The First Road Food Authority

This is the last posting where I describe a 50th birthday present. So far, I’ve posted about my membership in the “jerky of the month” club and about the astounding cake that was made to celebrate the occasion. This last gift I’m going to describe was the perfect gift: one that combines a shared passion between Maureen and I about food, food history and road travel along the older, more interesting highways in the USA.

Maureen and I have discovered over the years that our favourite vacation is a free-form road-trip with a considerable number of miles and a very loose timetable. We plan our starting point and end point and like to be fairly flexible over the 2 weeks between them. We have a couple of guidelines we’ve created for ourselves to make sure we take in the whole experience:

  1. As little time on the interstate as possible. They all look the same and are massively uninteresting.
  2. We can stop anytime, anywhere to take photos.
  3. No chain restaurants.
  4. If we want to take an extra day in a spot, we do. There’s no such thing as “making good time”.
  5. Meet the people, and “soak in” the location
  6. Our biggest burden, program the tunes and pre-load the iPod to provide the soundtrack for the miles as they go by.

The road trips these days are fairly easy to plan. We decide on a route with Google Maps, we consult Roadfood.com and WhereTheLocalsEat.com, look at FlavortownUSA.com for and “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” locations near our route, and book lodgings and research places of interest on TripAdvisor.com.  The whole thing – flights, car rental, lodging and maybe a special restaurant reservation or two, takes about an hour to book online. Of course, we have a pre-programmed GPS unit to guide us along the road and through intricate maneouvers in strange cities.

We marvel at the ease of the procedure and have often wondered aloud on how these things were done in the past without the web and without on-line booking. You’d need:

  1. Road maps big and small. In our case we often cross state lines 5 or 6 times per trip. That’s a lot of detailed maps, to get city detail, state detail and area coverage.
  2. Travel books and guides – for each city, state and area
  3. Restaurant guides – for each city, state and area
  4. Long arduous research with a lot of cross matching and planning
  5. Big long-distance bills for booking all of lodging and reservations by phone.
  6. Dumb, hit-and-miss luck – the best road food, the cool point of interest, the one-of-a-kind curiosity? Maybe. Maybe not.

We were watching on of our favorite shows of late, Alton Brown’s “Feasting on Asphalt”, in which, across a couple of seasons, he, and an entourage crosses the USA East to West and South to North on motorcycle with many of the same rules as we use. One of the stops was in Bowling Green Kentucky, where he told the story of Duncan Hines. You know: the cake mix guy.

Before the cake and cookie mixes, before becoming part of a food empire that also features Vlasic Pickles, Swanson Frozen Dinners, Lender’s Bagels, and Aunt Jemima Breakfast foods, Duncan Hines was an actual, living, breathing person with a totally different claim to fame. He was a traveling salesman, and on the pre-interstate American highways and byways, traveling salesmen and truckers knew where to eat. What set Duncan Hines apart was that he appreciated good food and service and soon had an encyclopedic knowledge of the best spots in many town, cities and roadsides in America.

Much of the story is told here (DO click the link, it’s fascinating). He starting creating lists of recommended restaurants for friends and family and the list of recipients soon grew to warrant a minor publishing empire. A listing in the annual “Duncan Hines’ Adventures in Good Eating” guidebook was a badge of honour for a restaurant and was the early equivalence of a multi-star rating from today’s major food publishers. Establishments proudly placed placards stating they were listed and diners from all over America relied on Duncan Hines for advice on where to eat. It was the first guidebook of it’s kind and capitalized on the growing automobile culture in America from the late 40s to the 60s.

An establishment bearing this sign in the window met a high standard of service and quality. Travelers looked for this and made dining decisions based on seeing it.

Maureen gave me a pristine copy of the 1950 edition of the guide. It’s a fairly thorough undertaking. Listings from all over North America are covered, organized by country and state. There are brief  descriptions of a restaurant, its best dishes, and price ranges for each meal time. It really is a slice of American history and is a fascinating look at the foodie culture of 60 years ago when considering food as an integral part of travel was in its infancy.

 

The two listings for Ottawa, both restaurants long gone, the first replaced by modern office buildings and the second, closed to make way for the National Arts Centre (ain’t Google great?). By the way, check out those prices!

Click HERE to see an old ad for the Bytown Inn.

 

A Listing for the Toll House (yes, famous for those cookies.) Thank goodness for the cookies, there’s no liquor!
Other Duncan Hines guides offered to the traveler.

It was the great gift from someone who complains that I’m tough to buy for. I’m glad for that as it makes for interesting presents and this year was no exception.

 

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