I Drove Cross-Country and Didn’t Eat Fast Food Once

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Food is so essential to the American story that we had to make it part of ours
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Photo by iStock. Design by Lauren DeLuca for Yahoo Travel.

You don't need to stock up on fast food for a road trip.

I made a lot of declarations when I set off on a ten-day road trip from New York to San Francisco with my friend Glynnis this past summer. 

We would see Mt. Rushmore, we’d finish the audio book of “Go Set a Watchman,” we’d stop in road side dives and talk to interesting people, learn about the “real” America and we wouldn’t eat any fast food.

We fancied ourselves a modern day Thelma and Louise with less drama and the same amount of red lipstick.

When you make a choice not to eat fast food you instantly become mindful about where you do eat. Quality inherently matters more and you invest more time into scouring the options rather than accepting the next empty calorie. 

Glynnis put it best when she said “non-fast-food restaurants were written in invisible ink, and once we decided to stop eating fast food it was like they all magically appeared and were everywhere.”

We also agreed to say no to chain restaurants, to forces ourselves to seek authenticity. We had to define the terms. Was Cracker Barrel ok? It wasn’t. We ate at a lot of diners and had more red meat than we probably should have, but when driving through country where cattle are actually grazing alongside of your car and you know where your meat is coming from, ordering a burger feels like an OK thing to do.

It was day one. Dark was falling and we were just outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, nearly out of gas, daylight and patience. We’d assumed it would be simple to find something to eat that didn’t involve golden arches, but each rest stop laughed at us with its neon options and every time we left the highway to track down real food we discovered nothing but acres of cows and restaurants that had long been shut down.

At our wits end before the trip even began, we finally spied a sign that promised little more than a “Family Restaurant,” which took us to the New Fork diner, a sweet little spot right on the Turnpike service road whose motto was “where our cookin’ is better than home cookin’.”

And so it was. At New Fork we began our meal with dessert, both ordering chocolate milkshakes (their homemade ice cream flavors included peanut butter fluff, back raspberry salted caramel and blueberry). 

“This is the best milkshake I’ve had in a long time. It sure beats Shake Shack,” Glynnis remarked.

“Guess how much a scoop of ice cream is here?”

“Five bucks,” Glynnis shrugged. That’s the going rate for ice cream at the organic/artisanal/fairy-dust infused ice cream shops in Brooklyn.

“$1.65! We should move here!”

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Jo Piazza

Homemade milk shakes for the first course just become the norm on the road.

For our second course I devoured the most delicious patty melt of my life with a side of onion rings. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the patty melt, it’s an what would happen if a grilled cheese sandwich had a torrid love affair with a cheese burger and added fried onions. It is perfection.

The state of Indiana made finding a place to eat quite easy for us. We simply followed the billboards pointing us to Indiana’s largest restaurant, Das Dutchman Essenhaus. It was the first time we let highway billboards direct our journey, but it most definitely wouldn’t be the last.

If you like pies and creamed chicken over biscuits, then this is the place for you. With a sit-down restaurant, a buffet and an on-site bakery, the Essenhaus prepares more than one thousand homemade pies a day. Close your eyes and dream of a pie filling—red raspberry cream, prailine pecan, strawberry rhubarb, butterscotch, chocolate cream, chocolate peanut butter—and it will magically appear before your eyes here

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Jo Piazza

A double dose of pie at the largest restaurant in Indiana.

We skirted Chicago on the Southern route to avoid traffic, even though by day three I could have gone for some authentic deep dish pizza. At Dave’s, a local joint in Viraqua, Wisconsin in the middle of the “Driftless area,” a region famous for both escaping glaciation during the last Ice Age and larger than average brook trout, we discovered the true delight of fried cheese curds. Crispy on the outside and melty in your mouth on the inside, why this menu item has not made it further than the Midwest I simply do not understand.

In due course people in these real restaurants will strike up a conversation with you, tell you a bit about themselves  and it will inevitably be interesting. Our waitress at Dave’s gave us a rundown on every single bit of local gossip and I helped her plan an upcoming trip to New York with her son. In diner banquettes and on bar stool we received marriage advice (”you’ve got to like each other”), recipes (the perfect fried chicken) and where to go to feed prairie dogs on the side of the road in South Dakota.

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Jo Piazza

Cheese curds so good, we ordered two.

In De Smet, South Dakota we happened upon Wards, a coffee and curio shop that sold items related to the author Laura Ingalls Wilder, hand-sewn bonnets, quilt patterns and log cabin model kits. We bought a root beer float for $2 and a post card of the Little House in the Big Woods.

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Jo Piazza

Espresso, slushes, fresh-baked muffins and Laura Ingalls Wilder souvenirs.

Almost everything went straight to hell in Huron, South Dakota where we had grand plans to have a giant steak at the Prime Time Tavern. Glynnis had been talking about the Prime Time for weeks leading up to this trip, building this steak into the greatest pieces of meat either of us would consume in our entire lives.

The Prime Time Tavern was part of a trade-off. I would agree to visit all of the Laura Ingalls Wilder prairie girl tourist sites in Minnesota and South Dakota for the prize of having this steak at the end of the day.

We knew we were cutting it close by arriving just a half hour before closing time at 9 pm, but we were confident they would still serve us. 

But the tavern was dark and boarded up. It looked like half of it had burnt to the ground. Fatigue and hunger getting the best of me, I nearly burst into tears.

Within spitting distance, a Burger King was waiting for us, but we were resolute.

We spotted a supermarket, begged one of the employees to keep from locking the doors and bought a baguette, some mozzarella, avocados and beer and made ourselves a motel floor picnic rather than giving into the Whopper.

Yet, by the time we drove through the Badlands and reached Wall Drug, South Dakota the next day we were really hankering for a steak. This craving led us to the most satisfying dive of our trip, the Red Rock Grill, attached, of course, to the Red Rock Casino and Lounge. The sign outside promised “beer colder than your ex-wife.” We were the only women inside a bar filled with bikers and loners.

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Glynnis MacNicol

Finishing the last bites of a baked potato.

“We really are like Thelma and Louise,” I whispered to Glynnis.

“Don’t kill anyone,” she murmured under her breath.

Red Rock’s top cut 8 oz. sirloin came with tater tots, perfect green beans and a baked potato giving us exactly what we needed to plow on through the Dakotas and into Wyoming.

In the Hub Cap Diner in Hill City, South Dakota my “Swine on Bovine” burger was topped with pulled pork, fried onions, BBQ sauce and American cheese. The Hub Cap diner prepares almost everything in house. They bake their buns daily and all of their sauces and gravies are made from scratch.”

It was here that we found the answer summed up our reason for wanting to avoid fast food America. Their menu read in plain text:

“We are not a fast food restaurant. We pride ourselves on quality food at an affordable price. Quality food is never cheap and cheap food is never good.”

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This article was originally published by Jo Piazza on January 10th, 2016