Thursday, November 7, 2013

The comfort food tour

Those who caught last week's mention that I was beginning a long series of chemotherapy treatments for a mysterious cancer that is suddenly assaulting body and soul might think I would soon be digging deep in my bottom drawer for those jammies with the feet on them and crawling under a feather tick to wait until it's all over.
You would be mistaken.
While I know there are days looming ahead when I won't want to do much of anything or go much of anywhere, we decided that now would be a good time for a quick dash to our beloved North Carolina shore and the swimming, soccer-playing, bike-riding grandsons who reside there.
Of course, not everyone defines "dash" in the same way.
In our case, we figured we would take our time, making it a three-day trip that would allow for late departures, early arrivals and plenty of stops along the way.
In other words, just the style of travel we prefer anyway.
An interesting sidebar to the whole trip idea has to do with the fact that my appetite has sort of gone south due to this crazy disease. My lifelong attraction to sweets has inexplicably disappeared, and I can't eat much of anything, no matter what you put on my plate. In fact, the one category of food that still does occasionally seem appealing to my fussy palate hearkens back to my youth, when cooking meant love and love meant hearty dishes that really stuck to your ribs.
So, that was another reason for us to stay off the interstates and stick to the two-laners that actually travel through towns and cities, where the restaurants and diners that still provide that kind of savory fare continue to exist.
In other words, welcome to the hot beef highway.
This refers to a true gastronomical treasure from my past, the storied hot beef sandwich, as prepared and served by an iconic Galva cafe called Amy's, which sat right near my dad's pharmacy on busy Front Street. The combination of well-done roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy-soaked white bread created a dish so potent and appealing that our hands literally shook a bit as we tucked in on those days we were able to steal away for a bit of guilty pleasure.
To find the modern-day version of this dish and its calorie-packed brethren, we literally drove through the past, starting with Illinois Route 17, which travels through Galva before heading off on a straight-as-a-string dash across the state to Kankakee and Momence, where my wife spent summers visiting her cousins when she was a girl.  In Indiana, we caught up with a truly legendary roadway, the famed Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental improved highway for automobiles across the United States from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. Along the way, we discovered  that the road was dedicated on October 31, 1913, making it almost exactly 100 years old to the day when we drove it, a bit of serendipity that was like finding an extra cherry on a chocolate sundae.  The road is still busy in places, but the traffic is more town-to-town than long-haul, and the businesses along the way serve the needs of the locals, rather than the transcontinental travelers who used to pass through. That's fine with us, and we love the chance to visit the little burgs that still dot this country. She, who is always delighted to seek and share a miracle, was especially happy when a visit to a small-town church named for Our Lady of Lourdes, suddenly seemed to make me feel better on a day when our travels had seemed a little more like a long-distance ambulance ride than a pleasure cruise.
We drove miles and miles through Indiana, Ohio and into Pennsylvania without a name-brand motel or burger joint to be seen.
Finally, we began a long, gentle southeasterly descent, eventually merging onto another interesting byway, U.S. Route 40, which was built in the 1920s on top of the historic National Road,
Envisioned by George Washington, the National Road was built to connect the East and West and provide a safe route for trade through the Allegheny Mountains. After the Revolutionary War, the newly formed national government realized that communication would be difficult without a route through those mountains. So, in 1806, Thomas Jefferson authorized the construction of the Cumberland Road, the first federally-funded highway in American history and the first stretch of what is now marked by route 40 and the old stone mile markers that still point the way. We edged into the Alleghenies, and suddenly found ourselves entranced by an endless red-gold sea of dusty color swooshing and rolling off the Pennsylvania mountainsides.  It was still autumn, and we oohed and aahed and nearly cried at the beauty of it all.
Then it was time for the last one.
The last out-of-the-way, obscure pathway to our ultimate destination.
Route 17. Again.
Well, not the state highway that veers through my hometown, but another historic roadway that works its way from Virginia all the way down to Punta Gorda in Florida. Mostly they call it The Coastal Highway, because it generally follows the Atlantic through parts of Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
Oh, and North Carolina. Our part of North Carolina.  Fact is, Highway 17 is the route that takes you to the bridge road that connects our little island with the rest of the world.
"This is our route 17?" she asked, as we pulled onto the highway in Virginia.
"Yep," I smiled. "Last road. I promise."
And so we drove. We stopped for the night. And late the next afternoon, we arrived at the place where we knew our grandsons would be.
To no one's surprise, it was a soccer game.

No comments:

Post a Comment