by Steve Sprinkel
11 March 1999
Eat in Wichita, because if you don’t you will starve your way down the
Interstate through all of southern Kansas and most of northern Oklahoma. Not
that the bloom of fast food logos on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, poking
far above the street-side bustle and fumes like mutant electronic dandelions
should spur your appetite once you arrive there.
Eat in Wichita, when and if the opportunity arises on the southbound route,
for you will look nearly in vain for sustenance along I-35 thereafter.
However, the short-term fasting may heighten one’s perceptions, but I shall
let you be the judge of that.
Road Food, which is playfully interpreted as Road Kill in Compostia, Texas,
presents for the conscientious traveler a continual meal-time quandary,
flanked by dietary and political considerations, time, and the lack of any
alternative to what seems like a fabulous array of choices, but in reality are
merely the same menu under different trademarks with variously sassy, coy or
boisterous marketing strategies. Fried Chunk Food, which is also synonymous
with Greasy Junk Food, is the staple design for these vittles and I believe we
may have reached a definite apogee concerning their multiplicity as well as
their ubiquity. Whole sections of cities are now formatted and zoned to
provide for these places. The transportation department serves as their
advertising agency on every appropriate off ramp. The entertainment industry
pre-links their motion pictures with semi-disposable, quasi-collectable
plastic ware, only falling short of creating Jurassic Burgers or DarthVader
Dessert Pie. Fast Food, as in: somebody’s pulling a fast one.
That other Junk Food outlet, television, and its allies in advertising,
mercilessly pound home the message as if it was still necessary. But it's not.
I saw the white flag of surrender fluttering in downtown South Haven, Kansas
recently one afternoon. It is an agricultural dead-zone to match that big one
off the coast of Louisiana.. In towns everywhere across the US Midwest, the
echoing emptiness of the failed town-center, where even video-rental and
antiques can not subsist, is the sure sign that the battle for the American
Appetite is over. The bank doesn’t even post For Rent signs.
Make mine Olestra, and keep the TP handy, you freaks. Gimme a double-shot of
that fat-free grease, you Zombies! You craven Stalinists! I thought you fought
for fifty years to keep us from living under the yoke of Central Planning! And
now you say that all you sought was our own convenience.
But I could not even obtain convenience. I got off the Kansas toll road at the
ramp to Wellington, went through town only noting a crumbling Pizza Hut,
turned south on US 81, and figured Rome or South Haven would be able to fix me
up. It was after noon, but these small-town café proprietors will usually fry
eggs even during the lunch hour. Rome turned out to be a big grain elevator.
On the side of the road in "downtown" South Haven was the Blankspace Café.
Just "Pepsi" , and then CAFÉ beneath the soda-sell.
I walked in, checking first my wallet, and then the walls and the register to
see if the magic words VISA or MASTERCARD were glued thereon. I was out of
currency and South Haven was a foreign country that did not accept my VISA and
which had been passed over by MASTERCARD. I didn’t even bother to ask them
about accepting my check, although my bank, NorWest, is nearly as
recognizable now as Ronald McDonald . When I said the words" credit card" to
the beautiful Kansas matron behind the counter, her reaction was the same as
if I had asked her if she had a wine list. Two long-retired couples ate
sandwiches and sipped soup, somewhat startled to see anyone new in what was
nearly equivalent to their own kitchen at home. Okey-dokey!
I returned ravening to my muddy vehicle, thinking. My first thought was that I
had been reckless in not loading up on rye bread, nuts and fruit at
"Everybody’s" when I left Fairfield, Iowa, the day before. I mean to be
pedantic: learn where the safe food is stored across this great wasteland of
ours, because the health you protect may be your own. Every day is Y2K on the
Interstate, my hippie sisters and brothers.
I surveyed the jumbled contents of the Trooper. What do I have in here? I have
three bottles of homemade organic pickles that Cissy Bowman made in Indiana. I
have two Rye-Krisp ( TM) crackers left over from who knows when, and I have
half a head of organic garlic. I also have some TUMS. Natch.
I opted for the pickled okra, set aside the garlic as an antidote to my next
experience eating a Hardee’s Fish Sandwich, savored the crackers and kept the
TUMS in ready-reserve. I thank Providence that I had nearly a gallon of spring
water on board.
Like a grateful Crusoe, I turned south and headed back down to US 177 which
took me to the NAFTAWAY, IH 35, and south towards Texas.
Nearly like Dafoe’s hero, I could have called out " Chunks and calories
everywhere, but not a bite of food to eat!" MacDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s,
Whataburger, Arby’s, Hardee’s, Grandy’s, Denny’s, Applebee’s, Popeye’s, IHOP,
Tastee Freeze, Jack in the Box A and W, In and Out, Long John Silver's, Dairy
Queen, KFC, Chick-Fil-A , The Big Boy and Sonic. And that’s just the northern
tier. Once you get below 35 degrees North latitude, you hit the Hot Sauce
Zone: Taco Bell, Del Taco, Taco Cabana, Chili’s. Only Taco John seems to have
carved out a niche for franchised tortilla vending in the northern climes. I
could include the parallel food forms, such as those found at Subway, as well
as the Italian Flatbread Conspiracy cartel of Pizza Hut, Mr. Gatti’s, and
Domino’s. Only Chinese seems to be immune to this twisted menu, probably
because fresh vegetables are involved.
Beyond Fries, I think the one menu item that really sums up Frytown’s monotony
is the battered, fried chicken chunk. I would have said " nugget" but the
control on that word is governed by copyright. These generic chunks are what
is wrong with not just the food supply, but agriculture generally: the planet
is losing its diversity accidentally while greedily pursuing a business plan
designed to provide fewer and fewer farmer and consumer choices. It is as if
a big Hoover has roamed the countryside, pulling up farms and towns from their
foundations. The economic alchemists have emptied the vacuum bag along the
Interstates and in the concrete/neon outliers of "civilization". The
miraculous recombination of these dissimilar, but formerly interactive and
natural parts, being people, farms, animals, soil, merchants, government and
service, is unquestioned progress. Libraries and the Lions Club, like the
family farm, are endangered species. And the new cable-ready city-states do
rule. Scratch cooking is only done for the rich. The homogeneity of the
speed-fry menu is mirrored in the sameness of the countryside: its industrial.
Its also easy! Its fun! And the kids like it too! Stay all day, and let ‘em
wear themselves out in our neoprene playroom. Win free coupons for your
favorite stuff, which is also plastic. And best of all, you too can be a
stakeholder, with your own easy-to-run, internationally marketed, readily
identifiable food product dispensary.
Computer: Big Mac! Hold the onions, Hold the lettuce, Hold the tomato. Extra
Mayonnaise. Why this is getting to be so darn convenient that someday machines
can run the whole enterprise. Just one " partner" at the console, and all
he/she has to do is make sure the trucks get unloaded and that the grease
Keep it cheap though. Got to go for market share and volume of sales in this
game. Just like those bushels of corn at the CBOT, fortunes are made in
pennies these days.
The next idea is entirely contradictory because it relies on technology:
Wouldn’t it be nifty to have a website that listed all the sources of organic
foods across the country, so that no matter where you were, like in Cantril,
Iowa, you would know there was an Amish store in the middle of the block
across from the Post Office? Or that every Wednesday and Saturday you could go
to Pure Luck Organic Farm in Dripping Springs, Texas, and buy goat cheese and
vegetables? Or the location and time of every farmers market? God, I’ll stay
off the interstate for that. I won’t mind the STOP signs, the combines and the
horse buggies, just so long as I can dodge those chunks.
at the corner of Redbud and Bluebonnet
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