Grape ex­pec­ta­tions

On the trail of John Stein­beck’s Joad fam­ily along Route 66

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - CATHER­INE MAR­SHALL

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

PHO­TOLI­BRARY

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

CATHER­INE MAR­SHALL

The 66 Diner was re­built af­ter it burned down in 1995

CATHER­INE MAR­SHALL

A store in Selig­man, Ari­zona, along Route 66

CATHER­INE MAR­SHALL

A sign­post along the route

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