Why eat road trip food when there’s Creamy Polenta waiting at home?

Posted on August 9, 2011

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I took a quick roadtrip this past weekend to Washington D.C. to attend the American Psychological Association (APA) Convention. My husband and I left at 3:00 am Saturday morning and were back by 6:00 pm Sunday evening.

As I was roadtripping (and tripping over bad food habits on the road) a group of activists also started out on a Road Trip for Real Food. I just learned about Live Real’s Food and Freedom Rides, and I couldn’t be more inspired. Thirteen Real Food fellows have set out on a roadtrip from Alabama to Michigan to, “commemorate the Freedom Rides of the Civil Rights era with a journey exposing injustices and innovations in communities across America.” They are will be traveling for the next ten days “to expose and uplift stories from farmers, food chain workers and food and freedom fighters,” seeking to educate communities across the United States about food policy issues and to demonstrate that “Real Food” is a solution. Right on. I will be following their progress and hopefully following more closely in their footsteps soon, but unfortunately, I didn’t do such a good job this weekend.

I did try. As we were making preparations for the trip, of course I was planning meals. I brewed coffee on Friday night so a cup of milky iced joe, in lieu of Dunkin Donuts, was ready by departure time. We packed banana walnut muffins and a few handfuls of fresh cherries for breakfast on the drive down, and on Saturday afternoon, the convention had organized a “food truck festival,” which I tried to work into my schedule for lunch, but the lines were so long that all I could manage was to hit up the grilled cheese sandwich truck, which had no line and only a few “barely buzzed” — swiss on sourdough — sandwiches left, and the popsicle truck. Selecting the deep purple “blackberry cream” popsicle was not very wise considering I was wearing a white blouse, but I made it through to the next session nourished and unstained. I shared the excitement of the day with my husband over a neon blue cocktail called the “flying tulip” at Pasara in Dupont Circle  and a bowl of spicy yellow curry for dinner. After another banana walnut muffin, one last session at the convention, and a drive around the National Mall, my husband and I were back on the road to New York by Sunday at noon.

And that’s where we really got trapped. There are quite a few “service areas” on the New Jersey Turnpike. Auntie Annie’s, Burger King, Cinnabon. Fond memories about meals (yes, I am referring to meals at Cinnabon here) at such places began to float into my tired, sleep-deprived brain, and suddenly I was pretty hungry. I wanted a milkshake. Yes, and french fries. Maybe a cheeseburger. And a cinnamon roll. Come on, pleeeease?

One of the plenary sessions at the convention this year was given by Dr. Brian Wansink, a consumer psychologist who heads the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab and is the founder of MindlessEating.org. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend his session since it happened earlier in the week, but I have long been following Dr. Wansink’s work. He has demonstrated through a number of studies that what we eat is largely dictated by our environment. (For example, if you serve dinner on a salad plate rather than an oversized dinner plate, you will eat less and still feel full.)

So here’s my problem… how can I get those road signs advertising all that fast food to stop grabbing my eye? I actually thought about the fact that all that food was no good, neither for me nor for the environment, and since learning to cook and becoming more knowledgeable about good food, a lot of what was advertised seemed less appetizing than in previous years (even the cinnamon rolls looked a little too sweet)…but I still caved. I got Popeye’s and a chocolate milkshake from Carvel.

It’s not like we were a million miles from home, though, and it’s not like I didn’t have a bowl of creamy polenta, topped with mozzarella cheese, sausage, and garden fresh tomatoes, and bright green basil, waiting for me.

The tomato from my friend’s garden was ripe to perfection by time we arrived. After waiting all summer for such a tomato, I couldn’t wait a few measly hundred miles to enjoy it? No, I indulged in ketchup packets instead…

I am very awed and proud of the work being done by the roadtrippers on the Food and Freedom Ride. They are confronting major challenges in our cultural environment through education and political activism. And as suggested by Dr. Wansink’s work, that really is a key solution.

I bet the Real Food riders eat good, too. I hope my next road trip is more like theirs.

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