Next to a gas station, off some highway in Tennessee, there I was, sitting at a picnic table outside of a barbecue shack. Five, maybe ten, cats lounging in the back of a pickup truck, a large old smoker next to them with an incredible aroma filling the cool February air. As we waited for our food, I realized that we were the only couple. Every other table was filled with families, some even multi-generational, with everyone laughing and talking over styrofoam plates of smoked meats and creamy sides. When our overflowing plate of ribs, macaroni and cheese, and fried okra arrived at our table, a sense of joy overtook me. This was not my comfort food, this was America’s comfort food.
After a tumultuous year of staring at the same four walls, cooking the same meals, doing the same thing, day after day, I was full of excitement when I got the opportunity to go on a road trip from New Jersey to Texas. The change of scenery was exactly what I eagerly wanted, and the opportunity to taste the flavors of comfort food not made by my hands was what I desperately needed. Before we hit the road, my road trip partner and I agreed on one important thing, this trip was mostly about food, and the diet will start afterward.
To start us on our road trip, I picked up one of my favorite comfort foods, Italian subs, and a few black and white cookies to get us through the first day of driving (more or less 9 hours). Being from New Jersey, subs were a staple throughout my life especially when it came to traveling. So, let the traveling begin!
Our first official comfort meal was the next day. For lunch, we stopped at a roadside restaurant. It was a cute little spot with a large outdoor space, with a view of their parking lot in Knoxville, Tenessee. Grateful that I wasn’t there alone, we were able to share some different plates. We had gumbo with sausage and blackened shrimp, and a plate of chicken fried chicken with mashed potatoes, white gravy, Brussel sprouts, and a biscuit. I have never had chicken fried chicken before, and it did not disappoint. Every bite was rich and packed with flavor. However, for one of the first times in a long time, we couldn’t eat past the halfway point and desperately needed some black coffee to bring us back to life. This would become a trend in the trip.
We got our coffee and continued our trip. A few hours later, we started talking about ribs. I am not very familiar with all the different types of ribs, so my partner decided it was time we stop for ribs. Outside of Memphis, we stopped at a bar-b-q shack off the highway (which I spoke about in the beginning). It did not disappoint. We continued our trip into Memphis, full and happy. The next day, we started bright and early with biscuit sandwiches (a light meal) and very large coffees. Then, we made our way to Central BBQ, for some award-winning slow-cooked Memphis-style barbecue. It was a gloomy day with scattered rain, however, the moment we got out of the car, I was immediately energized by the incredible smell that wafted through the air. We got to the counter, and naturally, ordered more than we would be able to eat. We had an array of wet and dry ribs, pulled pork, collard greens, and bbq beans. As we waited for our pile of meat to arrive, I looked around and saw families eating together, laughing, and sharing stories while enjoying their food together, despite sitting outside in the drizzle. The food was amazing, but the atmosphere made it incredible.
I can continue talking about ribs for pages (GIGANTIC beef ribs in Texas) and my search for a salad without shredded cheese, but, I am currently on a much-needed health kick and the fond memories are starting to take over my craving brain. In conclusion, eating other people’s comfort foods did bring me joy (and stomach aches), but it seemed to be more about the experience, rather than the food. Recipes passed through generations, shared with generations of families and friends, creating memories one meal at a time.