On the trail of John Steinbeck’s Joad family along Route 66
ROUTE 66 is paved with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups; we can see them in our mind’s eye, scattered along the long and winding road — almost 4000km of it — from Chicago to Los Angeles, an endless supply of the chocolate patties enveloping a salty-sweet peanut butter centre and nestling in their dainty brown paper cups.
Few treats hold as much sway over my family’s collective sweet tooth as these American candies, and we’re determined to make the most of them as we undertake the epic journey immortalised by John Steinbeck in his 1939 book, The Grapes of Wrath.
But there’s competition in Chicago, where tourists clutch bags of Garrett popcorn — an Oprah favourite — and the tempting smell of warm caramel and sugar wafts up from their purchases. At Navy Pier, a few kilometres from Jackson Boulevard, the official starting point for Route 66, we sample the cheesecorn and caramel varieties.
They’ve been blended in a single bag, and I fear this approach will confuse our tastebuds; but the combination is delightful, with sweet and savoury playing off against each other in a crunchy, flavoursome symphony.
Nearby, America’s Dog is churning out hot dogs for the lunchtime crowd; a couple of us try the Chicago Dog, which is topped with mustard, relish, onion, green peppers, pickles and celery salt. The only thing you can’t put on a Chicago hot dog is ketchup. ‘‘If you do, we’ll throw you right out of town,’’ a Chicagoan told us earlier.
But America’s Dog isn’t parochial: the company was started by two brothers who sampled hot dogs across the US and brought back the best recipes to their home city. Among these are the New York ( sauerkraut and brown mustard), the Santa Fe (jalapeno with green salsa), the Des Moines (a corn dog) and the Baltimore (deep fried with melted cheddar and onions).
Chicago, which is frigid even as spring approaches, feeds its citizens robust, satisfying fare: the city is dotted with chophouses and steakhouses and pizzerias such as Giordanos, with a celebrity rivalling that of Al Capone. Just a block down from Michigan Avenue — the so-called Magnificent Mile — we sit down to a meal of deep-dish pizza in this wood-panelled restaurant with its red-and-whitechecked tablecloths and honour roll of notable Chicagoans.
The high-sided, cheese-smothered pizza resembles a cheesecake; it is tasty but the dough overload is too much for our thincrust sensibilities.
From Chicago, Route 66 winds through the city limits to the farmland and scattered towns of Illinois; Springfield — Abraham Lincoln’s home town — is rimmed by a sprawl of fast-food joints, including Taco Bells, Steak ’n Shakes, Wendy’s, McDonald’s.
We dine at a lesser-known franchise, Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill and Bar, which aims to satisfy every palate with its menu of ribs and steaks, chicken and seafood, burgers and pasta, fries galore and sandwiches stuffed to the point of bursting.
At Devil’s Elbow, Missouri, we stop at The Elbow Inn Bar and BBQ pit, a quaint cabin set in a clearing in the woods. There’s a sign on the door advertising fish sandwiches on Fridays during Lent, but alas, today’s the big one — Good Friday — and the inn is deserted.
We retrieve a bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups from the glove box and press on.
We’re in the American heartland now, and our attention has turned to motel breakfast rooms, which are equipped with waffle irons and jugs of syrup. Route 66 is serving up a diet that exhilarates my children: sugar-infused breakfasts, fat-drenched lunches and dinners, and bottomless sodas wherever we go.
We take to composing healthier alternatives from supermarket ingredients: wholemeal rolls, cured ham, salad leaves, organic ( and sweet) California strawberries and that wonderful but overlooked beverage, water.
By now it’s Easter Sunday and the event has failed to transform itself into a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups extravaganza: the candies sit inconspicuously on supermarket shelves alongside the M&Ms and Mars bars; they are as pedestrian as Tim Tams in this country, and are beginning to lose their glow.
We pass briefly through a corner of Kansas and then Oklahoma; this is where Pa Joad from The Grapes of Wrath loaded the jalopy for the trip to California while Ma Joad cooked slices of pork, brown biscuits and gravy; a fitting meal for the gruelling Depression, but hardly necessary in these more sedentary times.
In Amarillo, Texas, the Big Texan sits astride Route 66, tempting travellers with offers of a 72-ounce (2kg) sirloin for free — as long as they can eat it within an hour. The ritual began in the 1960s when a cowboy claimed he was so hungry he could eat the whole darned cow. He ended up consuming far less than that — four one-pound steaks — but a legend was born.
We order smaller cuts of Texan beef; they come with sides such as macaroni and cheese, steak fries, cowboy beans and crumbed, deepfried okra. We’re sitting at a long table that’s covered in plastic cow- print cloths and filled to bursting with other patrons. The restaurant is like an oversized saloon — maroon-and-gold wallpaper, wagon-wheel lightshades, horseshoes tacked to the wall, stuffed animal heads staring down from below the railings.
My younger daughter is eating her meal from a cowboy hat; my son is remarking that the elderly gents crooning at a nearby table put him in mind of Johnny Cash. (Later, when they offer us a song, we ask for their favourite. It’s Cash’s Ring of Fire.)
There’s been an unexpected dearth of classic diners along Route 66, but this is remedied in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we lunch at the 66 Diner, originally housed in an art-deco gas station and sympathetically rebuilt after it burned down in 1995. It oozes nostalgia with its hot pink and turquoise decor, antique Route 66 signs, jukebox playing golden oldies and retro serviette dispensers on the tables.
We sit in a corner booth beneath a mounted turquoise Cadillac fender; the menu is of the wholesome mom’n’ pop genre: meat loaf, fried okra, sloppy joes, chicken-fried steaks, grilled liver and onions. There are banana splits, sundaes and fruit cobblers, and a vintage soda fountain that flows with black cherry, orange cream, root beer and cream soda.
I order the Road Runner, a hoagie bun filled with turkey, grilled tomato, cheddar cheese and green chilli. My mud pie milkshake is a wickedly drinkable dessert of chocolate ice cream, caramel, coffee and crushed Oreo biscuits.
It’s deja vu at the pink-andturquoise Mr D’z Route 66 Diner in Kingman, Arizona, where we breakfast on fluffy pancake stacks drenched in maple syrup. The diner feels homely and authentic; the pancakes are perfect, but if we’d arrived at lunchtime we might have tasted what are said to be the best burgers on Route 66.
We roll into Los Angeles and feast on chicken, steak and spicy enchiladas at the strangely named Cheesecake Factory, and plough through sugar-dusted grits and platefuls of eggs, pancakes, bacon and hash browns at Denny’s.
Route 66 looks different from this angle: the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups have receded into the distance, and in their place is enough down-home fare to satisfy a jalopy full of Joads. garrettpopcorn.com americasdog.com giordanos.com explorechicago.org drivingroute66.com
The 66 Diner in Albuquerque, New Mexico, oozes nostalgia with its bright decor, old Route 66 signs, jukebox playing golden oldies and mom’n’pop fare
The 66 Diner was rebuilt after it burned down in 1995
A store in Seligman, Arizona, along Route 66
A signpost along the route