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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Snapshots from a Road Trip

A man. A woman. A dog. A small-ish, overstuffed hatchback.
Driving cross-country has its challenges, only one of which is: what will we eat?

Our first stop was Minneapolis, to visit my brother. He has always been an excellent
cook. Even as a kid, when my mother would let us make tacos...his looked like a food stylist had been involved.

For dinner one night, he roasted a large pan of lamb (ribs), rubbed with olive oil and simply seasoned. Heavenly.

I was in charge of the sides, so I made a quick Greek Salad to go along with the lamb, and grilled some eggplant in the simplest way possible..(a recipe I make over and over again from Faith Willinger’s book about Italian vegetables). It was a near perfect meal...and it lingered in my mind, a warm and happy memory, in the days that would come...


Ummm, would it be harsh to say, this was, er, dining "badlands"?
This leg of the trip was the start of what we eventually called "the Burger-a-Day Diet". It’s not pretty folks…there were burgers at Dairy Queen (resulting in post-burger queasiness) and burgers at Wendy’s (disappointing, and well, yes, that queasy thing again…) but, there were some redeeming moments…a nicely made, simple bison burger at a small restaurant inside Badlands National Park, and, just when I thought I couldn’t eat another burger…a supremely delicious Montana-raised, grass-fed beef burger at Montana Ale Works in Bozeman, Montana.

One of the highlights of driving through South Dakota is that you are treated to a Wall Drug billboard every couple of miles. They are quirky, clever and usually set off in a field, alone. Mile after empty mile, the billboards keep appearing on empty hillsides and reminding you that they offer free ice water, western apparel, homemade doughnuts, and also coffee for a nickel.
Let me tell you, friends, they work. I was enchanted by the signs…eagerly searching the horizon for the next Wall Drug billboard.

By the time we reached the middle of the state, I was adjusting our itinerary and planning a stop. Good thing we did, because we were rewarded with some of the best chocolate cake doughnuts ever. And, yes, the coffee was a nickel, and it was excellent.

I wish I had not been so ravenous that I had remembered to pull out the camera later that day for a picture of our picnic lunch not far from Mt. Rushmore. We were in a parking lot across from the Safeway in Rapid City, South Dakota, and sitting in the front seat of our car, Steve was carving up a rotisserie chicken... with a plastic knife.

Later that day, on our way to Billings, Montana it was back to burger land. There are not many choices out in that section of Big Sky Country, so there we were, at the Wendy’s mentioned above. Even Henry, the Labrador, looked disappointed by our choice.

Most of the meals in this portion of the country seem to include Velveeta, or some kind of orangey-yellow processed "American" cheese product. At one motel in Montana, there was even a large pump mechanism, designed to squirt the cheese product on your scrambled eggs. At night, I dream of cheeses...ripe and fragrant Brie, Morbier, goat cheese crottins, and Cowgirl Creamery's Mt. Tam. The orange cheese stuff makes me sad. I wonder aloud in the car, is this our American "peasant" food? Orange cheese that can be pumped?

A couple days with friends in Bozeman restored our spirits -- especially an incredible grilled shrimp dish with a Moroccan sauce, whipped up by our ebullient hostess, from the pages of the current Cooks Illustrated summer grilling issue.


More hiking than driving. (Hooray!) Hiking in Bozeman. Hiking in Grand Teton National Park.
Our post-hike beer-of-choice became
Moose Drool Brown Ale.

Low expectations.
Potato chips eaten straight from the bag become replacement for actual meals.
Grocery store deli sections provide sustenance.

But, the restaurant at Hotel Monaco in Salt Lake City is a shimmering oasis in a culinary desert. Good wine. Beautiful plate of beef carpaccio, followed by a perfectly cooked piece of halibut, nestled on a zesty summer "chowder". No photo due to complete exhaustion.

A few observations: Utah feels enormous. Nevada is hot. My left arm has a white stripe where my watch is, from driving with the sun beating through the windshield.
We drive through to Lake Tahoe, stopping in Elko, Nevada for gas and some fried chicken from the deli at the local Albertson's supermarket. It's pretty good -- hot and salty and greasy, but I am ready to be home.

This town on the northern side of Lake Tahoe, is a delight. The Cedar House Sport Hotel is lovely. We are welcomed by an incredibly kind manager and invited to have some munchies on the terrace...a kind of a happy hour, I suppose. I don't remember a gin & tonic tasting so wonderful in a very long time.

The next day we share some not-very-good fish tacos for lunch before we hit the road. I decide one should try to avoid not-very-good fish tacos, if at all possible.
Undeterred, we agree...we must plan a return trip.

Tired and happy we cross the Bay Bridge into San Francisco a few hours later...relieved, tired and hungry.

The first order of business -- find the takeout menu for our favorite local Thai restaurant and place an order.

There's no place like home.