Sunday, April 17, 2011

Just Call Me Road Food of the Morning

Like many of us, I enjoy a good road trip now and then.  The destination doesn't always matter, because getting there can be fun -- sometimes there are challenges, but generally, a voyage is a nice change of pace.  Something about propelling oneself across the network of highways to another place, under one's own steam (and a few tanks of $3.99 per gallon gas), is gratifying.  Of course, one delightful element of travel is so-called "road food", assortments of edibles that we probably wouldn't indulge in at home, but which, given the freedom of the road, we eagerly consume on the way to and from our destinations.  Besides, calories don't count as much when you're traveling, because you're burning them off as you...oh, wait...never mind.

But today, I'd like to focus on one particular type of road food: the "free breakfast" included with hotel stays these days.  This concept is eminently likable, if only for the fact that it's so can show up down in the dining room, completely unannounced, in whatever you'd like to wear.  Personally, I always try to look somewhat respectable (and I'll provide an example later in this post why this is sometimes a good idea), although I've noticed that not everyone follows this same line of thinking.

By the way, we all know that this breakfast isn't really free, but there's no one standing there to take your money at the time, so it feels like you're actually getting away with something, which I think makes us all feel somewhat dashing and ready to face the new day.

I have observed that at hotels across America, there are several common denominators which constitute the typical hotel free breakfast.  See if you spot anything you recognize here:
  • Six-ounce containers of fruit-flavored yogurt in an ice bowl - The yogurt can only be provided in six-ounce containers, and it must be strawberry, peach, or blueberry -- nothing else is acceptable.  The two favorite brands are Yoplait and Dannon.
  • Two orange juice spigots - Although other kinds of juice are often provided, there are generally two spigots for OJ, owing to its relative popularity in the juice world.
  • Coffee in the dining room, but also in the lobby -- You're never really sure where to get your coffee, but it doesn't matter, and I've noticed that those tiny cups fit quite nicely into the minute BMW cup holders.  Getting my coffee in the lobby makes me feel quite daring.
  • Fruit that is not really ready for prime time -- As my friend Tanya (who also provided this post's picture) says, "inedible bananas" are the rule here.  The fruit is often highly polished, which makes you wonder where it's been.
  • Instant oatmeal, a.k.a. "glue" -- Oatmeal is pretty safe, but face it, it doesn't make you feel daring or dashing.
  • Generic cereal -- From looking at the cereal offerings, one would surmise that Froot Loops and Raisin Bran are the two largest selling cereals in America.
  • Make-your-own waffle machines -- The MYOWM is is probably the greatest invention since the light bulb, as long as you're careful.  Once, in a grand faux pas, I almost set the Boone, NC, La Quinta on fire by forgetting to flip the waffle thingie after I put the batter in.
  • Prepackaged sausage biscuits -- Now, you may say "gross", but let me tell you, for those of us who are Southerners, these things can be our saving grace when we're traversing uncharted waters in other parts of the country.
  • Donuts/danish -- I believe there is one supplier for donuts and danish across the United States.  I have seen exactly the same cheese danish from Massachusetts to Florida.  I believe the frosting pattern was identical, which makes me wonder if it was actually the same danish.
  • High concentrations of styrofoam -- The amount of styrofoam in the typical hotel breakfast bar pushes the envelope for safe limits set by the EPA.
  • Tongs with everything -- If you stood at the breakfast bar long enough, a hotel employee would emerge from one of those secret doors (where do those go?) and put a set of tongs around your neck.

This all being said, I have to admit that I have had some nice experiences in breakfast bars.  On one occasion, while traveling with our daughter up to Boone for her freshman year move-in weekend, our reservations at the La Quinta were lost, but we were able to procure a room at the nearby Fairfield Inn.  I went down to breakfast the following morning, and the dining room was mobbed, but fortunately, I managed to get a seat.  

Shortly after I'd started sipping my "lobby coffee", a nice lady about twenty years my senior asked if she and her husband could join me, since the place was so crowded.  They were a charming couple, and while we were talking, I asked them their names and then suddenly realized that her husband had been chancellor of Northwestern University during my years there.  Small world, I thought, and wow, was I ever glad I didn't wear an old t-shirt...he would have thought I had not made the best of my education.

So, with that being said, I hope your next road trip includes a morning of pleasant refueling at one of these uniquely American oases and that you will have the chance to bask in the plethora of entertainment options offered therein.

Bon voyage, everyone!  Oh, and don't forget the antacid.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Store

"I got him, Mr. Bob!  Want me to shoot him again?"

It was a balmy fall Saturday in Memphis, and my dad's grocery store had just fallen victim to yet another petty thief, this one having made a failed attempt to flee the store with pockets full of bills. The problem was that Pat, our meticulously uniformed security guard, kept a loaded pistol which he was not afraid to use, and on this particular day, he had elected to pepper the guy's ankles with bullets. It worked.

From the time I could remember, my dad's side of the family had been in the grocery business. My grandfather owned a series of small country stores where you could pick up basic canned goods, a limited selection of fresh produce, and such beatific treats as Stage Plank cookies. The men in my dad's family were always talking about this or that broker or salesman, or what was or was not selling at this time of year. It was and is a built-in frequency in my head -- I cannot go into a modern grocery store without wondering how much stock is on hand and whether there's enough back room freezer space to store what won't go on the shelf.

In the sixties and early seventies, My dad managed a Hogue & Knott (#3) market on Lamar Avenue in Memphis. Lamar starts as a trucking highway coming in from northern Mississippi, and then it becomes the typical urban boulevard, passing through some truly tough turf en route to hook up with Crump Boulevard downtown. My dad's store was at the nucleus of a mixed neighborhood -- black and white, rich and poor, decaying and sublime. He had a loyal customer base of moms, dads, maids, tiny children, preachers, winos, pimps, artists, and affluent professionals. Opera singer Marguerite Piazza was one of our regular customers, as was Robert Jones, who drank too much but was always there to help the ladies take their groceries home for a dollar.

To a sixteen year old like me, this was a veritable cultural smorgasbord. My friends at Treadwell High might be spending the weekend down at Sardis Lake or revving their cars over at Gaisman Park, but I was getting to sample life in a way that perhaps only blues music can truly communicate. And the funny thing was, I think that even back then, I realized and appreciated what I had. Interestingly enough, so did my friends -- whenever the opportunity presented itself, I would receive a surprise visit from my northeast Memphis compadres, who marveled at our vast selection of smoked meats (using parts of the pig heretofore unseen by us) and our stunning array of Shasta soft drinks. Sometimes, a little boy or girl might come up to my register just shy of the money needed to buy a candy bar, so I always kept a little spare change in my pocket to make up the difference.

From time to time, an errant out-of-towner would wander into the store, generally having stopped to pick up something in an emergency. However, our store was not laid out with emergencies in mind, and these people often became frustrated when they could not easily find the bread aisle. I recall in particular how on one Saturday morning, two women from Ohio (they made it a point to tell me where they were from) lamented at the layout of our store and how things were so hard to find. I was informed that where they came from, every aisle was clearly marked with the contents of that aisle. What fun was there in that?  It was evident that many of these people did not realize what kind of market (or what part of town) they were in.

But times were not always good. Owing to the store's location and its late operating hours, we were often the target of serious criminal activity. My dad worked long hours, and my mom was often quite worried when he would come home later than usual. To this day, I have a special sensitivity to people who work in places like this, trying to make ends meet.

In retrospect, Hogue & Knott #3 was a learning experience. It provided me a lasting dose of humility and an appreciation for what I had. The lessons I learned at the store have stayed with me all these years. Stocking a walk-in freezer made me appreciate the summer heat, and burning trash at the incinerator taught me to anticipate that first chill of autumn. And, in those days of spiraling inflation, when I dug into my pockets to make up the penny or two that a little kid might need, I realized that we were all in this together.