By Kit Kiefer
I don’t even crack the top 5 million of world travelers. While I’ve been off earning a decent (albeit boring) living, everyone else has been tramping around the world, ziplining through Lichtenstein, hitchhiking across the Pacific Ocean, stunt-eating bacon-wrapped avocado pits, and tweeting about it.
However, what I lack in breadth of travel I more than make up for in depth. I’ve been a professional travel writer since I was 20 and a semi-professional rover for years before that, meaning I’ve had more than 30 years of road food literally under my belt.
That’s a lot of travel meals, and a lot of really forgettable travel meals. Let me tell you: Cuisine on the Alaska Highway in the 1960s was nothing to write home about. Ditto for the American West in the ‘70s, the Midwest in the ‘80s, and the Northeast in the ‘90s.
Homogenization was the word of the day. I wrote a piece on small Wisconsin breweries for Wisconsin Trails in 1989. At the time, there were five in the state, Walter’s having just given up the ghost. Now there are five within a 30-mile radius of my house, plus a couple of distilleries.
The concepts of local sourcing and artisanal creation are relatively new to the mainstream, so be thankful you live in a time when chefs, bakers, and brewers don’t just roll out the barrel of white flour, slap a frozen patty on the griddle, or try to make a cheaper Budweiser.
Don’t get me wrong: There was plenty of good among the bad, making it a real challenge to come up with five great meals from a half-life of travel writing. Some of these meals you can’t have anymore, unfortunately. Some are a never-to-be-repeated combination of time, place, and dish. But for the ones that remain what they were, get there while you can. Because you just never know.
So here we go, in reverse order:
5. Smoked goldeye, Gimli’s Fish Market, Winnipeg: Goldeye is a small whitefish native to the lakes around Winnipeg. It can be cooked any way you like to cook fish, but it’s really good lightly smoked, the way Gimli’s does it. The combination of its incredible coldwater freshness, delicate texture, and light smokiness make it a delicacy even smoked-fish non-lovers can appreciate. Gimli’s is still around, thankfully, and so is the goldeye. Get there early; they sell out fast.
4. Chuckwagon Cookout, Custer State Park, South Dakota: South Dakota makes you put up with an awful lot of nothing to get you to the good stuff. There’s a surprising amount of good stuff, though, including the Custer State Park Resort, where you can take a hayride through buffalo country that ends with the perfect chuckwagon cookout. The steaks are great (and fresh; you’d swear the steak you’re staring at today was the white-faced Hereford you stared at yesterday), but this one is as much about the setting as the steak. Eating beef and beans and singing cowboy songs at sunset in the Black Hills, where the buffalo literally roam, makes the interminable drive from Sioux Falls to Wall Drug worthwhile. Almost.
3. Barbequed ribs, Brother Jack’s, Knoxville: I was introduced to the best smoked meats in the Smokies in 1982, when I was otherwise occupied editing travel mags for college students and getting kicked out of apartments by landlords looking to jack up prices for the tourists they mistakenly expected would be besieging Knoxville for the World’s Fair. When I got to his place, in a not-quite-so-nice part of town the world’s-fair crowd never saw, “Tip” Jackson – Brother Jack – was sprawled out on the hood of a Nova in his sauce-stained apron with a shot glass of something tea-colored (but not tea) by his side. The barbeque was wrapped in wax paper and served with half a loaf of white bread to soak up the sauce, which was definitely worth soaking up. In the ensuing 30 years I’ve had barbeque from Austin to Kansas City to the Carolina coast, and nothing touches Brother Jack’s. And since the Brother’s place is no more, it’s probably going to stay that way.
2. Muffuletta, Cochon Butcher, New Orleans. I am a sandwich freak, so the last time I was in New Orleans I was determined to bypass the shrimp-and-spice for one of NO’s signature sandwiches. I found what I was looking for at this back-door deli, the companion to the city’s signature destination for meat-eaters. Cochon is French for “pig,” and there’s plenty of pig in the sandwich’s house-smoked meats (including a mind-blowing salami), piled high on a chewy roll with cheese and a oily, salty olive salad that lingers (in a good way) long after the sandwich is gone. Pair it up with a bag of Zapp’s salt-and-vinegar chips and a cold IPA and finish it off with a walk along the Mississippi, and you’re set for a good long while.
1. Blackened whitefish, Hotel Ojibway, Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. My first piece for The New York Times was on the area where Michigan’s Upper Peninsula meets southwestern Ontario. The Soo gets about eight feet of snow a year, but when I went up there in early December it had just a dusting – no more than a foot of snow, maybe two. My first meal in town was at the elegant (but deserted) dining room of the old lockside hotel, and I ordered the local specialty – whitefish, plucked fresh from the lake that day. The chef blackened it perfectly; as I ate it and sipped a light, fruity white wine, it began to snow. Big flakes blurred the Christmas lights strung on the small pine trees in the park across the street. A huge ore boat crept through the locks behind the park like a silent moving skyscraper. Beyond the locks was the lake; beyond the lake, the shadows of the Canadian hills. I felt completely insignificant, totally satisfied, and utterly alone. I’m sure the whitefish at the Ojibway still tastes as good; I’m not sure it feels as good. I’m not sure it ever will.
Kit Kiefer is the author of 12 books, none about travel. That’s just how it worked out.