In Search Of Cherry Pie
I once travelled from Seattle to New Orleans in a campervan called Sea Breeze, with only my boyfriend and John Cleese for company.
This is what happened. It was 2008 and Obama had just been elected. When we left Brooklyn there was a palpable sense of optimism in the cold March air. Our plan was simple. We would fly to the West Coast and then drive south from Seattle, tracing the edge of the continent all the way to Los Angeles. From there we would head inland through Nevada and Texas, ending up in New Orleans on the other side of the country.
We saved up some money, borrowed a friend’s campervan, bought two sleeping bags that we zipped together and a GPS with a choice of 35 voices. This was America, anything else we needed – like food for example – we could find on the road. Right?
In the tiny microcosm of Sea Breeze we felt like royalty. What could be more luxurious than one of us being able to drive while the other one made coffee at the same time. By day we drove and took turns in doing blind tastings of any one of the 135 flavours of Jelly Belly sweets. By night we snuggled into the “loft” bed space above the front seats. Thanks to my boyfriend’s love of Monty Python, the voice of John Cleese accompanied us all down the Pacific Northwest as our GPS guide, exhorting us to “please mind the gap” and “for heaven’s sake man, I said turn left”.
We had spent many winter nights in New York plotting our route on a jumbo sized wall map and dreaming about driving across the Golden Gate bridge in the sunshine, walking under red woods, sleeping under the stars at the edge of the Grand Canyon and eating jambalaya in the French Quarter. But there was one thing I wanted to find more than any other. It was my Shangri-La, my El Dorado, the windmill at which I tilted my ambition. It was cherry pie.
I had it all figured out. We would be driving along some dusty back road with the windows down and the wind blowing our hair back, when in the distance we would spy the friendly glow of a roadside diner. We would pull up outside in a slow crunch of gravel and walk from the darkness into the light. Inside, Roy Orbison would be singing for the lonely on the radio. A sad-eyed waitress would be flicking through a magazine behind the counter. She would be wearing a pastel uniform with white trim and her name badge would read Gloria or Betty or Lucy. She would sidle up to us with a pot of coffee in one hand and a careworn expression on her face and – this was the important part – she would then call me sugar and offer me a slice of puh-eye. And it wouldn’t be any of that key lime nonsense or some sadsack piece of peach cobbler. It would be true red-blooded cherry pie. It would smell like an orchard on a summer afternoon. It would be crowned with braided golden pastry, specked with glints of sugar. Beneath the pastry there would be the promise of ripe fruit swimming in dark, glossy syrup. With every forkful the syrup would spill across the plate in a sweet, slow ooze of red. Lipstick red. Lollipop red. The red of desire. I would take a bite and in some strange alchemical way I would finally feel at home, like I belonged in this here United States of America.
I am no stranger to ugly food. My list of top three Hideous Dishes reads like a foodie’s horror film:
- Haddock sautéed in milk (when Granny came to stay)
- Nuttikrust biscuits (admittedly delicious but populating the tea times of my childhood like little brown dassie poos)
- Tomato sauce and tuna pasta (the gory necessity of student days)
But I had not counted on just how dire the food would be on our travels. With the exception of some bright spots of flavour along the way (the pho in Portland, the bao in San Francisco, the burritos in Tucson), the food was dismal. Which is not to say that fresh ingredients and Michelin stars don’t abound in North America but merely that they’re hard to access if you’re driving around in a sodding great lump of campervan, with champagne taste, a beer budget and John Cleese telling you you’re a daft bastard.
In Seattle we had seafood platters in which anaemic-looking clams had been drowned in oil in their own shells and then topped with fake cheese. In Astoria we found the worst hotdogs on the planet (the ketchup carried the same warnings seen on barrels of radioactive waste) and in many towns we were reduced to whichever neon fast food sign loomed out of the darkness next to the highway. Never a big fan of the genre, after a couple of days of burgers and nuggets they all bled together into one terrible blur of McBurgerWendyKFCKing. To add insult to gastrointestinal injury, I have never been able to speak Fastfoodese. On entering such establishments I turn into a sweaty mess who splutters things like, “I’d like a cheese pounder with super fries please”.
But by far the worst was the all-you-can-eat Steakountry Buffet, just off Route 90 in Houston. What made it ugly was not the dimness of the interior, the banality of the food or the fact that the buffet was laid out in long banks of what looked like animal feed troughs. What made it ugly were the dozens of people who sat alone in booths, silently bringing their forks to their mouths with robotic repetition. They didn’t look like they were having a good time. They looked grimly determined. This was not food for pleasure or nourishment or conviviality. This was food as some terrible duty.
I looked for pie down the length of California and all the way from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon. Even with Arizona in the rear view mirror I figured somewhere between Tucson and Houston the best little diner in Texas must surely be waiting for me. Alas, we crossed the state line into Louisiana with not a pie crumb in sight.
We had arrived at the last pin in our map: New Orleans. Here, the food was a revelation. If the rest of our route had proved that the world’s wealthiest country was not necessarily the richest in flavour, New Orleans showed us that ugly food could taste delicious. With every new dish we tried, from fried oyster po’boys with hot sauce to shrimp étoufée, we fell more in love with New Orleans. Like the city itself, the food was a humid brassy blast of spicy, salty, sweetness.
Finally, after one last sugar-powdered beignet, it was time to leave. We packed John into a box destined to be opened on a different continent and flew back to New York. I watched the ground fall away beneath the plane and thought of my recent discoveries: that no architecture can rival the majesty of the red woods, that highways in Los Angeles are terrifying things, that Las Vegas smells like hand sanitizer and sadness. But most of all that if you want to eat well you should seek out those people who have most recently arrived from other places and those places with the greatest number of different kinds of people. This is where you will find food cooked for flavour and made to be shared. Not all of it will be pretty (tell me gumbo is good looking and I’ll call you a liar) but none of it will be ugly. To be truly ugly, food has to be made industrially fast by those with an appetite only for profit, to be eaten by people who live by the sad, endless mantra of more, more, more.
As for that pie, well, I search for it still. Gloria-Betty-Lucy if you’re reading this I’m here sugar, and I still need pie.
Ambre Nicolson is a writer and adventurous eater who lives in Cape Town.