[Note: This really happened, and I thought it would make a good April Fools Story. I've done many on the site over the years. A few years ago, food critic and Gourmet Magazine editor Ruth Reichl, published her "Never List" of words that should never be used in a review. I am proud to say I used them all here. I also broke almost all of William Zinsser's guidelines to good writing. The abundance of cliché came naturally to me.]
It wasn’t long ago when I took my first hesitant steps into the world of mini-mart food. I was making the long drive from Los Angeles to Portland. I like traveling at night; a good audio book, the seat reclined just a bit more than normal. The problem is, after a while I get bored, and that makes me sleepy. I have found that there are a lot of strange men in tight sweatpants hanging around rest stops in the middle of the night, so my preferred choice of a break, is the ubiquitous gas station candy selection. There’s something about the fluorescent lights and the dirty restrooms that wakes me up. Maybe I was more open to the idea of stopping because I hadn’t eaten all day, but when I walked through the swinging glass doors and onto the polished gleaming white and black tile floor, it hit me: I needed to do a thorough review of this popular cuisine.
There are three urges I fight when I enter a gas station. One – run back out. Two – nachos. Three – hot dogs. The truth is, I’ve never tried any of them until this fateful trip. More often than not, I stop for the sole purpose of getting coffee. McDonald’s is my first choice, but when I pull up to the drive-through, I tend to lose all control and chose a large order of fries, which puts me to sleep. Then I end up in a rest stop somewhere, waking as the rising sun sends a ray though the window, heating a random French fry left behind my ear, like the dog has unexpectedly given me a kiss from behind, startling me into wakefulness. Tonight, there would be no fries; I had a timetable to keep. Instead, I was pulled by the gravity of the mini-mart.
The coffee section of every mart I stopped at was like you’d expect to find at the gates of Heaven. It’s like you are the barista, and can make anything you want. Hazelnut? They’ve got it. Vanilla? Ditto. If I’m in the mood for 1/2 French vanilla cappuccino and 1/2 hazelnut cinnamon coffee with a shot of vanilla nut syrup, I can get it here. Correction: I can make it here! The cost is just like buying a bra: the bigger the cup, the more it costs. Fair enough. I got a large coffee.
The nachos were calling my name loudly, and like a curly tailed pig that has just picked up the scent of a tiny white Oregon truffle poking its little Spring head out of the ground spewing spores into the wind, I couldn’t resist. In moments, I had the lovely little cardboard container of chips in my hand, and liberally dosed it with the velvety elixir they call cheese. The pump handle was warm and comforting under my palm as I pushed down. Iridescent yellow oozed from the spout and over the chips. Little jalapenos were in a container on the side, and when I sprinkled them over the melty-cheesy top, they glittered like little green emeralds, except they were flat and had holes and seeds in them. Moments later, I was back behind the steering wheel, nachos perched on my lap as I drove with my knees, speeding northward into the starry night.
The overall experience was better than I expected. I was listening to an appropriate book: “Not Becoming My Mother” by Ruth Reichl. The nachos were warm as if there was a cat on my lap, the chips sticking together like five girl scouts lost in the woods, but in a more satisfying way. At one point, Ruth’s reading made me laugh out loud, and I started choking on a slightly soggy chip. It wasn’t a pretty scene – careening back and forth in my lane, trying to keep the nachos balanced, while clearing the chip lodged in my gullet. I grabbed my 1/2 French vanilla cappuccino and 1/2 hazelnut cinnamon coffee with a shot of vanilla nut syrup to try to wash the chip down, but my drink was scalding, and feeling as though I was fighting for my life, I pulled over to the shoulder of the highway.
The car wasn’t pretty either. Nachos were everywhere, cheese making my hair into a style I’d never seen before, with a mousse effect not unlike the way gum on hot pavement adheres to the bottom of a rubber-soled tennis shoe. Sticky coffee ran down the dashboard into the cracks like little brown creeks. It didn’t help that the strangely butyraceous pool of oil that had suddenly appeared in the cardboard nacho holder was soaking through my pants. Worse, I’d forgotten napkins, and my steering wheel was slick with fear and nacho grease. I suddenly didn’t like Ms. Reichl very much, and certainly wouldn’t recommend her book to anyone.
Fortunately, I could see the glow of the next gas station just down the road, so I didn’t have to go far to clean up.
The guy behind the counter at that mini mart, acted like someone walking in with my appearance was a daily occurrence, so I sauntered to the restroom pretending nothing was wrong. I couldn’t get the cheese out of my hair, but there was an old comb balanced on the edge of the sink, and I used that to slick it back. It wasn’t until I was walking out, that the dark hand of fate knocked on my door.
They were glistening on hot rollers, denuded, turning slowly, reminding me of a vacation I took back in 2001, where I could see a drunken blond woman with nice plump buns turning over and over while sunning herself on an Acapulco beach. I had fantasies about that woman then, and I was having a fantasy about this hot-dog now. It called my name like a siren, a sea-nymph on the hot rocks of the quick mart.
I know what you are thinking, dear reader, but don’t be too quick to judge. You know you’ve thought of it; fantasized of a stolen moment when you could grab a gas station hot dog and sneak around the back of the building to claim your prize without the dark eyes of your wife and family judging you. You’ve always wondered – would it be any good? This time I was alone – no witnesses; I was going to throw myself on the grenade.
A friend who used to work at a 7-11 once told me they changed out the hot dogs every day at 3:00 a.m. It was 3:45. I peered at them carefully. They were plump, but not unnaturally so, oily, but not tired. Nervously, I cleared my coffee-scarred throat and asked the attendant for one. He looked at me like I was pointing a gun at him. “You want… a hot dog?” he asked incredulously. It catapulted me into my distant past, when in college I had nervously walked into a gas station, determined to buy a Playboy, but chickened out at the last-minute and had bought a pack of cigarettes instead – and I didn’t smoke. Back to the present: I nodded, grabbed the ‘dog and a little packet of catsup, and walked out through the swinging glass doors into the cool night air.
The “meat” trembled in my hand as I gently laid it on to the hood of my car. I wanted it dressed in minimalist attire, so chose to add nothing but the briefest smear of catsup; a simple swirl from one end to the other. It was perfect, the tomato sauce a work of art, similar to the flawless thin line of cocaine a desperate businessman might make on the broken-off rear-view mirror of his new Jaguar. Yes, I know someone who did that. I picked it up and bit down. The slightly stale bun tore at my lips. An explosion of flavors, smells, and textures came to me in a rush. It laid waste to the nacho experience of just an hour before. However, there was a deceptive cadence; something was off. I should have gotten a packet of mustard as a counterpoint to the oily bite from the meat. You might want to make a note of that. However, like a good Bach fugue it had to end, and a few moments later I had changed into a clean shirt and was once again heading northbound on Interstate 5.
There is a problem with coffee and long road trips. Actually, there is a multiplicity of problems. The first lesson I learned was, if you spill a large amount of warm liquid on to the floor mats on a cold night, the windshield will fog. The second lesson is, when coffee runs in little brown creeks across the dashboard, it slowly makes its way into the air vents. Stop reading and close your eyes; I’ll paint a picture in your mind. I’m driving down the highway; the windows start to fog, so I reach over and turn the defroster on the highest setting. I think it’s called the “venturi effect”, but all I know is a brown spray of coffee and dust painted the windshield, my glasses and my clean shirt. I looked like I’d been riding on the back of the last elephant in a long chain. Once again, there were minutes of pure terror as I fought to stay in my lane and clean my glasses at the same time. Mini-Mart 2, Food Dude 0.
I won’t go into the explicit details of lesson number three, except to say that the combined force of gas station nachos, a hot-dog without mustard, and one very large 1/2 French vanilla cappuccino and 1/2 hazelnut cinnamon coffee with a shot of vanilla nut syrup will combine to deleterious effect. (Interesting side note: if you are checking the spelling of “deleterious” in the dictionary, Webster uses the word in the following example: “injurious to health: deleterious gases”. I’ll just say it’s an apt description.) Of course it was at that moment a sign rushed towards me: “Next gas, 38 miles”. I made it in 26 minutes.
My stomach hurt; it needed soothing. They had Mylanta, but it was $7 for a tiny bottle. What else would work, I wondered, glancing around the store? A bright and shiny machine next to me gurgled a song, calling to me like a dog whistle I couldn’t hear. Once again I was tempted. The Slushy was my muse. It made perfect sense: my mouth was burnt and my stomach was upset. Something cold and icy might be the perfect antidote for the travail of my evening, and what traveler wouldn’t want my opinion on this elixir? For sentimental reasons, I also purchased Red Vines and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. They reminded me of the time my parents had sent me away to camp, and nightly, with my “script” held tightly in my fat little hand, I’d stand on my toes, peeking into the door of the camp’s “general store”, and spend my tickets on both of those items. In those days I bought Pixie Sticks and Sweet Tarts along with little plastic cords to make key chains too, but my budget was bigger back then than it is now. This time was just like that, but I was in a brightly lit gas station with real money and my parents hadn’t sent me there and I don’t think they make Pixie Sticks anymore.
Speeding on into the night, I pondered my bounty. For my amuse-bouche, peanut butter cups seemed appropriate, so I dived in with gusto. The chocolate had a nice toothsome quality, breaking softly into an indulgent interpretation of the recipe I use at home, where I dip my finger into a jar of peanut butter and put it in my mouth as I bite down on a carefully unwrapped Hershey kiss. It was a lovely, indulgent moment, made even more decadent, when contrasted with the main event: a brash yet sophisticated purple-flavored Slushy. Icy and cold to the point of almost being frozen, it was yummy, even sinfully divine, reminding me of a distant time and place when the most important thing in my life was choosing between grape or strawberry.
It wasn’t long before I could see the twinkling panoramic of Salem streetlights. At this hour, the city slumbered quietly, and I passed through without as much as a nod to the speed limit, leaving an invisible dark cloud of dust rising in my wake. Somewhere Lars Larson was brushing his teeth. Ruth Reichl was checking her Amazon sales, wondering if a book would be returned today. My trip was coming to a close, and all was right in the world.
Nachos: pros – crunchy crispy, crusty, addictive. Cons – fulsome pool of cheese flavor can’t compete with the boldness of the corn chips. Overall grade: C
Hot Dog: pros – a dramatic and comforting reinterpretation of an American classic, these dogs will make you sit up and take notice, whether when going down or coming out. Cons – catsup packet difficult to open, and once the dogs have sat for a while, it’s hard to get a good grip on those slippery, buns. Grade: C
Coffee: pros – the coffee bar is like you are in college, and you are stoned, and they have, like, everything you could ever imagine putting together. Also, it keeps you awake and cleans you out. Cons – the coffee bar is like you are in college, and you are stoned, and they have, like, everything you could ever imagine putting together. Also, it cleans you out – not always a good thing on a long drive. Grade: C
Peanut Butter Cups: pros – two creamy chocolate cups, so alike as to be astonishing in detail, cradle a shimmery mound of peanut-like butter filling. This divine interpretation intrigues both mind and palate. Cons – sugar can put you to sleep on a long drive.