It's a funny thing about road trips. It's like by getting in a car and traveling a distance, your senses go through an awakening of sorts. All of a sudden you're a stranger in a strange land, and your senses are honed in this new world. Rather than drifting through your day in usual habits, you're practically pelted with new experiences, places, sights, and things. It's a fantastic opportunity to regain a certain curiosity about the world.
Of course, there's also the subject of food.
Sometimes, road trips can introduce you to spectacular foods, be it a regional specialty or a blue plate special or a particularly excellent roadside burger. Nobody knows this better than Jane and Michael Stern, pioneers on the subject.
Sometimes, though, the food where you happen to stop during the hours you stop there totally sucks--that unique burger joint is closed for the day and all you've got at your disposal is gas station grub.
It's times like these--and I am speaking for myself, but perhaps you agree?--that my perception about what is a "good" food and what is just ho-hum shifts.
Starbucks, for instance. I like Starbucks, but living in a city, they're hardly destination-worthy--they're just around when you need them. But when you've just driven like 600 miles in one of the Dakotas and seen beautiful scenery but not much else for hours, if you see a sign for a Starbucks coming up, it's almost like a divine ray of sun shining right on you.
Likewise with Dunkin Donuts, Baskin Robbins, and Dairy Queen.
Now, as you'll know if you are a regular reader of this site...I'm not necessarily a sweets elitist. While I love me a fancy kouign amann or Opera cake or a delicately constructed battenberg cake, there's never been a point at which I feel I'm too good for Pop-tarts, Oreos, or the delectable Vanilla Kreme variety at Dunkin' Donuts. So I should say that I'm not opposed to eating mass produced ice cream--although I often consider it far more interesting to try regional joints with interesting flavors.
But I've got to tell you, that last week, when I was road tripping from Santa Fe to Los Angeles, when I stopped at the first eatery I'd seen for miles and miles, somewhere in either New Mexico or Arizona, and the single only eatery in town was a Dairy Queen, I could have wept for joy.
And those tears could have turned to straight-out sobs when I was served a peanut butter sundae.
Now, to the uninitiated, a "sundae" at DQ is really just ice cream with a sauce on top. If you want what I consider a sundae (whipped cream and a cherry in addition to the topping), there's an extra charge.
But sometimes, ice cream with sauce is all you need in the world. And they have quite a few different toppings to choose from at Dairy Queen, including but not limited to toffee, chocolate, peanut butter, strawberry, et cetera. After consulting with the cashier for what was probably an awkwardly long time about their different toppings (I was shown the industrial sized tubs from which they are ladled on to the soft serve ice cream), I decided on the peanut butter.
The employee got a cup and pulled a lever, and into the cup cascaded a hypnotic stream of extruded soft serve ice cream. A perfect little tail-loop on top.
Then, she reached for the industrial sized container of peanut butter sauce--it was called "Liquid Peanut Butter". It had a pump, and she squeezed a generous three or four pumps on to my soft serve. I could tell she liked me!
Now. In my non-road trip life, I would rarely have indulged in a moment like this. I would have been seeking out the really good stuff--the Salt and Straw, the Cupcake Royale, the Hoffman's, the ultimate Maple Creemee in Vermont.
But at this particular moment, outside of that Dairy Queen somewhere in New Mexico or Arizona, sitting outside under an umbrella, listening to the whizz of cars whooshing by on the nearby freeway, I stopped to savor. I paused. I watched the workers across the street at an auto body shop. I enjoyed every bit of my ice cream, one little spoonful at a time, industrial topping and all.
And I'll tell you, the experience was absolutely perfect.
What's your favorite guilty pleasure food while road tripping?