This week’s question comes from A.V. Club alum Becca James:
What foods do you only eat while traveling? These would be the snacks you only buy on road trips, the meals you only get in airports, trail mix you only eat when camping, and so on…
For me, traveling means taking an Amtrak train from Chicago to Indiana to visit relatives on major holidays. The trip is only supposed to take two hours and change, but with the delays, it’s always closer to four. It’s excruciatingly boring, and the atmosphere in the train car is not conducive to sleeping, reading, or even trying to watch a movie. So going to the cafe car is a big treat for me, even if the prepackaged snacks are overpriced. I like that you order from a bartender. It’s like being on The Love Boat. My order is always the same: Sierra Mist and Skittles, two things I never buy under any other circumstances. How that got to be the combination, I don’t know. But no holiday is complete unless I wash down a bag of those chewy, aggressively sweet Skittles with some room-temperature Sierra Mist while gazing at the factories and strip malls that compose the view along the Capitol Limited line.
I like Ruffles’ Cheddar & Sour Cream potato chips so much that if I buy a bag I’ll eat it all in one shame-filled sitting. The only time I’m totally okay with that is when I’m traveling long distances in a car and the usual rules about heath and general self-worth don’t apply. This is the only potato chip I really get excited about; every other kind I can pass up with zero regrets. Despite the name, the Cheddar & Sour Cream doesn’t taste much like cheddar or sour cream, and it smells really strongly and somewhat of feet. But it tastes delicious, and makes a multi-hour car trip a time of special indulgence.
McDonald’s offers a steak-egg-cheese bagel that’s not very good—the bagels are gummy and dense, the tangle of onions are mushy, the steak has this bizarre honeycombed texture and doesn’t taste as beefy as it should be. Consuming one leaves you feeling like you swallowed an immovable mass that doesn’t so much digest but erodes in your stomach. And yet! I order it every time I’m at the airport, without fail. I have no idea why. I also know picking scabs or staying in that emotionally abusive relationship isn’t a good idea, and yet forces greater than my conscious self reels me in, time and time again. Maybe it’s the alluring sell of convenient steak and eggs that plays me for a sucker. I’ll always give it another chance, thinking this time it’ll be fine, and then minutes later I walk away filled with regret.
I enjoy eating terrible food, but there are some treats I limit to special occasions and/or traveling. Beef jerky is one such quasi-delicacy. I no longer eat beef jerky in my day-to-day life as a disgusting garbage compactor of a human being, but whenever I go to the Gathering Of The Juggalos, Insane Clown Posse’s yearly festival of art and culture, I make a point of eating beef jerky on the ride there, and on the ride back. Code Red Mountain Dew and beef jerky: that’s my jam en route to the festival, but when I get to the fest itself, I switch to Faygo Red Pop, which I suppose also qualifies as something I only drink while traveling. I am nothing if not a slave to tradition.
A road trip staple for me is the “gas station egg roll.” (Also available at convenience stores sans gas.) You can find them on the rolling grill near the hot dogs, and I believe they are also for meat eaters, as the inside seems to be filled with what passes as pork, cabbage, carrots, and celery. But what you really need to know is to grab two and don’t forget the accompanying sweet and sour sauce. The egg roll is surprisingly good—tightly wrapped, medium crispy, and well-seasoned—given the circumstances of its creation. And the sauce, though a bit thicker than usual, is perfect for neatly dipping into while in the confines of a car.
My in-laws are elderly and live in southern Missouri. It’s a long drive that we’ve made every few months for years, and my wife and I have fallen into the habit of stopping to eat at a Steak ’N Shake outside St. Louis, which is around the halfway point. Though it’s a largely Midwestern chain, there are no Steak ’N Shakes in Chicago, so I only associate them with road trips, regardless of length. And weirdly, they seem to follow me regardless of where I travel: there’s a Steak ’N Shake in Cannes (in Europe, it runs itself as a boutique brand, sort of like PBR in China) that’s located directly across from the central complex called the Palais; it’s open late and is cheap and speedy by Cannes standards, and thus became my default option for quick dinner while covering the festival. As a side note: I actually got to talk a bit about this subject with Joel Potrykus—a director with many thoughts on this very subject— in a fun interview that we did in October.
I’m not sure what makes Combos the perfect snack companion for going abroad. Maybe it’s the efficiency implied in their name? You get the faux-cheesiness of something like a Dorito or Cheeto, all rolled up into a not-quite Rold Gold. Or maybe I just really like the landscape-oriented packaging? A simple flick of the wrist releases as many of the pretzeled tubes from the bag as you’re willing to consume or share. Whatever the case, I buy Combos for road trips and flights—provided that the closest gas station or airport vendor is selling them.
I go to Milwaukee fairly frequently, since my son’s grandmother (a.k.a. Tutu) lives there. So I’m not sure if this counts as something I only eat when I’m traveling (and I definitely don’t eat it every time), but I do enjoy a Culver’s Turtle Concrete, which is basically a shake that’s so thick you eat it with a spoon. Or maybe it’s more like a Dairy Queen Blizzard, only made with thick, super fatty frozen custard instead of ice milk or whatever it is that Dairy Queen uses. Add caramel, pecans, and hot fudge, and you’ve got a decadent treat that is surely over a thousand calories, but I’m afraid to look.
I typically buy a pack of peanut butter M&Ms while traveling, but I don’t think that counts since I buy peanut butter M&Ms all the time. I do however typically only indulge in McDonald’s when I’m on the road in some form or another. And when I do I get the golden arches I will always go for McNuggets. I’m not sure why, considering they always start to taste sour after a certain point, but those first couple are just so delicious.
Thanks to a lifelong oral fixation, I desperately need something to chew on when I’m on the road. (Alas, for another life in which the surgeon general hadn’t warned me off the vileness of chewing tobacco at a young and impressionable age.) Sometimes that’s gum, and sometimes it’s whole cartons of mints, but when I’ve got a lot of miles to kill, I need to call in the big guns: Twizzlers. Yes, my car confection of choice is everybody’s favorite candy that’s more wax than flavor, more texture than taste. Not only does every licorice whip take at least a minute to gnaw through—burning tedious travel time—but they’re also endlessly versatile: fashion one into a straw to suck up your soda! Make knots with it to keep your hands busy while cruise control takes the wheel! Self-flagellate to keep yourself awake at 3 a.m.! Twizzlers might not be able to beat good old black licorice for taste—that’s right, I said it—but as a combination snack, accessory, and travel companion, they’re hard to beat.
Like Kevin, I don’t allow myself McDonald’s anywhere but in the airport. And like Nathan, I only partake in beef jerky on the open road. But I have lots of dumb and arbitrary food-based allowances, so here’s a third choice: Taco Bell breakfast at the start of a road trip. This is obviously a pretty new tradition, as the Bell didn’t start serving wildly unhealthy morning meals until quite recently. I mainly use their breakfast menu as incentive to get on the road quicker. Since they stop serving at, like, 10:30 a.m., I have to be ready to leave pretty early if I want to indulge in one (or several) of their pockets of meat, cheese, and regret. It’s a shameful arrangement I’ve made with myself, but hey, at least I’m getting an early start, right?
Airport restaurants generally depress the hell out of me; it’s like trying to find something to eat and/or ways to kill time inside a small, overpriced mall (and at least malls often have movie theaters and maybe a place to get soft-serve ice cream). So if I need to eat before a flight, I usually head straight for the newsstands, which are also overpriced, but at least usually sell big bags of Chex Mix, which feels more worthwhile than some $14 burger. Sometimes I bring Chex Mix on car trips, too, but I really make a meal of it when I’m at an airport, planning the rest of my purchases around that one constant (hmm, what pairs well with Chex Mix? Ah yes, water, because it’s mostly flavored salt) and always thinking, “I’ll eat half the bag now and save the rest for the plane,” shortly before devouring the entire thing.
Like Jesse, I am all about eating Chex Mix only when I travel. It’s based on cereal, so it must be somewhat healthy, right? But because I can so rarely justify overpaying for those bagged snacks, I tend to always be frugal and stick to energy and/or granola bars when I’m looking for airport and car road trip snacks. Nature Valley Granola Bars are my standby, but, let’s be real, I also love picking up those weird meal-replacement bars that are covered in chocolate and have cookie dough in the middle, or chocolate chip Clif Bars that are basically dessert. In fact, I can’t resist any of those so-called “healthy” brands that are slathered in fudge and packed full of sugar. Since I only eat these bars every so often, I can justify snacking on them. And because the packaging touts the amount of fiber or protein contained within, I can suspend disbelief long enough to chow down without guilt.
Though not technically a food, the reason I always order V8 tomato juice on a plane is because I have convinced myself that it is a snack disguised as a drink. And with most airlines doing away with free pretzels and nuts, I’m still looking to score that free treat up in the air. Tomato juice does the trick. For the record, I also usually convince the flight attendant to let me have a Coke and a club soda as well, but those are things I also enjoy on the ground. For the most part, I only consume straight tomato juice above the clouds (unless it’s in a bloody mary). It’s basically no-frills gazpacho, and it also happens to be a perfect hangover cure.
I like car trips for the feeling of being between places. Like traveling international waters, you are no longer bound by the conventional rules. Every depravity you abstain from in your daily life becomes not just sanctified, but encouraged: weird sex, gambling, cult rituals, Old Dutch dill pickle potato chips, and Vanilla Zingers. They’re both so good, but too gross to be eaten with any regularity. Dill pickle potato chips capture pickle essence so perfectly, like regular chips have been left to soak in a jar of brine until the vinegar essence is completely absorbed and only a tart herbal crunch remains. Vanilla Zingers are a vestigial dinosaur from the golden age of processed food science. They’re like Twinkies, but denser; made with beef tallow, of all things, to achieve an uncharacteristic heft. And they’re finished off with a strip of waxy frosting that could be easily be repurposed as a child’s bracelet, it’s so firm. And delicious.
You and Chewie can keep your Twizzlers, William: I accept Red Vines and no other licorice substitute. Far waxier than their Hershey’s-made counterpart, Red Vines also have a bright pop of flavor that I’ve always felt was missing from Twizzlers. I’ll get a pack of Red Vines during a pit stop, stick the package somewhere in the center console, and try my best not to eat the whole thing over the course of the trip. I usually fail this mission, but those resilient little tubes of twisted corn syrup and red dye sure put up a good fight.
Some food products exist merely to taunt you, knowing full well that if you allowed yourself no restrictions, you would soon die from relinquishing all other forms of nutrition in favor of your true passion. For me, those demonic items include a Skor bar. (And—to a lesser degree—the Heath bar, even though it’s slightly less thick.) Sure, quality chocolate-toffee confections may be superior, but do they possess the weird chemical alchemy that triggers an almost instant desire for more, as this mass-produced slice of magic does? They do not. And even though it makes your teeth hurt almost instantly, and it’s easy to cut your gums while chewing, I will purchase one or more every time I’m on the road, because it’s the only compromise I’ve managed to work out with my animal brain’s unceasing desire for more buttery toffee deliciousness. It’s my main incentive for going on business trips.
I was practically weaned on Coca-Cola, since I was born in Atlanta and my Mom worked for the company when I was a kid. But I stopped drinking the stuff regularly over a decade ago, during one of the many diets I’ve been on in my life, and I’ve never really picked the habit back up. Whenever I’m staying in a hotel though, inevitably I get back to my room late at night, feeling super thirsty, and the only thing in the vending machine that sounds good to me is a Coke. As it happens, I’m writing this in a hotel room, where I just pounded down a 20 oz. bottle as though it were a canteen full of water and I’d just walked out of a desert. I prefer not to think about what it’s doing to my stomach lining (or my weight). I just know that it was about the most refreshing thing I’ve had to drink in months… since the last time I was on the road and had a Coke.