When I moved cross-county for the second time in the span of a year, this time eastbound from San Francisco to Providence, I took the scenic route in order to taste as many local specialties as possible. The trip wasn’t undertaken as any sort of statement on sustainability nor as a nod to the “locavore” movement. It was just meant simply to be fun.
But after more than five weeks on the road, I found that eating locally proved to be more than delicious, it was also a good bargain and a window into local culture.
Sure, sometimes it seems easier to hit the drive-through when the stomach growls. Fast food and chain restaurants are no doubt convenient, but let’s face it: a quick cheeseburger in the car is uninspiring at best, and at their worst, ubiquitous burger joints threaten our waistlines and our country’s collective culinary history.
Don’t get me wrong, I do eat at fast food chains, sometimes I even crave one of those burgers on a toasty bun. But eating local specialties and dishes prepared from the catch or crop of the day taste good, and usually come with a good story attached.
While on the road, I made a detour through Nevada to the tiny town of Winnemucca in order to savor Basque cuisine. The Basque migrated to the U.S. from France and Spain in large numbers during the California gold rush, but many found more prosperity in sheep herding throughout the West. Like many immigrant cuisines, Basque-American cooking evolved to incorporate cheap, local ingredients with styles and techniques from back home.
What does Basque-American food taste like? In Nevada, it’s simply a prepared lamb shank braised in the flavors of the old country: wine and garlic. An inexpensive cut of locally raised lamb and an old family recipe made for a delicious dining experience, especially since most of the long-established Basque restaurants serve the food family-style at large tables meant for groups of friends, family, and strangers alike.
What’s the best way to eat out locally — at home and on the road — on the cheap?
- Look for discounts in the form of lunch specials, early bird entrees, and prix fixe menus
- Follow local restaurants on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media sites as many use these tools as a way to communicate daily specials to loyal patrons
- Take another look at long-existing mom & pop restaurants. Like the Basque in Nevada and the many Italian-American restaurants in the northeasts, the older generations were the original locavores — most often out of necessity. Many of these local institutions still stick with the original recipe.
- Don’t dismiss a less than shiny exterior — the whole book by a cover adage. I’m not alone in knowing that many of the best meals I’ve ever eaten have come from hole-in-the-wall dives.
Here are a few helpful websites:
This is a great site (they also publish a book, called RoadFood) for locating often hard-to-find hotspots specializing local road food favorites across the country. From fried chicken to stewed sweetbreads, the site and book are a must-have for road trips.
Eat Well Guide
While the site is by no means comprehensive, it’s the web’s best answer to a national database of restaurants serving a bevy of locally grown and raised foods.
Culinate Farmer’s Market Search
Because sometimes you just need a snack. This search tool will quickly locate all the farmer’s market close-by so you can stop for a sweet strawberry or cup of locally roasted java.
If you still need a reason to eat local, do so because sometimes eating locally tastes different from region to region. And in this case, different is good. Very, very good, and delicious to boot.
Copyright 2009, Shoestring LLC. Photo: iStock.