When you spend 5 months cycling across the United States, you get to experience a lot of interesting, and sometimes “interesting” food. While we cooked some of the time, we mostly ate in restaurants and at bars (often the only place to eat in small towns) so we had lots of opportunity to experience regional specialities.
When we camped, Joy cooked fabulous one-pot meals – pork chops covered in sautéed apple slices, interesting couscous dishes, and fish when we could get it.
Lunch was often cheese slices wrapped in a tortilla. Or slices of cheese, dry salami and apple. Or peanut butter in a tortilla.
Breakfast was usually oatmeal, and sometimes eggs. For a while we carried a French press and a pound of dark roasted coffee so we could have good, proper coffee. Though coffee was uniformly mediocre on this trip, we ultimately decided the weight and cleanup hassle didn’t warrant continuing to carry the coffee materials past the Rockies. (We decided this after we’d done 80% of the climbing on this trip.)
Note that one pot looks like it’s covered with a duct tape cover? That’s because it is. Joy made a duct tape “tea cozy” for our pots so we could steep and simmer food more efficiently. Butt-ugly but it worked well.
Unfortunately, you sometimes end up in the middle of nowhere and you have to make due the best you can. This pathetic meal was one we ate in Hite, Utah, near Lake Powell. Hite offered one woeful convenience store and nowhere else to buy food for 50 miles in any direction. So, we bought stuff we would never, ever buy under normal circumstances, nuked it right in the store and ate the most wretched dinners we had on the trip. On the other hand, the store was air conditioned which was a nice reprieve from the obliterating heat outside.
The Misery of Western Cuisine and Beyond
The first part of our cross country bicycle trip did not bode well on the cuisine front. For the first several weeks the meals we cooked ourselves were high cuisine compared to restaurant meals.
Once we hit eastern California, restaurant menus were grim and I resorted to ordering hamburgers because they were the best option. At one point I ate three hamburgers in a 36 hour period. I normally eat 4-5 hamburgers/year. It’s easy to see how it is that Americans eat an average of 3 hamburgers/week.
Most menu items was fried or heavy on meat and potatoes or sauces. We rarely saw vegetables (other than potato variations: fried, mashed or baked). When we did see vegetables, they usually came out of a can and were “cooked” again. Sometimes vegetables drooped over my fork and reminded me of a Dali painting. I’m sure we ate in places where folks think “al dente” means the can is crunched on one side.
Restaurants made up for the lack of interesting food preparation by giving us huge portions. Breakfasts were enormous: omelettes with generous servings of hash browns, sausage or bacon, and toast. Hamburgers were 1/3 or 1/2 pound beasts. Even though we were burning a ton of calories we didn’t want to eat that much at one meal. Is it any wonder Americans are huge?
Colorado was an oasis of fruits and vegetables and interesting menus. We greatly enjoyed the food in Colorado, but, sadly, we had Wyoming and South Dakota to get through. Once we hit Wisconsin things picked up again and steadily improved as we moved East. I happily abandoned burgers once we crossed the Mississippi.
Once we left California Starbucks disappeared until we reached the very largest of cities. This made us happy. Even if it meant that the consistently wretched coffee in hotels and greasy spoons caused us both to start adding milk to our coffee. We very occasionally saw McDonalds, and the only in larger towns. We consistently saw Dairy Queens and sometimes A&W restaurants. We saw a LOT of Subways. If a town only has one fast food joint it was always a Subway. The further east we went the more Dunkin’ Donuts became ubiquitous. The East Coast is frothing with Dunkin’ Donut stores.
Before we started this trip I decided that I would “collect” Apple pie experiences. After all, if cycling across America, shouldn’t I be tasting apple pie every chance I get? Seemed like a great idea at the time. Just bad timing. I only got Apple pie about 8 times. I should have collected hamburgers!
Even though apple pie was rare we did have wonderful apple-based experiences. Our friends, Tom and and Karen Grimmett, took us apple-picking at their favorite New Hampshire orchard. I had never fully appreciated the phrase “crisp and juicy” until I experienced biting into an apple I’d just plucked from a tree. Just to be sure, it wasn’t a fluke, I ate three apples while we picked. And then two more apples later that day. We also fell in love with local hard ciders and would order cider as a beer alternative.
Although apple pies were a bust, there was always the chance to taste local cuisine options. Here are some of the things we ate, vaguely in geographic order.
Fry Sauce. Folks in Utah apparently find ketchup just doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to fries. So they combine ketchup and mayonnaise (sometimes 1:1, sometimes 2 parts mayonnaise to 1 part ketchup). Kinda of like Thousand Island, I guess? Worth trying if you find ketchup too salty. But if so, then why are you eating fries?
Trout. Colorado trout was fresh and wonderful. And so, so welcome after Utah food.
Rocky Mountain Oysters. Apparently, it takes balls to make and eat this dish. My opinion is that I would just as soon have left the bull happy. Not very interesting eating. They weren’t bad, just not something I’d order again.
Indian Tacos/Bison. A Native American twist on Mexican food. Instead of tortillas, they’re served on fry bread and made with bison rather than ground beef. Purely by chance we ate these in South Dakota’s Badlands National Park restaurant, which turns out to be well-known for their Indian Tacos.
Chislic. This was just chunks of red meat you ate with a toothpick. It’s a South Dakota specialty. Sounds uninteresting, but was one of my favorite local specialities.
Walleye. A fresh-water white fish we saw all around the Great Lakes. It was sweet, mild and flaky. We ordered it on several occasions in South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Cheese Curds. We tried Wisconsin’s famous curds twice: fried and fresh. The weird thing is that the fresher they are, the more they squeak when you bite into them. Somewhat unsettling. Kind of made we feel like I was eating rubber. And a classic example of how much Americans love to fry everything, including pickles and artichokes.
Wisconsin Cheese. We ate a lot of sharp Wisconsin cheese on the trip.
New York Wines. We know that there are good ones out there. We didn’t find any.
Whoopie Pie. I’d never had one because they seem like gross sugar bombs. This one was really awesome, freshly made at the Apple Orchard where we picked apples. I expect it will take a few more months before I come off the sugar high from this thing.
Lobster Rolls.Okay, these can be awesome. I wouldn’t bicycle all the way across the United States for one, but they are freakin’ good. I had my very first one in California just before we left to start this grand adventure. It was good but I didn’t really think it was special. Now that I’ve had several, including some really great ones, I get why folks are so excited about them.
A Few Things We Missed
- Grape Pie. A New York specialty. Apparently, it’s good (and super sweet). We were about two weeks too early.
- Utica Greens. Italian American dish. Kind of like collard greens except they put hot peppers, breadcrumbs, prosciutto, etc, in it. We forgot to order it when we were in Utica.