Let’s talk about food. We’ve talked about grub from around the world — the flat bread of Georgia (the republic, not the state; the state’s flat bread is cornbread), smoked sturgeon in Russia, Mexican food, stuff like that. But what about the good ol’ US of A? Having driven most of America’s Interstate Highway system, it’s time to get out the highlight pen and make note of a few things.
The quality varies widely, unlike uniformly dull places like eastern Russia. Take, for example, the hot roast beef sandwich at a rest-stop cafe on I-80 in western Ohio. Take it as far away from me as you can. A poor ol’ waitress brought it unsmilingly (neither she nor the beef was happy) and set it before me. I felt like she was a gulag prisoner and I was a guard. Maybe she was dying. The roast beef had certainly died, and a long, long time ago at that. I raked some of the gravy off the top of the meat and checked it for parasites.
The color was . . . strange, for an animal product. It was somewhat gray, as I recall. Maybe sand-colored? The color of dust? Looking back, it resembled dog meat that I found in my soup in northwest China. We were there with some crass Santa Barbara City College students and the fellas had confused the waitress, I think with all the barking and howling noise they were making.
Back in Ohio, I cut off a small piece of “beef” and chewed thoughtfully. What I was thinking about was cardboard. I wondered if you soaked cardboard in hot water and salted it, would it taste like Ohio beef?
I filled up on mashed potatoes and “gravy,” and rushed back to the car before something bad happened. I don’t remember what Sharon had for lunch; it wasn’t memorable. Mine was.

In all fairness, I should point out that the Ohio beef debacle wasn’t as horrific as the (I just shuddered) “pot roast” I was served in the Denny’s outlet in Tucumcari, New Mexico one weary evening. Gawd. I think it was Denny’s. Chain joints are all you can find in towns like Tucumcari. They should have had a big sign on it out front: WARNING! CHAIN CAFE FOOD. it might have been safer to go hungry. Or find something salty that was sealed in plastic. And a Coke.
What got me about this piece of (expletive deleted) one warm June night was the worst pot roast of all time. A piece of animal parts floating in a slimy mass of brown, brackish liquid. It looked like the aftermath of a horrible war, with strips of quivery flubber surrounding the few small strips of actual beef. (I guess it was beef. Who knows.) I picked at it for a while and gave up. The steamed veggies with it were harmless, except that they might have been left over from the Korean War years. I always figure it’s hard to get sick on boiled stuff, especially inert vegetable matter. And as my oldest daughter used to say about MY cooking, “It will sustain human life.”
I found myself longing for a good old-fashioned diner, like one which offered a passable cheeseburger, out yonder somewhere in the cornfields of Illinois. You know the type; they’re all over the place. What you first notice when you enter is a row of fat ol’ boys in overalls and John Deere hats. These guys don’t work, evidently. They’re gentleman farmers and hire peasants to drive their tractors while they drink cup after cup of coffee and leave miserly tips. I know those guys. My daughter was a waitress.
But the food is OK. There are the other kinds, the emergency stops that Ohio seems to have a corner on.

(To be continued. It gets more palatable.)