Last Friday I described five memorable meals from the road. Now it’s time for the inevitable sequel.
I’ve been fortunate in my travels to have encountered few rude waiters, drunken chefs, incompetent busboys, questionable hygiene practices, moldy baguettes, gamy game, or cockroaches in my salads. Whenever possible, I avoid most of these misadventures by subsisting on a loaf of local bread and a chunk of local cheese, with a local sterilizing agent to wash it down. But even with such precautions, not every meal has been one to write home about.
So, hot on the heels of the anonymous travel writer who breathlessly (and oh-so-timidly) described her five most overrated destinations for the readers of Yahoo Travel, here are five unmemorable meals from 30-plus years of travel writing.
(Incidentally, this list was far harder to compile than the most-memorable-meal list. You ever try to remember an unmemorable meal?)
This list runs in no particular order, starting with:
1) Steak dinner at Wall Drug, Wall, S.D. On the same press junket where I had the incredible chuckwagon steak dinner at Custer State Park, I dined with Wall Drug’s founder, Ted Hustead, in his special executive dining room. The old man’s stories were priceless, and his genius was undeniable. Anyone who can turn a corner drugstore in a flyspeck tumbleweed town into a world-famous destination is Einsteinian in his marketing brilliance. However, that brilliance did not extend to the food. His steak was everything a steak should not be: thin, dry, overcooked, tasteless, and tougher than South Dakota sod. If you consider Wall Drug as I do to be 95 percent bumpersticker and 5 percent genuine destination, this was totally fitting. But as a meal it was literally tough to swallow.
2) Beans, somewhere on the road to Blackpool, England. I’ve had a few strange side jobs, but none stranger than assistant general manager of the U.S. National Semipro Football Team. Here’s what you need to know about the U.S. National Semipro Football Team: We were missing our best linebacker on our British tour because he thought you could take your passport picture in your backyard. In front of a tree. With your dog. Anyway, after discovering the wonders of right-hand drive and terrorizing London pedestrians for an afternoon, we lit out to our training facility in Blackpool, a famous English resort and a glorious place to be if you’re a herring gull. Halfway there, and in the middle of the night, we stopped at some motorway dive for dinner: beans served the English way, meaning they opened the can before serving and heated them just enough to make you think they had spent the last half-hour trying to hatch them. Yum.
3) Pancakes, outside of Soldiers Grove, Wis. My first story for The New York Times was about the Bathtub Nash, the SUV of the ‘50s. The car’s seats folded into beds and even came with their own fitted sheets and blankets. The story’s conceit was that my son and I would take the Nash fly-fishing, then spend the night in the Nash. The Kickapoo River was swollen by heavy rains so the fishing was miserable, but the car-seat beds were surprisingly comfortable, and nothing keeps out mosquitoes like rollup windows. For the next day’s breakfast, it was impossible to get the wet firewood hot enough to make an adequate cooking fire, so we had pancake-batter-in-a-bottle tartare. On the whole, we’d have been better off uprooting local plants and eating the ones that smell like onion. Understandably, I’ve sworn off Fast Shake for life.
4) Any meal consumed in Grove, Okla. My last travel story for the Times was about Grove, the jumping-off point for the Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees, a huge man-made lake that in theory served as the state’s watery playground but in reality was the Dubai of docks. The challenge in Grove was to build a dock longer and wider than your neighbor’s, and most of the residents did not shrink from the challenge. However, in their race to build a dock that could double as a pontoon bridge, they forgot to build infrastructure. The tourism bureau put us up in a resort with holes in the linoleum, ‘70s-vintage plywood paneling on the walls, and a “clean your fish outside” sign over the sink. Most people in Grove cook what they catch, so our meal options were limited to McDonald’s, several closed cafes, and a chain BBQ place. We wound up subsisting on cereal bars. In my story I quoted a local real-estate agent who said, “Hope you aren’t looking for fine dining. You won’t find it here.” He was sugarcoating it.
5) Deep-dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s, Chicago. Lou Malnati’s is absolutely the best at the world at doing what they do, Chicago deep-dish pizza, but still. It’s like this: When I was a kid teaching myself to play guitar, I was always checking out a book called Great Songs of the Sixties. One of the songs in the book was Peggy Lee’s bitter “Is That All There Is?”, which goes, “Is that all there is?/Is that all there is, my friends?/If that’s all there is then let’s keep dancing/Let’s break out the booze and have a ball.” That’s how I feel about Lou Malnati’s, and Chicago deep-dish pizza in general. And I don’t even like booze and dancing all that much.
As a special bonus for our faithful readers, here’s a sixth that I love but can’t claim credit for.
6) Olive Garden, Pittsburgh: When I doubled as a marketing consultant, I had a client in Dallas with direct connections to the fabulously rich Bass Brothers. He was a wonderful guy, but had gourmet tastes and enjoyed indulging them. When he and his top VP went to Pittsburgh for baseball’s All-Star Game, they hailed a cab at the airport and started chatting with the driver. The cabbie was obviously a local type with a lot of miles on his odometer, so they asked him, “You know your way around this town. Where can you go to get some real good Italian food?”
The driver considered the question for a time and then answered, “Well, some people say this place or that place, but for my money, you can’t beat the Olive Garden.” The rest of the cab ride passed in silence, except for the occasional stifled chuckle.
Have any bad meals from the road you’d like to share? Post a comment, or email email@example.com. If it’s a good enough bad meal we’ll print your story and pay you besides. It’s the least we can do.