There is one almost infallible way to find honest food at just prices in blue-highway America: count the wall calendars in a cafe.
No calendar: Same as an interstate pit stop.
One calendar: Preprocessed food assembled in New Jersey.
Two calendars: Only if fish trophies present.
Three calendars: Can't miss on the farm-boy breakfasts.
Four calendars: Try the ho-made pie too.
Five calendars: Keep it under your hat, or they'll franchise.
The thing is, these places don't exist any more, at least not in sufficient quantities that one can count on them for breakfast. Mr. Heat-Moon originally published his book in 1983, and even then was complaining about the grinding and unstoppable erasure of all that is quaint and good. I have spent the past two and a half months driving back roads of America, and though I've encountered the occasional little diner, they've been two calendars max (minus fish trophies), and are almost inevitably a disappointment. More often than not, a small town will have no restaurant at all (or the one restaurant will have a "for lease" sign in the window), and my choice is a McDonald's at a highway intersection, or those M&Ms that I forgot were on the floor in the back seat. In fact, and I realize this is grumpy-old-man talk, and I further concede that my observations are purely anecdotal, it seems to me that there are fewer simple, independent restaurants in small town America today than there were even six years ago, the last time I was driving around the country.
When I was in LA I had dinner with John Schulian, creator of Xena Warrior Princess. No, seriously. That's how I roll. He recommended a book called Roadfood, best described by its subtitle, "The Coast-to-Coast Guide to 700 of the Best Barbecue Joints, Lobster Shacks, Ice Cream Parlors, Highway Diners, and Much, Much More." I'd looked in half a dozen independent bookstores between Los Angeles and Louisville, but no luck. I was starting to think maybe I should order it from Amazon (linked at right) and have it shipped to me somewhere along the road.
This morning I was driving along, mentally composing this blog post, and eating M&M's, when I came upon Grandad's Family Diner in Inez, Kentucky.
I sat down at the counter, and Debbie took my order. Here's how our conversation went:
"Hi hon, what would ya like?"
Keep in mind, no one had offered me a menu. I was wondering if I should try saying, "Eggs Florentine, with a side of applewood smoked bacon, and a cup of organic Guatamala Antigua," when she interrupted my train of thought and said, "Special's turkey." I said, "I'll have the turkey."
There was only one calendar behind the counter (with the waitress's weekly schedule written on it - Debbie will be there tomorrow too, if you want to drop by) and to be honest, I don't think I'd have gone out of my way for the meal. I doubt it's in Roadfood. But it did save me from my grumbling, and I was glad that I hadn't stopped at the McDonald's, KFC, or Taco Bell back at the intersection of 40 and 645.
Incidentally, after weeks of almost coast-to-coast failure, I found a copy of Roadfood later this very day, in Charleston, West Virginia. I saw the bookstore from the road and pulled over. I was skeptical about my chances when I saw the four foot high stack of Twilight books by the front door, but a tiny and beautiful bookseller named Kate helped me locate their last copy of Roadfood. Now I have a new tool to use when plotting my route.