Riding in Cars with Food: The Conundrum of Movement

On Sunday afternoons around 4, I run to my local park. The timing of this ritual is of the utmost importance. Why? Because that’s when you can smell what folks are cooking for dinner. Summer and fall tend to bring a lot of barbecue smells. During the winter the odors are muffled, so my general accuracy diminishes; for example, I can smell red chile, but not whether it’s carne adovada or chicken enchiladas. I’m not alone in making the connection between fitness and food; lots of people run so they can eat more (myself included).

Food and movement are connected on a more basic level. History is full of migrations to attain food (or leave starvation). The American West was settled not because it offered uniformly excellent farmland, but because many believed it did. We schlep around town in order to keep our pantries full. Since eating is a social activity, we often leave the house to dine elsewhere—even if we have food at home. Even transient spaces like gas stations, airports, and our own cars have become places to pig out. Places like Paris attract gastronomic pilgrims from across the globe. It makes sense: we expend energy in our quest of food, which the food graciously returns. Cyclical, no?

It’s not just us moving to acquire food—food travels a long way to meet us. For our ancestors, this might have meant a deer wandering into camp. Any historian knows the Columbian Exchange, the biotic swap meet that brought apples, coffee, and a number of devastating diseases to the New World. Today, we can get apples from Chile, avocados from Mexico, and god knows what else—at any time of year. The concept of ‘food miles’ is increasingly relevant as our food choices continue to bring global consequences. Franchises like McDonalds are strategically located to attract the most customers. Granted, we live in America in the age of globalization—our access to food is astounding. The fact remains that food, and food traditions, move with us.

But is this a good thing? Shouldn’t we resist any excess movement of food or eater? The Slow Food movement argues that we must eat from within our regional ecosystems, resisting extra food miles and the growing influence of industrial agriculture. It also promotes traditional cuisine—aka what folks ate before everything was procurable at a supermarket. This is obviously the way we should strive to eat, pocketbooks allowing.

As the name implies, Slow Food is the opposite of fast food: convenient, inexpensive, and dubiously-sourced cuisine. Franchises like Burger King and Wendy’s have revolutionized what we perceive as American food. More than that, they epitomize an American way of eating. While slow food is most often eaten at home, fast food is synonymous with the open road—and yet, it also connotes familiarity. In N Out Burger, for example, uses the same floor plan for all its restaurants; in this sense, San Jose, CA is no different from Austin, TX. Drive-thru windows provide access to road snacks 24 hours a day. There is a certain placelessness involved.

From an ecological perspective, slow food is a clear winner. However, from a cultural perspective, both ways of eating have historical significance. Local and regional foodways are important to preserve, but so are our traditions of eating on the move. Physical mobility defines American history, especially that of the American West. Roadside dining is especially important along New Mexico’s Route 66 corridor, a joyous mishmash of neon signs, streamlined diners, and souvenir shops. Supporting these shiny features are mechanics, tire shops, motels, and gas stations. And yet, auto tourism does not occur in a vacuum; in many towns, this tourist infrastructure must also support local neighborhood. How can residents along the Route 66 corridor access healthy local cuisine food if their town’s foodscapes cater towards visitors? At what point does New Mexico’s proud automotive heritage retard the development of more liveable cultural landscapes?

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4 thoughts on “Riding in Cars with Food: The Conundrum of Movement”

  1. Has anyone thought about historic fast foods? I’m thinking of waffle men, peanut roasters, tamale sellers, bagel vendors on the lower East Side, etc.

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  2. Let’s get entrepreneurial! Imagine a retro drive-in with carhops and car jukeboxes, that serves delicious, healthy, speedy food with a heritage twist. We could put El Bell out of business and get Bittman to write about it in the New York Times!

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    1. But would the locals be willing to pay for it? You know, I bet they would but they wouldn’t be the same crowd that frequents El Bell I bet. I’d like to proselytize amongst El Bell addicts, not foodies. I want the next generation of children to think green food is not just something dyed chartreuse on top of a birthday cake.

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      1. This reminds me of several successful relationships I have seen between the private and public or nonprofit sectors that try to address these structural inequalities through farmer’s market’s vouchers; payment on sliding scales; or free, locally-grown and culturally appropriate food for children of low socioeconomic background. I wonder if we can think of ways we might create a similar model that can survive being superimposed on a private enterprise?

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