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Lessons Learned From a Culinary Road Trip South

A tumescent hot dog at John Besh's The American Sector, New Orleans
A tumescent hot dog at John Besh's The American Sector, New Orleans
Photo: Joshua David Stein /

For the last nine days, my wife and I have been traversing the South. We drove down from New York to New Orleans — via Roanoke and Birmingham — and returned on the Natchez Trace Parkway with a stay in Nashville. We ate a lot and like Steinbeck and Least Heat-Moon before us, wrote a best-selling travelogue filled with piquant life lessons. Nah, just kidding. We gained five pounds each and scraped together these talking points.

The power of Cracker Barrel is unstoppable. Soon Cracker Barrels will be the only restaurant in all of the country. Prepare yourself.
This is a lesson I think anyone who drives on an interstate long enough realizes. Cracker Barrel, those strange edible museums of a mythic rurality, are like kudzu. They cover everything. There are 588 Cracker Barrels in 42 States. One can eat two biscuits with gravy, scrambled eggs, toast, hashbrown casserole, sausage and grits for about $7. Also available: rocking chairs. One might also note that employees of Cracker Barrel sport stars on their breasts. Each star represents a level of Personal Achievement. As our waitress, Julia, explained in Tennessee: "When you start working at Cracker Barrel you get 20% off. But four star waitresses get 35% off. And each star means a 5 cent raise."

Waffle House is never worth it.
You may be tempted to eat at Waffle House due to the nice mid-century font of the signage. It was founded in 1955 and the font hasn't changed since. But the food is really bad. Shockingly bad. Interestingly, Joe Rogers, co-founder of Waffle House, is honest about this. "We are not in the food business," he's said, "we're in the people business." So you see: Patty melts are people!

Pork worship has overtaken New Orleans
One of the best meals I ate in New Orleans was at a place called Cochon, Donald Link's 2006 follow up to Herbsaint. I had cochon. The worship of the golden pig has made its way South. I'm not saying, obviously, that we Northerners didn't appropriate down home pork cooking from the South first (for certainly we did) but the reflection has been refracted back into Southern kitchens. Surely seafood remains an integral part of Louisiana cuisine — contrary to media reports, seafood never went away — but at most of the newest and best restaurants, pork is the prince regent.

Road Food, the book, is more important than an atlas.
Long road trips are like the orbits of subatomic particles but instead of momentum and location being mutually unknowable, it's location and food. You can stay on the interstate — in our case US81 — and get fed but this is food as fuel (as the billboards proclaim, "Your Fry Gauge is Running Low! McDonald's Exit 86"). Much more fruitful is hopscotching from Jane and Michael Stern's recommendations from Wright's Dairy Rite in Staunton, VA (get the 3oz burgers, not the 2oz) to Zarzour's in Chattanooga, TN. You'll get there slower and fatter but happier.

The South is fat.
Southerners are noticeably fatter than Northerners, though of course my view is skewed by living in New York. (Northeastern states have generally low obesity rates.) This probably has to do with the first lesson learned (viz. Cracker Barrel) and of course poverty. But from Pennsylvania on down, these are red states according to this map from Trust For America's Health. That means there is an adult obesity rate of over 30%.

Authentic doesn't always mean good.
This one is pretty self explanatory and self evident if you've ever gone snooping in the parking lot of a roadside diner. Even though the font maybe delightfully old fashioned, and the waitress calls you hon and the locals eat there and there are three calendars on the wall, the fries are likely frozen and the beef patties thawing. The dumpster's probably full of Sysco bags and hydrogenated oil containers. Real down home cookin' doesn't mean good for every home is unhappy in its own way.