After this last election, we already know the way America votes. Now, after spending the last three weeks on the road, I know the way America eats. I'm convinced these two things are connected.
It’s hard to eat well -- or even marginally correctly -- when you’re on the road. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of driving: three weeks ago, from Long Island to Nashville, Tennessee; a few days later from Nashville to Charlottesville, Virginia; a week ago from Charlottesville to Birmingham, Alabama, and back over the weekend. Sunday, I’ll pack my son in the car and take him back to Nashville; then I’ll turn around and drive to Washington, D.C., and from there, back home to Long Island. That’s about 4,500 miles altogether, almost every mile of which I spent out on the interstates doing 70 mph.
The big signs stuck up on poles above the trees for the restaurant chains flash by. The fast-food joints of course: McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, Taco Bell, Arby’s, Hardee's, Popeyes, Subway. Then there are the so-called “family” chains: Outback, Applebee's, Ruby Tuesday, Red Robin, Red Lobster, O'Charley's, Texas Roadhouse. I’ve probably missed a few, but you get the picture. This country has become one gigantic chain store.
We clothe ourselves and buy paper towels and toiletries and coffee makers and now even groceries at Target and Walmart and Kmart. Some of us feed ourselves at the big chain restaurants found at freeway interchanges and plonked down on the edges of mall parking lots and strips of businesses on the outskirts of cities and towns from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Gulf to Canada.
You can hardly escape the big-box stores if you’re watching the bottom line on staples. Who wants to spend $2.59 for a roll of no-name paper towels when you can get six rolls of Bounty for $7.00 at Target on sale? You can do just as well shopping for groceries at Kroger or Publix or Harris Teeter or King Kullen as you can do at any big-box store.
But you’re not buying chicken breasts and broccoli out on the interstate. Nope, out there you’re stuck with the offerings at the exits unless you want to get off and drive into a small town and nose around for a diner. Good luck with that. I’ve tried it a few times over the last three weeks. There ain’t much left out there in America when it comes to local eats. If the big boxes have run the local haberdasheries out of business, the fast-food joints and “family” chains have helped to disappear the local restaurants that used to be right next to the Rexall Drug Store on Main Streets across the country.
Oh, I know what you’re going to say -- there’s a vegan place in your home town, and a Vietnamese joint took over what used to be a nearby Shell station and they serve some excellent Pho out there in Iowa or North Carolina or Arizona. Sure. I’ve even eaten in a few. (Well, not the vegan place.)
But the chains’ sheer numbers in the USA are daunting, if not terrifying. More than 14,000 McDonald's locations; 23,336 Subways; 5,162 KFCs; 7,233 Burger Kings; 5,604 Taco Bells; 7,566 Pizza Huts; 1,990 Applebee's. In short, if you’re a mom-‘n'-pop place in this country, especially if you’re located anywhere near an interstate or a mall, you’re in competition with multiple behemoths that have massive power in buying and inventory that keep prices so low they put competitors at a huge disadvantage and frequently out of business. Not only that, they use focus groups to help set their menus and provide the great American public what they tell the corporate food kings they actually want.
Here’s where it gets interesting. What do Americans want? Sugar, and a lot of it.
Who knew Applewood smoked maple bacon was a thing? I’ve heard of the ubiquitous “honey mustard,” but who knew they are now serving stuff with “maple Dijon” slathered all over it? I didn’t until I reached Charlottesville and my son and I decided to take a culinary tour of what’s available here, chain food-wise. Pretty much everything, as it turns out.
Within walking distance of our very nice rental on a leafy downtown block of brick and clapboard houses we found Five Guys, Taco Bell, McDonald's, Burger King, Arby’s, and a newish chain called Cook Out. Within a mile we could visit Outback Steakhouse, Applebee's, Red Robin, KFC, Pizza Hut, Popeyes, Wendy’s, and something called Brixx Wood Fired Pizza, a regional chain in the Southeast with 21 locations. My son advocated starting with the biggest chain of them all, so we paid a visit to McDonald's, just up Emmet Street from our house.
It’s a nice place, very post-modern, well-managed and spotlessly clean. Both of us had over the years tried the regular menu of burgers including the Big Mac, of course, so we opted for one of the specials, advertised on a flat-screen TV the size of a bedroom wall above the counter. We ordered a “Maple Bacon Dijon Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich on an Artisan Roll.” Hell, the name of the thing was a mouthful. What would this amazing offering taste like? We didn’t have long to wait.
Within a minute or two we were presented with a square box made from the apparently mandatory recycled-looking brown cardboard. We sat down and opened it. Inside was a very nice looking darkish brown roll stacked with the advertised ingredients. We lifted the top of the roll. To our amazement, there was an actual slice of chicken breast in there, complete with grill marks, residing beneath a couple of slices of what McDonald's calls “thick cut Applewood smoked bacon with sweet maple seasoning and creamy Dijon sauce.”
Lucian V took a bite. “It’s real chicken, Dad!” he exclaimed. I took a bite. It was real chicken, all right. And real bacon. And an actual hint of actual flavor of Dijon mustard… and then there was a sugary maple sweetness that utterly and completely overwhelmed the entire thing.
We each took another bite. It was like chewing meat candy. I pinched off a piece of the bun. It tasted like cake — a hint of vanilla, but mainly just sugary cake. I asked Lucian how he would rate it on a scale of 1 to 10. “I’ll give it a four, Dad,” he said. I looked around the restaurant. “Accounting for how nice the place is, I’ll give it a three.”
We departed for Arby’s, just down the street, where I had seen a huge sign in the window advertising “Triple Thick Brown Sugar Bacon BLT.” We walked in. It was gross. Greasy tables, dirty floor, the feel of a run-down place on its last legs. Two of the staff were sitting at a table eating. Other than them, we were the only customers. We ordered the advertised special on a “Brioche Bun.”
What arrived was another mandatory apparently recycled brown box, this one shiny with grease. We opened it. Lucian took a bite. “A sugar bomb, Dad,” he warned, handing it over to me. I took a tentative bite. The “triple thick brown sugar bacon” exceeded its advertised promise. Triple meat candy, covered in a mayonnaise so sugary it was like cake icing. Cake dough was apparently employed when they baked the “brioche” bun. We tossed the remainder of the thing in the trash and fled. We didn’t bother with rating the food or the ambience.
Next, we decided to give one of the “family” chains a try. Applebee's was just up Route 29. As we pulled into the parking lot, I remarked that there were no cars there. None. Zero. “This is not a good sign,” I told my son, recalling the parking lot at Arby’s. “Give it a chance,” he replied. “I see a customer in the window.” Sure enough, a woman was at a booth in the window. “I still think we should pass,” I said, opening the driver’s door of the car. “C’mon, Dad, she looks like she’s having fun.” I closed the car door and we entered.
I spent some time trying to come up with language to describe the feeling of walking into that place. Depressing was all I could come up with and that’s far from adequate. There was a hostess at a stand-up desk, peering at her phone. She looked up when I asked to see a menu, but not before. Across the restaurant, four employees were sitting at a table in the bar area eating. A woman was at one end of the bar, passed out with her forehead on the counter.
We were shown to a booth next to the only other occupied table in the place. The menu presented us with a selection of color photographs of dishes, including “Big and Bold Grill Combos,” burgers, “sandwiches, tacos and more,” and a selection of salads that appeared to have lettuce buried somewhere beneath towers of various meats. We perused the menu. Lucian decided on “Four cheese Mac and cheese loaded with Applewood smoked bacon and pepper chicken tenders.” 1400 calories. I wanted the “Clubhouse Grille — thick cut turkey breast with melted cheddar and jack cheese, Applewood smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato, mayo and a drizzle of our signature honey BBQ sauce.” 1100 calories.
The waiter arrived to take our order. In a word, he was filthy. His apron and trousers were encrusted with bits and dribbles of food. He took our order. The table was barren of utensils, napkins, condiments. The only thing there was a tablet-style screen advertising video games for a stiff fee.
The waiter returned, placed our orders on the table and left. I called to the hostess. She came over and I pointed out that we didn’t have utensils or napkins. She went back to her station and stared at her phone. Finally the waiter appeared, we notified him, and he left, appearing about five minutes later with a wad of napkins and knives and forks which he unceremoniously plonked down on the table. This was after he had stopped by to chat with his compatriots on the staff, who were still eating. They were now the only other people in the place, other than the woman passed out at the bar.
Now came the test. Lucian examined his fork. It appeared clean. He cut a piece of “pepper chicken tender,” stabbed it with some mac and cheese, and took the bite. He immediately reached for his napkin and spit it out. “It’s covered in some kind of syrup, Dad!” he exclaimed. I pulled the ramekin holding his meal across the table. Sure enough, the mac and cheese was swimming in what appeared to be a brown syrupy substance. I steeled myself and took a bite.
It’s hard to describe how sweet it was. Ice cream? Sweeter. A cookie? Way sweeter. Pancakes covered in syrup? Now we’re getting somewhere, except the pancakes would lack the distinctive rubbery texture of the so-called “mac” of the mac and cheese. Any “pepper” on the “chicken tenders” was drowned out by the brown syrup.
With some trepidation, I picked up my “Clubhouse Grille.” There was stuff sandwiched between two pieces of soggy toasted bread. I bit. Sugar meat drenched in sugar mayo and sugar “signature honey BBQ sauce.” The bread had the texture of a wet sponge and tasted like cake only sweeter. My son and I sat there with our Applebee's order on the table before us. Lucian’s eyes were wide. I don’t know what mine looked like, but my jaw was clenched from all the sugar. I called to the hostess for our check. She didn’t look up from her phone. “Dad, don’t start something,” my son cautioned. I was so speechless, I couldn’t have lodged a complaint if I had wanted to.
After maybe five minutes, the waiter appeared and I wordlessly signaled him for the check. He reached across the table and grabbed the tablet and hit a button. “It’s right here,” he said. The screen was blank. “Oh, it doesn’t work.” He walked away. Apparently, the failed tablet presented Applebee's with a problem, because it took more than five minutes for him to return with a paper check, and another five minutes for him to return with our change. We fled. The parking lot was still empty.
My son demanded that we stop at Harris Teeter to get a big bottle of mouthwash so he could rinse out the taste of the Applebee's brown syrup mac and cheese still lingering, so we did. He’s okay now, although we could both probably do with a test for blood sugar.
Okay, I’ll admit that I’m a food snob. I’ve been cooking for 48 years. I first learned by following Pierre Franey and Craig Claiborne in the New York Times and cooking whatever they had in the 60 Minute Gourmet every Wednesday. I have a collection of cookbooks that fills several bookshelves. I’ve even done a few food shows on TV.
But the culinary journey my son and I took through the fast-food and family restaurant wilderness can only be described as jaw-dropping, in addition to jaw-clenching, the presence of sugar in literally everything was so overwhelming. I was going to Google a science site to see what sugar in large quantities does to the brain and body, but I’m afraid to. I really don’t want to know what effect all that sugar in the tens of thousands of chain restaurants across the country is having on the American populace.
I’m pretty sure it’s not helping the synapses to fire in a timely and appropriate fashion, at least not when it comes to the Fast-Food Fan in Chief, and doubtlessly among the “family values” voters frequenting the culinary delights being offered at fast-food and “family restaurant” chains. It’s a horrible notion to contemplate, but inescapable I’m afraid, that as a nation, we are voting the way we eat, for better or worse. Mostly worse, if our experiences in Sugar Wonderland along Route 29 in Charlottesville, Virginia, are any measure.
You can get as high on Applewood smoked maple bacon and signature honey BBQ sauce as you can on Trump’s tweets, apparently. Some of us can, anyway.