Try the Local, State, or Regional Foods on Your Next Trip

January 25, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Certain cities, states, and regions are known for a particular dishes or foods, and if you want the real thing, you may only find it when you’re actually in that area, even if it’s offered in other parts of the country.

For example, every New Yorker insists that New York style pizza is only good when it’s made and served in New York. New York style pizza is not the same thing in North Carolina, North Dakota, or Nevada. That only means it’s thin, but it doesn’t taste the same. At least, so the New Yorkers tell me.

“It’s the water!” they declare, although I’ve often heard it pronounced as “wooder” as well. They say the same thing about “real New York bagels.” I have to say, there’s something to what they’re telling me. I’ve been to New York, and I’ve had New York style pizza in Florida and Indiana, and there’s a big difference.

The South is known for its barbecue, although the sauces and meats may vary from state to state. In most of the South, they prefer barbecuing pulled pork, w

Chicago Dog - One of the great regional foods out of the Chicagoland area

This is a Chicago style hot dog — tomatoes, white onions, neon green sweet relish, sport peppers, mustard, a pickle, and celery salt. BUT NO KETCHUP!

hile in Kansas City, it’s ribs, and in Texas, they prefer beef brisket.

The sauces have a regional flavor as well. For example, South Carolina leans toward a mustard-based sauce, while Georgia goes for a more tomato-based one. And in the city of Savannah, where the two cultures meet, you can find a heavenly sauce that combines the best of both worlds. (I’ve made it a few times myself, and it’s amazing.)

In my old home state of Indiana, we have our official state sandwich and official state pie — the state legislature voted on it and everything — the breaded pork tenderloin and the Wick’s sugar cream pie.

I’ve only ever seen the breaded pork tenderloin in Indiana and Iowa, as well as a Florida restaurant opened by a friend and former Hoosier, but I haven’t found the sugar cream pie (also called an old-fashioned cream pie) outside my home state. If anyone has a lead where I can find some, other than mail order, let me know. I’m dying for a slice of Indiana heaven!

Chicago, New York, and Atlanta are all known for their signature hot dogs (visit The Varsity as you’re driving through Atlanta on I-75), and each city will fight over whose dog is superior. My favorite is the Chicago Dog, but the Southern slaw dog — a Varsity favorite — is a close second. (Despite New York’s claims on the best pizza, I don’t think they can claim superiority for their ketchup-only red hots.)

And I can get the best hot dogs in all of Florida, as Orlando’s own Hot Dog Heaven was recently named best in the entire state! (It’s just 14 miles from my house, and I can be there in 25 minutes.)

Nashville, Tennessee is no slouch in the hot dog department either though. While I haven’t been able to partake — I was in Nashville last year and I forgot to try them — one of the food travel programs devoted an entire 30 minutes to the Music City’s hot dog’s, and they’re spoiled for choices.

Of course, every major city with a meat packing history is going to lay claim to some of the best steaks. Chicago, Kansas City, and Dallas all boast the best steaks in the country, but there are several great steak places elsewhere (a tip of the hat to my favorite, St. Elmo’s in Indianapolis). And since the best steaks are usually dry aged, don’t let anyone try to BS you about the “freshness” of steaks. Unlike fish, a good steak should be aged for several days, which means you can find a good one in nearly any major city in the country.

But for a real treat, you have to try a cook-your-own steakhouse at least once. I loved Alexander’s Steakhouse in Bloomington, Illinois, although there are several around the country. Other hidden gems are the Beef House Restaurant in Covington, Indiana and The Iowa Beef Steak House in Des Moines, Iowa.

Speaking of fish, I have two rules I live by when it comes to seafood.

  1. I don’t care where you live, never eat gas station sushi. (I don’t have to explain this, do I?)
  2. Never order the fish in a fancy restaurant on a Monday. As Anthony Bourdain explains in Kitchen Confidential, fish is only fresh in most restaurants on Fridays and Tuesdays. This is why you get a lot of seafood salad specials on Mondays and Thursdays; the fish is still acceptable to eat, but it’s starting to taste a little, well, fishy by then.

And while you can get fresh fish nearly anywhere, thanks to high-speed deliveries — fish caught Thursday shows up in the restaurants on Friday, less than 24 hours later — I have gotten to be quite the seafood snob these days.

When my family and I want truly fresh seafood, we’ll head to Melbourne, Florida or even St. Augustine, and eat in one of the small restaurants on the water. There are a few that offer daily specials, which is whatever the local fishermen brought in that morning.

When you travel, take some time to pick a few restaurants in advance. Don’t just show up at the hotel and ask the front desk clerk for a nearby recommendation. That’s how you get stuck in a national chain restaurant serving boil-in-a-bag food.

Ask some locals for their recommendations, or see if the city has a weekly alternative newspaper, which is geared toward locals, and reviews their best local restaurants.

Or before you go, look online, find out what that city or state is best known for, and then check Yelp, Google Maps, or Trip Advisor to see who’s got the best of whatever the local delicacy is. Call ahead and make reservations before you leave town to ensure you get a seat.

Finally, try to visit the restaurant early enough during your trip that if you decide to go back or find someone else’s version of the same dish, you can better immerse yourself in the local dining experience.

What are some of your favorite regional foods? I’ve only been to California and Oregon a few times, so I don’t know what their best known dishes are, other than wine and craft beer. What do you recommend for the next time I’m in the City of Roses? Share your favorites and recommendations in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Arnold Inuyaki (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 2.0)

Five Travel Memoirs to Scratch That Road Trip Itch

December 14, 2017 by · 1 Comment 

While I’m not a roving nomad like, say, Nomadic Matt, who has spent several years traveling the globe, I have put a lot of miles on my car and on my feet. And there’s nothing better than a good travel memoir to stir up those wanderlust feelings and make me start thinking about the other end of the road.

Sometimes reading the book is enough to scratch the itch, and at other times, reading them only makes me want to throw some shirts into a bag and drive to visit a friend for a few days. But despite being a travel writer for several years, I’m not a fan of the guidebook style of writing, telling you where to go, where to stay, or the best times to visit the sights.

I prefer travel memoirs, stories about why the author did the things they did or what they felt when they saw what they saw. I’m more interested in the story of the journey than the cost of the destination.

So here are my five favorite travel/road trip memoirs that I strongly recommend any traveler reads before their next big trip, whether it’s a minivan road trip to Disneyland or a 16-hour flight halfway around the world. These are the five books that hold a special place of honor on my shelves and I return to whenever I’m feeling cooped up at home.

Erik Deckers' favorite travel memoirs

  1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert Pirsig). My first encounter with this book was during my Intro to Philosophy class in college, and it became a constant in my life. I still own the original copy I bought back in 1985, although I purchased another copy to read since the original is about ready to disintegrate. A novel within a novel within a philosophical treatise, ZAMM is the pursuit of the definition of Quality as a philosophical construct, a flashback journey where the hero seeks his own answers and sanity, and a motorcycle road trip for a father and his young son. And all three stories collide together in a way that makes this a novel of a generation. I called it “my generation’s On The Road” more than once,” and it’s a title well-deserved.
  2. The Sun Also Rises. (Ernest Hemingway). One of the first travel memoirs I ever truly loved, Hemingway’s 1926 novel about a group of American and English tourists who travel around Spain to watch bullfighting and the famed running of the bulls made me wish for the simple life of sitting in cafes and day drinking. Of course, that’s never been anything I’ve ever aspired to — the best I can do is sit in a coffee shop and get jittery on lattes — but the story made me dream about how exciting living in a foreign land for several months could be. If you want a glimpse into what Gertrude Stein labeled “The Lost Generation,” start with Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical look at his 1925 travels in Spain.
  3. On The Road and Dharma Bums (Jack Kerouac). I cheated and picked two books since they’re both semi-autobiographical about the author. On The Road is about Sal Paradise (Jack) and his best pal, Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassidy), and their journey across the country in search of meaning, poetry, and a good conversation. Dharma Bums is about Ray Smith (Jack) and his best pal, Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder), as they climb a mountain in search of meaning, poetry, and the Buddha. Jack wrote Dharma Bums at a little house in College Park, Orlando, while he waited for On The Road to be published. That house later became the Kerouac House writers residency, where I was the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence.
  4. Motorcycles I Have Loved: A Memoir (Lily Brooks-Dalton). When I first heard that a 20-something had written a memoir, I wondered what exactly it was that a 20-something could teach anyone about life. Then I read it and all was made clear: a lot. Lily Brooks-Dalton, fellow Kerouac House writer-in-residence, made me want to ride motorcycles in a way that only Robert Pirsig ever did. She details her first efforts at riding and then buying a motorcycle, learning how it handled, and the problems she encountered when she bought one that was too big for her. It helped me understand that owning a motorcycle is more about feeling comfortable on what you’re riding, not horsepower and loud engines. If it wasn’t for a promise I made my favorite uncle when I was 8, I’d own a motorcycle right now, and Lily would be the reason I did.
  5. The Bruno, Chief Of Police series (Martin Walker). While not technically travel memoirs — in fact, it’s a French murder mystery series — author Martin Walker paints such a lovely picture of the Perigord region of France that every time I read one of his books, I want to go there in the worst way. Bruno Courreges is the chief of police in the fictional town of St. Denis where he knows everyone, plays rugby and tennis, hunts and grows his own vegetables, at least when he’s not solving murders with international implications. Walker’s descriptions of the French countryside, as well as Bruno’s own gourmet cooking creations, makes me want to spend six months living in France as Bruno does. Of all these books I’ve listed, nothing gives me the travel itch more than a new Bruno mystery.

What are some of your favorite travel memoirs? Do you have any that inspire you to leave the house, or any that you return to whenever you want to remember a favorite place? Share some of your favorite books in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Prepare for a Road Trip With Your Mobile Phone

November 16, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

I’m getting ready to leave for an 7-hour road trip today (Tuesday), from Orlando to Pensacola, so I can read some of my humor columns at their annual Foo Foo Festival. (By the time this publishes, it will be the day of my reading!) I’ve never made the drive, but I’ve traveled I-75 many times, so I know what to expect. But there’s still some planning and preparation I need to make before I head to Pensacola.

1. Figure out what time to leave.

The Waze app shows you the best and fastest routes to take on your road trip.

The Waze app shows you the best and fastest routes to take on your road trip.

I always show up to a conference or event the day before I have to speak, in case something goes wrong en route. But I’m also worried about traffic. I know what time traffic gets heavy around Gainesville, so I need to get through there a couple hours before or after. I use Waze to help me determine the worst times for rush hour traffic and plan accordingly. I also try to leave Orlando before rush hour begins for the same reason.

2. Check the weather on the route.
One year, when I lived in Indianapolis, we were in danger of being iced in 24 hours before we were scheduled to leave for a Florida trip. So we packed up in a hurry and headed out of town, getting about seven hours away and out of the range of the storm. We learned it’s always a good idea to be flexible in our plans if we’re traveling during a particularly harsh weather season. We have always turned to the Weather Channel’s trip planner function that will show you the expected weather along your route. This can let you plan for inclement weather and allow yourself a little extra time, or hunker down in a hotel, during a storm. Weather Underground has a similar trip planner on its website.

3. Pre-plan your stops.
While you don’t need to plan every gas stop and restroom break, you should at least have an idea of when and where you’ll break for meals. Don’t just do the whole fast food drive through thing though. For one thing, that’s a little boring for the palate, but it’s also not as healthy as getting a decent meal at a sit-down restaurant. Plus, the high carbs could make you sleepy in the afternoon. Instead, try some interesting and local restaurants; check out the RoadFood website or TVFoodMaps, an app that shows you all the different places that have been featured on the different TV programs.

4. Include a fun stop or two
There may be a few tourist sites you want to explore on your road trip, so allow yourself some extra road time. I’ve been wanting to see the Lodge cast iron cookware factory near Monteagle, Tennessee for several years, and I’m hoping this time will be my chance to see it. If you don’t have anything planned, leave some extra time anyway, in case you make an unexpected discovery along the way. Whether it’s an outlet mall, museum, or one of those small-town pecan stores — is it “pe-KAHN” or “PEE-cann?” — in Georgia, take a break and enjoy the actual “road” part of your road trip.

5. Entertain yourself

The Overcast app and Decoder Ring Radio Theatre podcasts, one of my favorites on every road trip

The Overcast app and Decoder Ring Radio Theatre podcasts, one of my favorites on every road trip

Normally, I would take a plane instead of making a 7-hour drive, but I have a few reasons for doing so. For one, it’s an issue of price — I’m taking my family, so it’s not an effective use of our money. For another, I enjoy driving, so I always love a good road trip. Plus, I get to catch up on some of my favorite podcasts while everyone else sleeps.

I recommend the Overcast app for podcasts, and the NPR news app for finding local stations along, or just use the NPR One app to listen to public radio news, shows, and podcasts on demand (like Decoder Ring Theatre’s Red Panda audio theater adventures; they produced a few of my radio plays a few years ago). And of course, there are a plethora of music streaming apps — Spotify, Pandora, iTunes Music — to choose from if you don’t like your local radio choices while you’re on the road.

How do you plan for a road trip? Do you plan and map out your route, or just jump in the car and head in that direction, hoping for the best? Share your strategies with us in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit (Waze): Erik Deckers (used with permission)
Photo credit (Overcast): Erik Deckers (used with permission)

Road Trip Survival Techniques

December 9, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Taking a road trip has always been exciting for me. I enjoy the journey as much as I enjoy the destination, and I like driving, so that makes car vacations a lot more fun for me than hopping on a plane to get where I’m going.

However, I’m also the first to admit that while road trips are fun, they get dead boring after the first hour. You pile in with your friends or family, chants of “Road trip! Road trip!” fill the car, and you play your favorite songs on the radio.

The Great American Road Trip - Death Valley

The Great American Road Trip – Death Valley

After about an hour, when everyone has (hopefully) quit chanting and you’re tired of the music, you realize you’ve got another 18 hours and 900 miles in front of you.

So how do you survive — both literally and figuratively — a long, multi-state, many-hour road trip? As a road trip veteran, I’ve got a few ideas, but I also checked with Lily Brooks-Dalton, the current Kerouac House writer-in-residence, world traveler, motorcycle road tripper, and author of Motorcycles I’ve Loved, about some of her suggestions.

1. Get your vehicle checked out

“Get your vehicle serviced before you leave,” Lily said, “and know how to handle it if things go awry.”

That means get the oil changed, get the fluids topped off, check the tires, check your battery life, and make sure your spare is properly inflated. Also, make sure your AAA card is somewhere handy.
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