This is a story about a road trip, a rat and a candy bar. It’s also a story about how I learned what “omnivore” really means.
You don’t know me very well yet, but you know my type. When my kids were babies, I ground their organic food in a little mill I carried with me to restaurants. I baked my own 41-grain bread. We didn’t peel our carrots because the dirt was good for us. And we certainly didn’t eat crap that came from fresh pak cans. Unless we were at my husband’s parents’ house, where Ding Dongs have their own special shelf in the pantry.
I decided to drive from NYC to Colorado the year my kids were 7 and 10 because we had a new puppy and the airlines wouldn’t accept dogs that summer after an unfortunate episode with a Schnauzer. Citing work, my husband, the chief driver, planner and map reader, opted out of this adventure, leaving us to our own skill sets to manage the trip.
“Pack what you need!” I loftily told the kids and my friend Elora, who offered to take my husband’s place. For my daughter this meant the comforter and all of the pillows from her bed so that she could make a view-constricting fort in the second row of the mini van. For Henry it meant filling his pockets with a headlamp, Swiss army knife, a roll of quarters and a tube of green hair gel that made him feel stylish. Elora remembered her outdated drivers license. And I packed up a basket with a week’s worth of bananas, apples, cheddar cheese and something called health loaf that I think they now serve in prisons.
I also did something very mean. I purposely left behind the little gift bags of Chex mix and M&M’s my mother–in-law had lovingly made for the kids. Poison, I thought. None of that in my car!
The trip began beautifully. Huck Finn was on the tape deck because at some point we knew we’d cross the Mississippi, and we were reveling in Huck and Jim’s escapades as they enjoyed their own version of a road trip, albeit on a river. We had plenty to eat and our Nalgene water bottles were full of the Croton Resevoir’s finest.
It was a good thing I found Huck so darned spunky and refreshing. Somewhere in the middle of New Jersey, when my daughter let out a little shriek, it became apparent that Henry had also brought his pet rat. Templeton, who normally looked like a beady red-eyed white lab rat, had turned a sickly green color due to the application of several coats of the green hair gel. By Pennsylvania, around the time Henry snipped his initials into the dog’s fur with his Swiss Army knife scissors, it was also apparent that we had eaten all of our precious survival rations. “Where were the Chex?” the kids wanted to know.
And thus began my penance as a chastened daughter-in-law and my conversion from a didactic culinary idealist to a Pringles addict, the gateway drug to all things ersatz. If I’d known about Michael and Jane Stern’s Road Food book, we might have been saved. But I was at the mercy of that powerful cartel of fast food franchises and minimarts that pretty much guaranteed my damnation once I turned on the ignition.
It started slowly. We’d nibble a few Pringles while on the hunt for any place that had piece of fresh fruit. But pretty soon I was jonesing something bad for a little more salt, a little more slick crunch. By the time we reached Colorado, we had all been knocked off of whatever pedestal I had been trying to keep us balanced upon, save Elora who against all odds kept her Vegetarian virginity fully intact. We tasted not only Slurpees and Big Gulps, Big Macs and Chick’n Crisps, but and Frosty’s and Blizards , Cheetos and Cheezits.
Even the rat made his conversion from rat kibble to road food. Somewhere in Kentucky (did I mention that we took the scenic route?) Templeton left his box in the back seat and wandered up front. In the dark when the radio announcer and I were the only people awake, he snuck my half-eaten Snickers bar with him into a hole near the foot pedals. When he emerged three days later, visibly fatter, I swear I could see a furry little smile.
I’m sure we ate some proper meals during this time too. I remember an olde tavern near Monticello with shepherd’s pie that tasted heavenly. And a smokin’ hot BBQ spot in West Virginia we found when Elora let the car run out of gas. But mostly I remember the junk we ate.
We’ve returned to tofu and home baked kale chips and grass fed beef and artisanal cheeses, but a part of me still feels an irresistible fondness for that can of reprocessed, oversalted potato-ish goodness that is the Pringle. And every now and then I eat a Snickers bar, remembering a happy rat and the lessons I learned about the fun that can be had by breaking the rules we set for ourselves.
This is a Kitchen Challenge and you will be looking for a recipe. Here it is:
•Don’t pack anything more than your first meal.
•Remember your map, but not the page for New Jersey that you had to use to clean the window with.
•Forget that you know what fresh vegetables taste like.
•If you see great roadside BBQ, stop the car immediately. It will be your best meal of the trip.
• Laugh when your kids remind you that “try it, you’ll like it” applies to Lunchables.
•Make sure your candy is within reach of your rat.
•Visit a car wash when you return so that one the 5 guys scrubbing your car asks if he can take a picture of your car to show his wife how hard his job is.
•Back home, where your fridge is full of produce from the green market and three kinds of olive oil sit on the pantry shelf, admit to yourself that what you really feel like at that moment is a cute little can of Bacon Ranch Pringles.
•Write your mother in law a thank you note for being sweet enough to remember that kids get hungry on trips.
Here is Twilia Sue’s recipe for Chex n’ Cheerio mix, the snack she made the kids for our flight the next year to Colorado.
3 cups Corn Chex cereal
3 cups Cheerios
1 can mixed nuts
1 cup bite sized pretzels
1 cup raisins
1 cup M&M’s
½ stick butter or margarine
Salt to taste
In a microwaveable bowl, mix cereals, nuts and pretzels.
Melt butter in a smaller bowl by microwaving on High for 40 seconds.
Pour over mixture in bowl and microwave for 4 minutes, stirring every so often.
Spread to cool on paper towels.
Mix in raisins and M&M’s.
Salt if you want to.
Bag up in little snack baggies.