I think one of the most difficult decisions that you have to make when you’re travelling is where are you going to eat; especially when you’re driving somewhere. A Sunday drive or a day trip doesn’t usually bring about this mind boggling challenge because most times before starting out you’ve made a quick stop at your favourite breakfast place for poached eggs on toast, baked egg strata, or chicken fried steak with eggs and an English muffin; and then lunch is usually a sandwich at Subway or Maccas. And more often than not your back home in time for the evening meal.
It’s a given that a summer road trip of a few days, or a weekend away, is going to cause daily episodes of acute mental trauma because of the where to eat question. Now I’m the first to give credit where credits due. The highway architects who designed the interstates and freeways that dissect the U.S. and connect it’s major cities, whilst bypassing mid size and smaller cities, had a tremendous amount of foresight; they creatively designed the routes of the roads to connect the clusters of restaurants that were dotted throughout the country. They put the whole question of where to eat on cruise control. As you drive the interstates and freeways the answer to the where am I going to eat question is so obvious there’s no thought involved.
On the last few road trips, even though it causes longer travelling time, we’ve avoided the interstate restaurant clusters by cruising the secondary highways and travelling through small towns; or if we’re travelling on the interstate we choose an exit, before the FOOD EXIT sign, leading to a nearby town. Most small American towns have a quaint city square anchored by a court house, and shops framing the four streets defining the square; or they have a single main street with the history of yesteryear still displayed by the facades of the shops. The answer to the where to eat question is decided by the size of the town. Most times the choice is the one and only café in the town square or in the main street.
Sabetha is a small town in Kansas off of highway 75. The freeway exit meanders into Main Street. In the 2010 census the city population was 2,571; the city has more jobs than residents. City managers estimate that Sabetha has nearly 5000 jobs, while only having 2500 residents. The Downtown Coffee Co LLC sits on the corner of 9th and Main Streets; an unassuming building with two windows, wider than they are high, resting on either side of the entrance.
Amanda who took my order recommended Hacksaw’s Pulled Pork Sandwich; Hack’s very own seasoned pork on a sweet jalapeño bun, topped with your choice of Swiss, American or Pepperjack cheese, and a side of BBQ sauce. Amanda confessed that the Downtown Coffee Co LLC didn’t make the pulled pork in house, the butcher down Main Street did; and so I promptly asked “who made the pies.” I resisted the Coffee Co home-made pie.
I looked around the Downtown Coffee Co LLC waiting for my Heck’s; close by was a display of bath and body works products and hemp lotions. On my way to the toilet I passed several small rooms with tanning beds. Now you don’t have many restaurants that offer speciality coffee drinks, soft serve ice cream, pastries, pizza, sandwiches, and that also have a full service tanning salon. If I was asked, I would recommend without hesitation the Downtown Coffee Co LLC for a gourmet grilled cheese panani, and a quick ten minute lay down, or stand up, on one of the tanning beds; and they have free Wi-Fi.
A naive traveller wouldn’t recognise the Manchester exit off of Tennessee Interstate 24 as the yellow brick road to quintessential home cooked interstate food. A left turn at the exit and then left at the Paradise Street intersection leads to a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store; opposite the Store is Emma’s Family Restaurant. Emma’s front sign promises HOME COOKIN AT A GREAT PRICE. Now I know home cooking. Mum was acknowledged by everyone in the family as a breathtaking all round cake maker but not as an outstanding cook; she was a basic home style cook. Mum boiled her vegetables, sometimes all together in the same saucepan, and she cooked lamb chops or sausages under the stove griller. I think she cooked her crumbed lamb cutlets in a frying pan on top of the stove; Sunday’s roast leg of lamb dinner and roast potatoes was roasted to perfection in the oven.
I didn’t recognise any of mum’s home cooking in the warming trays soaking in the self service buffet food table. There was just an endless collection of trays of fried chicken, chicken fried steak, fried catfish, meat loaf, greens, green beans, black eyed peas, mac & cheese, fried okra, potato salad, salad fixins, and dessert pies and cobblers. After the third trip to the southern comfort food buffet I had to distract myself from the remaining fried catfish and hamburger steak on the plate, so I looked around Emma’s. I saw what a slow camera pan would reveal in a luncheon diner scene in a romantic comedy. Emma’s had a sit down table section. The table and chairs were black, and the chair legs had fluorescent green tennis balls, similar to the precut tennis glide balls you see on orthopaedic walkers, on their legs; which caused me to ponder do tennis balls really belong on walkers. Tennis has to be a dark, distant memory for people who use walkers.
Tennis glide balls on chairs make sense if you’re pushing the chair back from the table to start on your fourth trip to the buffet or if you’re trying to push the chair sideways with your hip when you’re balancing a plate stacked with home cooked southern comfort food. But gliders do come with some drawbacks; what if you push the chair back from the table and the balls came to rest in partially dried mac and cheese or peach cobbler. With the fuzzy balls scraping across a floor covered with dried southern comfort buffet food I wouldn’t think their soft fuzzy bottoms wouldn’t stay soft and fuzzy for long; and they would be somewhat unsanitary. You would need to change the balls at least once a week. But I think the biggest shortcoming of putting tennis glide balls on chairs is that dogs would want to chase the chairs. I would dare anybody to leave Emma’s without a plate of home made peach cobbler and fried chicken.
I always thought the Florida Keys would be like the Gold Coast and Surfers Paradise I remembered from the late sixties; that the Overseas Highway would be similar to the Princess Highway, a thin strip of road meandering through small sleepy beach side towns. In my mind I saw a gaggle of motels and hotels, towering five stories or more into the blue sky, transforming the flatness of a modest retirement communities into a natural urbanscape. A five hour drive over water is the best way to describe The Overseas Highway. The highway connects the islands that are the Florida Keys and then it becomes a thin strip of road surrounded by souvenir shops, restaurants, marine rental and charter boat shops, and entrances to hotels, motels, and resorts. It was just after lunch time, and for some inexplicable reason the Overseas Highway was grid locked at Islamorada. Nestled in a small strip mall across the road was the City Hall Café. And a road sign announcing AWARD WINNING KEY LIME PIE. Time to hang a uey.
I can vouch to the fact that some of the best meat pies in Australia can be had at any shop announcing on their front window, overhead veranda shop sign, or on a wall inside the shop that they have award winning meat pies; and I’ve had some beauties. So I had no doubt that the Key Lime pie from the City Hall Café would be a taste sensation. The lady behind the counter proudly stated “the recipe we use at City Hall is from the library archives. It’s the original key lime pie.”
State Library and Archives of Florida: 1964 Postcard Collection
The Key Lime Pie became Florida’s Official State Pie in 2006. I find if somewhat difficult to imagine a state without an official pie. How did Florida manage without a State Pie for so many years; I suppose that’s what makes Florida great. The special of the day was Snapper Taco’s; I confessed I had never had a Snapper Taco, and in fact I had never heard of them before. And the lady behind the counter once again proudly stated “that’s what the owner caught out fishing this morning.”
On a full stomach of Snapper Taco’s and Key Lime Pie we headed to Shell World in Key Largo; the beyond compare tourist souvenir shop, stranded in a time warp; where shelves are laden with marine themed snow globes, hats, resort wear, lamps, knick-knacks, and more. After leaving Shell World I started to ponder; would the locals ever get tired of Snapper Taco’s and long for Snapper Flautas or Snook Enchiladas.
Sometimes on a short summer road trip or a weekend away it’s impossible to avoid deep-fried foods, drive through production line hamburgers, and bright orange fizzy drinks. I think for the next getaway I will throw some fresh fruit, muesli bars, nuts, veggie sticks, hummus, popcorn, roasted chickpeas, and fava beans in the Esky and eat in the car.