt-free.

What is it with the guilt? It’s complicated. But I did discover Naked Juice recently, and it’s like a meal in a bottle, and I mean that in a good way. I was brave enough to try their “Green Machine” brew, which admits right on the front, “Looks Weird, Tastes Amazing,” and it does, even though it contains not only kiwi and banana puree but also spinach, broccoli, wheat grass, and – get this – deodorized garlic. All those vitamins! All that righteousness! Take that, Dr. Pepper!

They say an army travels on its stomach, and even an army of two needs sustenance on a mission to the Cleveland Clinic to ask the Wizard for relief from The Deadly Headache That Won’t Go Away. So whether we bring along a gourmet box lunch, or happen upon a perfect hometown diner (as we did once in New Jersey), or settle for the comfort of a well-known chain, we feed ourselves. And then we march on, crumbs on the floor mats be damned.


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