BOOK EXCERPT

Two for the Road: Our Love Affair with American Food

We left at dawn in despair and sold all the camping junk at the first pawnshop we saw. Back in our newly roomy car, we drove away from that first unpleasant night on the road with our culinary dreams dashed. We meandered south along back roads, finding nothing notable to eat. At twilight we were so tired that we pulled into the first roadside motel that didn't look as if Norman Bates was the proprietor.

Entering our unit, as the motel-keeper referred to the room, we blinked in awe at the modernity of a television set and a tiled shower stall, feeling a little like Ishi, the Stone Age tribesman wandering out of the woods into civilization for the first time. We slept wonderfully, and when the sun rose in the morning, we were so happy not to be surrounded by huge, hostile motor homes, we even thought our Suburban looked rather sleek and handsome.

We pushed an eight-track Merle Haggard tape into the slot, and as Merle serenaded us with songs of workin' men, we cruised in the direction of the nearest little town on the map, at least ten miles away from the interstate.

It was a pretty south Virginia hamlet of clapboard houses with broad front porches. The rising sun cast the long shadows of ancient oak trees across tidy front lawns. An old man wearing overalls sat on a wooden chair and waved at us as we drove by his porch. We passed children riding their bikes in what we assumed was the direction of the schoolyard. We were traveling at bicycle speed ourselves, just taking in the sights.

"I smell biscuits," Michael said, leaning his head out the open window and driving where his nose led him, toward a storefront café on the main street. Outside, the pickup trucks of customers were lined up on a diagonal, along with two local police cruisers. Pansies spilled forth from the bright blue flowerboxes under the café windows.

There was not a single out-of-state license plate on the vehicles in the street except for ours.

Despite the ache of hunger, we hesitated as we stepped from our car into the street. This was the mid-1970s, and according to Easy Rider and Deliverance, it was them against us, and everyone who wasn't us was a redneck with a shotgun aimed in our direction. At this point, no one would have mistaken Michael for a local farmer. His hair grazed his shoulders and he wore wire-rimmed glasses like John Lennon's. Jane's outfit included an embroidered peasant blouse with jangling earrings. We would have gone unnoticed at any eastern college campus coffeehouse, but suddenly we were nervous about going inside.

Our growling stomachs got the better of us. On the back wall, coffee cups hung on a pegboard, each one marked with the name of the customer to whom it belonged. A dozen men in work clothes sat at a big round table right at the front of the café, drinking from their personalized mugs, looking out the window, commenting on who was driving past, and trading news. Seated at other tables, men and women chatted back and forth to each other as in a home kitchen.

As the door swung closed behind us, all conversation stopped. Every person in the café looked at us. We froze as they looked us up and down. In that long, long moment, we couldn't help but notice the thick oval plates of ham and eggs and hot biscuits in front of nearly everybody in the place. The smell of peppery cream gravy, salt-cured country ham, and fresh- brewed coffee made us dizzy with hunger. Still, we didn't dare make a move.

"There's two seats over there," a waitress called to us from behind the counter. We sat down fast on a pair of chrome-banded upholstered stools at a marble counter so old that it seemed to have an even row of indentations where decades of elbows had rested. Two nonpersonalized coffee cups were placed in front of us, already filled and with a spoon plunked in each, ready to stir. Slowly the hum in the room began to increase as the breakfasters reanimated.

The waitress stood before us, order pad in hand. "We don't get too many strangers passing through here since the interstate was built," she said, apparently aware of our discomfort. "We just ain't never seen y'all before."

Minutes after we ordered, the empty counter space in front of us filled with thick partitioned plates made of unbreakable blue plastic, the big partition holding ham and eggs, the two smaller ones containing grits and stewed apples. Four hot biscuits loosely wrapped in wax paper were nestled in a plastic basket. Little dishes held pats of butter, and glass ramekins were filled with wine-dark cherry preserves. Sold in Mason jars by the cash register, they were made a few miles away. As we ate, we picked up the eight-page local newspaper that a previous counter-sitter had left behind and read all about the potluck dinner that the Baptist church was having and about the damage done to Elroy Schmidt's mailbox when the school bus accidentally backed into it. We read the frantic letter asking anyone who had seen Buck Thompson's bluetick hound to please call the sheriff.

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