You know the feeling. You're driving down the highway looking out for the next "Food — Exit" sign, hoping that Starbucks, or Cracker Barrel, or McDonald's, or whatever your guilty (or just favorite) road trip restaurant is will be on it, and that you won't run out of gas before you reach it (why do you always put off getting gas that extra 20 miles?), when all of a sudden a license plate catches your eye. Wait, what does that license plate... does it say, YES, it's "FISH TACO!" Or "OYSTAHS." Or "KEY LIME." That's right, personalized food license plates, the most fleeting of food moments on the road — puns that give you a chuckle and often make you roll your eyes. Then they (or you) speed away and it's back to looking for that DQ (and that gas station).
View Slides: Food-Obsessed Vanity Plates Across America
Across the country, and on the road, there are some pretty epic food license plates: "RD PEPPR," "POPCORN," "PIGOUT," "PANCAKE," "NOODLE," "JALPENO," and even a paraphrase of that timeworn cliché attributed to Marie Antoinette, "EAT CAKE." Many are pretty obvious ("M&MS"), others may take you a moment to decipher ("RTBR FLT"), some don't refer so much to food or drink as much as cooking techniques ("FLAMBE"), a handful kind of make you wonder how about how someone could get so passionate something as pedestrian as "CRN SYRP," still more may be questionable in terms of what they're suggesting you do ("EATBUGS," really?). And a few take advantage of the standard or specialized words that appear on some plates to make even longer references (and stranger) sentences: "EAT THE KIDS FIRST."
Food license plates like these have been documented on Flickr by John C. Abell and others, and in posts on blogs here and there, but there may be one person above all others who have excelled at spotting and collecting some of the coolest food license plates in America: Holly Sherburne of The Maine Plate. And yes, it turns out that one American state seems to demonstrate (without checking with the DMV, because seriously, you know what it's like in line, you think it's going to be better on the phone?) a special talent for fun food license plates: Maine.
"I've been photographing vanity license plates for about six years," Sherburne explained. "It began when I published a niche newspaper for dog lovers in Maine. I thought it would fun — and a great visual — to feature dog-related vanity license plates. The more I looked around, the more I saw! Then searching for plates became an obsession and I began taking photos of any I could find."
Sherburne, whose day job is developing the social media strategy for Bowdoin College as its director of social media, now has well more than 3,000 vanity plates (350-plus are dog-related). Her hobby even turned into a book called The Maine Plate, which includes Maine trivia and games that challenge readers to match a plate with the owner's ride or job.
While dog plates are her first passion, Sherburne says that food plates have become her second favorite theme to collect. In fact, it was the first food plate that she saw that led her to expand her collection beyond dogs. "I do remember the first food plate I saw: CLAMDIP," recounted Sherburne. "I love, love, love clam dip and we have a favorite family recipe that I'll share, too. I spotted the license plate in a mall parking lot."
After having published the book, Holly doesn't stop to photograph every vanity plate she sees anymore, but says she will always stop for dog plates, food plates, and those representing a Maine city or town. And quite a few of the plates that Sherburne has collected are indeed from Maine. "Maine is ranked sixth in the nation in terms of percentage of vanity license plates, approximately 10 percent," she claimed.
It's easy enough to snap a photo in a parking lot — easier (and probably safer) say than trying to preserve that fleeting food road memory while driving. But as Sherburne and other (less prolific) food license plate collectors can attest, taking photos of license plates on parked cars comes with its own potential danger: encountering the stranger whose car you're photographing.
"I've met a number of people whose plates I've taken photos of," said Sherburne. "Sometimes they catch me in the act and I have some quick explaining to do. Luckily I don't look threatening, so it always turns into a good conversation about the meaning of their license plates. That's what inspired me to publish The Maine Plate: Maine Vanity License Plates and Their Meanings. Some of the stories are incredible."
These stories may perhaps be one of the most interesting aspects of her project, and the experience of seeing personalized license plates on the road (food or not). "Some were obvious, but others seemed undecipherable — as though they held secrets known only to the vehicle's owner," Sherburne explained in an on-campus interview with Bowdoin. It's almost as though by assembling all these fleeting moments, Sherburne experienced a more complete understanding of an aspect of socializing and identity, and dare it be said (without getting too Kumbaya here) one small part of human interaction that most people haven't experienced when they see plates like these. Sherburne said it recently more succinctly and without the Grateful Dead music playing, "I can’t help but wonder what life event inspired people to turn these phrases into vanity plates."
And in some cases Sherburne has connected with people. Take for example CIDER 1, whose explanation for the inspiration behind the plate Sherburne shared in her book. "I planted 550 apple trees on my farm 25 years ago — after being told by 'experts' that it was impossible to grow apples organically," noted its owner. I kissed each tree before planting it and they have survived and thrived in all conditions. My plate is CIDER 1 because my organic orchard produces the best all-natural unpasteurized cider in Maine. As it happens, 'CIDER' was already taken by someone local, thus the Bureau of Motor Vehicles told me I had to get 'CIDER 1.'"
Then there's the story behind "HOTDOGS." Again, from Sherburne's interview with the person behind that plate: "Wasses Hot Dogs has been selling the very best hot dogs Maine has to offer for nearly 40 years. We are in Rockland and Belfast. Twenty years ago the plate HOTDOG was already taken. After learning that person had retired and sold their business, I contacted them to see if they would give that plate up. The answer was a resounding 'NO.' When the state went to seven letters, I was able to add the 'S,' hence the very appropriate plate for my business vehicle: HOTDOGS."
And "VEGY OIL"? "I have a 1984 Mercedes Benz 300TD (turbo diesel) that I converted over to run on waste vegetable oil (fry-o-later oil) from local restaurants. She gets the same horsepower and miles per gallon that she gets when on diesel, but I get to lower my carbon footprint and cruise for free without supporting foreign oil."
Of course, not everyone's food or drink reference is quite as altruistic or highbrow — not that they have to be. There's nothing wrong for instance in being a little self-referential. Chef Tim Love of Fort Worth's Lonesome Dove (one of The Daily Meal's 101 Best Restaurants in America for 2011) was spotted getting out of a car with the plate, "LDOVE," and in Dallas, chef Kent Rathbun's Porsche has a plate that just reads, "CHEFY."
But you do have to wonder at the motive (and intelligence) of some of the people behind other license plates. Sure, "BUD RIDE," is on the fence, but if it's at least on a car that's blatantly advertorial. And you can kind of get behind "APPLTINI," ""BREWLOT," and even "BEER" in a way, as long as they're not driving after drinking them. But "DRUNK" and "SODRUNK"? Not funny. Someone thought that was a good idea? (Photo courtesy Flickr/gruntzooki)
Still, most of these more than a hundred food- and drink-related license plates collected here are in pretty good taste, inspiring drivers everywhere across the country to maybe place an order for "TATR TOTS," "PIGOUT," or as documented by New York Street Food, settle in for some good "HIBACHI." And if you've collected any of your own, by all means please send it along to be featured too.