Eating on the road

We spent a solid 23 hours on the road last week, driving to see my family in Mississippi, making stops along the way to spend comfortable nights and eat a few home-cooked meals with good friends and more family. If you’ve spent any time at all road-tripping with small children, you might recognize the string of whiny complaints that dot the interstate landscape, things like:

How much further?

Can we put in another movie?

I want a snack. I don’t like anything in our snack bag.

There’s too much stuff in this car. I can’t move — why did we have to bring so much stuff?

And that was just me talking. Tim decided this week that I am, by far, the grumpiest road traveler in our family. I wish I could defend myself against his accusation, but it’s unfortunately true. I think there must’ve been a time in my life when the term “road trip” connoted adventure and excitement; a readiness for the unexpected and willingness to roll with whatever punches the road threw in our direction. A time when late-night driving was the way to go — just drink more coffee, roll down the windows, and turn up the music to ward off any inclinations toward drowsiness.

Actually, no. That was never me.

I have always hit a wall of sleep at a certain point after dark — so driving late at night was never an option. I have always gotten carsick in the back seat, and could never stomach reading, knitting, or clipping my fingernails while riding in the passenger seat — leaving me to sit, and stare straight ahead, hoping that the book-on-CD we checked out from the library was a good one (it wasn’t).

And, while for most of my life I was willing to grab dinner at whatever restaurant met us at the end of an interstate off-ramp, now I can’t stomach that, either. While I haven’t boycotted all fast-food completely, after watching Food, Inc., it’s become increasingly difficult for me to eat the food that is most often available at interstate exits. It’s not so much the preparation of the meal that’s bothersome (though I’m not so naive to believe this isn’t also a valid concern), but the CAFO source of the meat I’d invariably be eating. It just makes my stomach turn. In some ways I’m glad this is the case — but at the same time, it can make for difficult eating on the road.

Yes, we do pack picnics, and this is one cheap and sure-fire way to handle my restaurant wariness. But the timing isn’t always right, and it’s hard to organize a handful of home-prepared meals at both ends of a long trip. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta stop somewhere and eat.

Which is what we did last Sunday night. We rolled into Nashville at dinnertime, and decided to drive into town a ways to see what we could find. Tim and I were both thinking burritos — and just as we were about to count our losses and head back to the chain deli we passed, we saw a brand-new Chipotle in a shopping center. I’d been curious about the burrito place for a few months, ever since my sister-in-law said she thought I’d like it, and more recently after reading an article about their advertising strategies (they have no agency, intentionally) in AdAge. Chipotle claims to be fast food with integrity.*

Walking through the doors, the atmosphere was immediately calming to my road-raged soul. The place was possibly the cleanest fast-food restaurant I’d ever been in — and while it was a brand-new location (complete with new logo, which I heartily applaud, after too many years of using a should-‘ve-been-retired, early-90s typeface), I think a lot of that clean-feeling came from the sparseness of the eatery. The signage is simple, the colors muted, and the wall behind the foodprep/ordering station was covered in nothing but to-the-ceiling white subway tile. Only a magnetic strip of chef’s knives lined the back wall, and while boxes of paper products were piled high in one corner, even they seemed to take their place neatly.

The sound system piped in Radiohead-esque music, and the lighting was ample but not brash. Tim said he felt like we just walked into an oxygen bar. Even the patrons seemed uber-cool. But then again, we were in Nashville… Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban could’ve walked in the door at any second.

But on to the food. I know that the claims of packaged foods and restaurant chains can be misleading — but I somehow believed the signs above that told me about Chipotle’s self-claimed integrity: “…whenever possible we use meat from animals raised without the use of antibiotics or added hormones. And it means that we source organic and local produce when practical. And that we use dairy from cows raised without the use of synthetic hormones.”**

Now, it’s clear from the statement that there’s no guarantee the beef in my burrito was from a cow that lived life on the wide-open pasture; but there’s something to say, I think, for the effort of trying to use humanely treated animals (they are a bit vague about what that means in their literature), and for insisting that, say, 100% of their chicken is from animals who were given no antibiotics. And this isn’t a new-fangled gimmick; they’ve been doing this since day one.

But the fact that they attempt to source humanely-treated animals or local produce isn’t the only plus; the food just tasted good. It was fresh, and simple. Tasted — dare I say it? — homemade, like something I’d concoct on a Thursday night and feed my family. It was well-seasoned, and clean; nothing to suggest it’d been sitting around in MSG all day. The guacamole may have been the best I’ve ever paid for, and while I must forgive them for putting cilantro in all of their rice, I also realize that most people who favor America’s take on Mexican food would expect that, and enjoy it (what is wrong with you people?).

The only drawback is that I don’t recall ever seeing Chipotle listed on any interstate exit road sign. There are 800 across the US, but I’m guessing most of these are in suburban or metro areas, tucked away near shopping malls and large parking lots. Perhaps one day we’ll enter the 21st century, get some form of GPS, and plan our trips around a fresh take on fast food. The alternative — Chipotles showing up Starbucks-style on every corner — is much more convenient, but much less appealing, and would probably mean a loss of said integrity.

Plus, I’d then have to stop my whining about at least one aspect of road-tripping. And I’m not quite ready to let go that small and decidedly immature outlet of passenger frustration.


*This might be old news to many of you. If so, my apologies for being so behind-the-times. As I’ve mentioned before, we just don’t get out much.

**Quote taken from Chipotle’s website as of October 19, 2010.

14 thoughts on “Eating on the road

  1. True story: While on a road trip earlier this summer and borrowing a GPS, we typed in ‘Chipotle’ and went a pretty good distance out of the way to get to it. This wasn’t the first time we’ve sought out a Chipotle while traveling. We went through a phase earlier this year where it was our go-to after church lunch spot, every single week. Kind of obsessed, really.

    1. Joanna, I’d be in trouble if there was one closer to us at home. We’ve yet to find a good low-priced take-out option for Friday nights when I’m sick of cooking. The Chipotle nearest us is still a 10-15 minute drive away. I can understand your phase!

  2. We have exactly the same problem traveling long distances to see family – no good food options, and either caving and eat fast food or stoic-ly and grumpily starving. I never thought to Google ahead and try to find a Chipotle. (I’ve done it before to line up Paneras and Starbucks along the way.) In fact, I’ve never eaten at Chipotle, but a new one is about to open up here in Blacksburg (shock!) – and now, after reading your post, I’m excited.

    Also, I recall that the Chipotle in Charlottesville, VA was said – by Polyface Farm themselves – to have obtained their meat from Polyface. Though I never visited either, I always thought that was pretty impressive. Didn’t know it was a “thing” across the chain.

  3. I’m so glad your wandering led you to Chipotle – easily my favorite fast food restaurant around. Eli and I will happily go to town on the guacamole and the vegetarian burrito in a bowl. I do wish you would have called me from Nashville, though! The locally-owned restaurant that makes the fish tacos I lie awake at night craving is less than a mile from I-65. Did I mention they also serve homemade paletas? And beer? Don’t ever drive through Nashville without stopping again – I couldn’t bear it.

  4. Road trips can be exhausting for us–I too get car sick, feel cooped up and the hours and hours drag. So good food is a must…something to look forward to! We had a massive cooler and stopped at natural grocery stores along the way (and stocked up on raw milk and cream in PA)–put together some really fun meals. But looked for Chipotle’s towards the end of our trip b/c I couldn’t stomach making one more meal out of the back of our car. So nice to have a “fast food” option!

    1. I know — it’s the meal-out-of-the-back-of-the-car that I, too, get sick of preparing. And we inevitably leave something in someone’s refrigerator, that thing that was supposed to make everyone’s meal. And I hate sandwiches — not sure which pregnancy did it, but I can no longer eat them.

      It feels like survival mode — do what you can to keep everyone’s diet as close to normal as possible.

  5. Liz and Angie —

    If we had though ahead at all, I would’ve called one of you. But by the end of the trip, we were no longer thinking clearly, living in a zone of phantom high-altitude as we’d been listening to a book on cd about mountain-climbing tragedies on K2.

    But next time. I want those fish tacos. I remember your talking about them.

  6. oh, i love chipotle. i used to treat myself to a chicken fajita-burrito with cheese AND guacamole after every prenatal appointment with my oldest. which is how i gained 55 pounds.

    my husband and i have had long conversations about what gets to be on the public FOOD HERE interstate sign. so many times it lists really awful things, then you pull off just to get gas and see something perfectly acceptable like a panera that was not listed. suspicious.

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