November 4, 2011
There’s an old joke about an airplane spiraling to the ground right after the meals have been served. A passenger says, "If the crash doesn’t kill us this food will." While my recent experience leads me to believe that airline food hasn’t improved since Henny Youngman was a young man finding new and exotic cuisines does seem to be the whole reason for some people to travel. There are at least twenty different TV shows devoted to people who go off the beaten path in search of unusual local foods. I realize I’m slightly behind the curve on this and that many of these shows have been on so long the hosts are either running out of unusual places to go or they’re going in for coronary bypass surgery, which gives them an opportunity to say, "If the operation doesn’t kill me the hospital food will."
I wonder if these TV shows have created a whole travel culture of people who go to exotic places just for the food. Heck, I don’t have my own TV show and yet I am one of those people who likes to sample the local cuisine of wherever I am, whether it’s Suriname or Cincinnati. I’ve been known to drive friends and family nuts by insisting that, since we can eat at one of those chain places anywhere, we should try Rex’s Refried Reptile Ranch, with the hand-painted sign on the side of the road, and if we get intestinal parasites, hey, it’s all part of the adventure. Also, just for the heck of it, let’s pick up that hitchhiker with the hook and the eye patch who’s holding a sign that says, "Anywhere". In spite of this I understand why most people choose the same standard fast food chains when travelling. The benefit of fast food chains is they offer the same food at usually the same prices that can always be counted on to taste like mildly seasoned wet dog hair. Places off the beaten path are a risk, and sometimes you have to go way, way, way, way, way off the beaten path to get to them anyway, and when you’re headed to a specific destination it’s not always appealing or practical to want to make a side trip that may or may not lead you through an area where the only thing the radio will pick up is Dueling Banjos.
And not all fast food is bad, although I doubt any of us would consider it haute cuisine. Well, most of us did when we were kids. I remember being a kid and telling the woman at the register at McDonald’s to send my compliments to the chef. But kids don’t know any better. Heck, kids think Chef Boyardee is the pinnacle of epicureanism. Here’s a fun fact: Chef Boyardee’s real name was Ettore Boiardi. He used the phonetic spelling because he was concerned Americans who couldn’t find Italy on a map of southern central Europe would mispronounce his name Qadaffi, but that’s another story. I don’t mean to sound like a snob because there are times when I eat fast food–times even when I know of places off the beaten path that I like and where I won’t get intestinal parasites–because it’s the only thing I happen to be craving. I’ll do this in spite of having worked at a fast food restaurant one summer. Well, technically it wasn’t a fast food place, because it did have printed menus and people went in and sat down and their food was brought to their table by a waiter or waitress. But working behind the scenes I discovered everything that was served was either frozen or powdered. Including the lettuce that went out to the salad bar. When they learned where I worked people would ask me, "How do they make that wonderful gravy?" And I would say, "Well, they take the fifty-five pound bag of powdered gravy mix and dump it in the sink…" The desire to go off the beaten path is also, at heart, a desire to try something new and different, and you can do that even with fast food. For one thing they’re constantly changing their menus, or offering five different items for under $5, or ten items for under $10, and eventually I’m sure they’ll take pride in offering at least a hundred different items for under $100. As a slogan it beats "If nothing else kills you eating here will!"