I’m driving in Texas, going on road-hour 8 en route from Jackson, MS to Tyler. I’ve been off the interstate since the state line, because I’m on a mission. I’m looking for a place called Ray’s BBQ Shack.
Let me be clear: Ray’s BBQ Shack doesn’t exist in any tangible sense. Well, that’s sorta untrue because there is a place called Ray’s BBQ Shack and it’s in Houston, but I’m not talking about a literal RBBQS. Ray’s BBQ Shack is a state of mind. It’s a tier of restaurantry. RBBQS is the beautiful, perfect roadside diner that lives as-of-yet only in the realm of my fantasies.
I’m a road-food junkie to the max. I have literally wept with delight over a breakfast at an Iron Skillet in northern Wisconsin, and I change the lyrics of Tony Bennett’s classic ode to The City By The Bay to proclaim that “I left my heart at Penny’s Diner” (the one in North Platte AS OPPOSED TO THE ONE CHEYENNE). I love walking in to a trucker-friendly diner attached to a gas station, with half the town piled in while shower numbers are rattled off over the loudspeakers. I love everything about it, right down to the gag in my throat when the whites of my “over-medium” eggs run clear when I slice them open. Road food is a special slice of americana that just takes me to the place of oblivion that I love to be when I’m on the road.
Food delivers you. That’s not a tired Soviet Russia joke at all, I’m being completely serious. I should say, food delivers me. In Vicksburg, MS yesterday I went to a glorious locale called the Main Street Market Café. It was a small family-dining-room-vibed place with New Orleans jazz blaring over the speakers. It was packed to the brim with denizens of Vicksburg finishing up their Monday lunch hour and the menu boasted things like NOLA GUMBO and NICK’S CORNBREAD OF THE DAY (cornbread of the day!?!?!?). I ate the most glorious biscuits and gumbo and fried chicken my head was swimming w/ endorphins and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
But the most amazing thing about that experience (well, second to the gumbo, god damn…) was the place that that food took me. I felt The South in that moment, with the jazz and the biscuits and the thick Mississippi accents, and for a small moment my body was made of The South. I think food gives me a sense of place, which is something I hunt down with dogged perseverance as a way of life.
And that’s why I drive through vast lands, going thousands of miles out of the way to reach my “destination”. My destination is always a place, but never the final place on my list. In all the travelling I do, I’m looking for like this sense of place—a feeling, mostly, that I am in a place. To me, experiencing locations is intricately tied to the traditions, the idiosyncrasies of life there, the slang, the accent, and the food. That is what makes a place, the collection of these things, and immersing myself in them right down to picking up the accent and reading the Wikipedia article for the high school, that is how you can say “I’m been in Tyler, TX” as opposed to “I’ve been to Tyler, TX”.
Which is a pretty ridiculous semantic complication, I undertand, but it’s important to me. I find it infinitely fascinating to experience a place and let my heart be filled with its spirit. I’m not sure what created the void of place that I have inside me, but I’ve been this way as long as I can remember. As a result, I’ve travelled thousands of miles through every state, in what I consider to be the only true way to see the country: by car. Not only by car, but by non-interstate highway (not to denigrate interstate culture, which rules).
Today I’m driving from Tyler to Denton via non-interstate roads with intermediate stops along the way at any relevant food stops. I’ll keep y’all updated.