Mini-marts, once home to snack foods, beer, candy and cigarettes have seen the writing on the nutritional wall and signed on for healthier fare. It’s hard to imagine a driver of an 18-wheeler, pulling up to a 7-Eleven, then hitting the road with a banana and a meal in a box — cheese cubes, grapes, hummus and mini-pita rounds, but times are a’ changing.
Starbucks opened the eyes of travelers with coffee options and better sandwich and breakfast choices. Stopping for a snack is certainly not venturing into gourmet heaven, but we are light years from the road food of our college years — a pack of peanuts, opened and poured into a bottle of Coke.
Owners of 7-Elevens now testify turkey sandwiches and packaged yogurt with fruit are their most popular food items.
One of the reasons for this healthier curve is the demise of cigarette smoking as a national habit. Cigarettes, once the grab “’em and go” staple for long-distance truck drivers, are down on the list of late night cravings.
Today, if travel by car or truck has taken us far from home during the holidays, in the Northeast, we can take a break and buy a packaged turkey, dressing and cranberry sauce sandwich in 7-Eleven stores. In the Miami area, we can peel back paper from Cuban po’boys.
I grew up on tales of truck stops as good off-road eating places, harder to come by today as interstates beckon us to food stops tied to gas stations.
In the Black Belt of Alabama, (named for its cotton growing soil properties) there was a legendary fried chicken haven attached to a Gulf station. Folks came from miles around and travelers added to lines of hungry chicken lovers, filling paper boxes with wings, thighs and legs, then sitting under old pecan trees to eat their way through lazy lunches, taking short naps before moving on.
We have friends, two couples, who once made five stops on the back roads from Florida to Georgia. They were headed home, but critiquing fried chicken places along the way.
Barbeque carries its own mythology. Let the word go forth there is pulled pork to die for down the highway and the faithful will open their car windows to follow the smell of ribs, smoking on a cinder block pit.
Lord knows we need less than 800 calorie lunches as we rack up miles to our destinations. 7-Elevens now offer mini jelly doughnuts and tacos, figuring every bit of fat gone south, matters.
But there is still something about the thrill of the hunt, checking a road map to find that gumbo place in Mississippi, the one guaranteed to send travelers to shrimp and crab nirvana.
Once, on a trip to Key West, I carried a newspaper article written by a food editor after his search for the best key lime pie in the Keys. We drove at a snail’s pace through Key Largo, checking addresses, looking for “Manny and Issa’s,” an eatery winning the Key lime pie contest.
Finally, in a stand of scrub pines, a sign pointed the way to a small white house, reinvented as a restaurant. We ordered the pie. Then we bought a pie and came back for paella, definitely on the “best” list.
“Manny and Issa’s” was a road trip find. Now, when we look back on a tour of Hemingway’s house and a Key West café with chickens roaming in the yard, it is the key lime pie we covet.
So, as a 7-Eleven takes us from nachos and chili to celery sticks, let’s hope all stand-by snacks from years past do not disappear from their shelves. Two hundred miles down the highway and I start to day dream of ripping cellophane from a package of peanut butter crackers!
Judy Elliott is an award-winning columnist from Marietta.