Some people feel that variety is the spice of life. I’m on board with that concept, but I think we need to remember that spice is actually a bigger part of the spice of life. Bland doesn’t work that well a lot of the time. Sure, it has its place. “Man, what a great funeral! And the food! Did you try the _____?”
Other than that, a bit more flavor is typically a good thing.
My folks, my sister, her daughter and I found ourselves on a trip to Alaska in an RV with plenty of time on our hands. Rather than just stopping at a grocery store and filling up with ham sandwiches and all the potato chips we could haul, we decided to hit a few spots for meals instead and leave the service to someone else. This was vacation. The whole point of it is to relax and see a few things you don’t normally see in your daily life. In the case of my mother in particular, the whole point for us was to get someone else to do all the cooking and give her a break. After all, this year marks my parents’ 60thanniversary. Mom has been in charge of cooking for a long time.
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Some of the meal choices were left to me. My decision was influenced by a couple of different things. The food was right close to the top, but access to it was a pretty close second. You don’t just whip into any joint in the world with a 31’ Winnebago as your mode of transport. Stopping somewhere to eat was usually a two-step process. I’d pull up to the front door and let my passengers out. Then I’d do my best to find a parking space somewhere within easy walking distance for me that would still allow me to get the moto-whale back out of that spot when we were done. On a couple of occasions, the foot miles I was wracking up didn’t match up with the rest of my party. “Oh, the sign says RV parking is somewhere down the street, toward the bottom of the hill.”
We got lucky on one of my choices. I tossed out Mexican food as an option and it was well-received. Not only that, but the Mexican place was right next to the highway with a huge parking lot that was almost empty. My crew was still on Central Time, so we were hungry in the middle of the afternoon when no one was around. We whipped in the parking lot (okay, as whipped as you can with a moto-whale) and got ourselves a table in short order. That’s when I discovered a menu item I’d never had before – Halibut fish tacos. WOW! We need to figure out a way to get fresh halibut somewhere within an hours’ drive of my house on a regular basis. The Mexican part of it only made things better.
Another part of the trip took us to Fairbanks.
We did some sightseeing and then we were ready to eat. Once again, the decision on where to eat was left to me. It was kind of raining, so this one didn’t look like it would be a situation where I’d drop everyone else off and then park eight blocks away so I could walk through the rain to get there as their entrees made it to the table. I decided to enlist some technical help. My cell phone carrier did not have a data-sharing plan with anyone in Alaska, so we had no Internet and no GPS on my phone. What we did have was Gladys, the voice of my Garmin GPS. Perhaps you remember her by her other name from previous stories: Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong.
We got Gladys cranked up and went to the menu for dining options. What with me being the decision-maker, I tossed out BBQ as our category of choice. There were no objections from the audience, so that was the plan. One of the options wasn’t too far away. That made it a whole lot easier for me to decide it was our best choice.
Oddly enough, it sounded vaguely familiar, too, so I decided that was a good sign. The place was called Big Daddy’s. There was a Big Daddy’s in Des Moines at one time that had one of the hottest BBQ sauces around. If you finished your entire sandwich, your picture went on the wall. The heat from the sauce was powerful enough that you had to sign a waiver before you began eating. One of my other sister’s coworkers managed to polish off his sandwich and get his photo on the wall. He was dripping wet with sweat when it was all done, so the photo wasn’t exactly portfolio-quality. Oh, and he was a in a wheelchair, too, so the photo had more of a cause-and-effect look to it than just a plain portrait for the Sandwich Wall of Fame!
Lo and behold, this Big Daddy’s had some parking right across the street where a guy could stow his moto-whale and not have to strap on the hiking boots and provisions for the epic journey to the front door. As soon as I walked in the door, I realized why the place was familiar. There on the wall, struck in a pose of his typical subtlety, was a photo of none other than Guy Fieri! This place had been on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives!
I always did like Gladys best.
The menu hadn’t even arrived yet and I knew I wanted some Texas Toothpicks. They are breaded strips of jalapenos with plenty of flavor. Our mission was to see some different things on this trip, so I decided to order a few appetizers and get my folks to sample a bit of everything. Texas Toothpicks looked like a good way to start the list.
Our server showed up and took our drink order as we perused the menu. We’d always given my mom a hard time about her tendency to order soup or clam chowder on a lot of these visits. She knows what she likes and she’s not afraid to order it if she can. This time, though, she went a different route. Her choice was Buffalo Wings. I was a bit skeptical, because the little flame insignias next to them on the menu indicated there was some major heat involved. Mom said it didn’t bother her, because she liked some heat. Besides, she had gotten Buffalo Wings at Fareway, our local grocery store, and she liked them.
Well, this should be interesting. Growing up in a Norwegian Lutheran church environment most of my life, “adding some flavor” usually meant putting two drops of green food coloring in the Cool-Whip before you added it to the red Jell-O salad. Salsa was more or less the food equivalent of the Lambada – The Forbidden Condiment.
The lovely young server was more than surprised that Elsie was going with the Buffalo Wings. “Now, those are pretty hot. Are you sure that’s what you want?” she asked in her best kindergarten teacher voice.
“Yes, I’ve had them before at Fareway. I like some heat,” Elsie replied.
The Fareway reference was totally lost on our server. She looked at me to make sure this order was legit and she shouldn’t try to talk Elsie out of them. I nodded my approval.
We got a few other appetizers, too. A guy can never eat too many Moose Nuggets, in my opinion. As any decent Animal Science major will tell you, they come from the most tender part of the moose.
The food showed up a short while later.
As soon as the Buffalo Wings were placed in front of Elsie, our server gave her another warning about the heat. She then glanced at Elsie’s half-empty glass and promised to be right back with another Diet Coke for her. She returned in no time. You’d have thought she was getting the bucket brigade started for a house fire. In a way, she was. Everyone else’s needs could wait, because she had food triage to do here and that meant keeping the beverage vessel topped off for our power-eater.
The only downside to the whole affair was that the whole menu had enough natural lubrication to it that my hands were always slippery. Only one or two photos turned out well enough to publish. The rest were kind of blurry as my sauce-and-grease-soaked fingers fumbled with my phone. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that the best photos of my parents need to be snagged in as sneaky a fashion as possible. Taking the time to wet-nap and dry my hands meant they’d see what was going on and not play ball for a photo. I did manage to snag one shot right as the plate of wings was set in front of Elsie. From now on, I may ask for a rosin bag when we sit down.
All through the meal, our server kept stopping by to check on us. She always came to the end where Elsie was seated and looked in on her first. I think she was amazed that Mom had no problem with the wings. In fact, she was enjoying them immensely! The Diet Cokes kept making their way to that end of the table with surprising regularity. No puffs of steam or smoke were coming from Mom’s ears, but you could tell she was starting to bead up as she worked her way through the pile of wings. If you break a sweat when you eat, that’s always a good sign in my book.
When it was all said and done, our server got us a couple of boxes for some leftovers. The wings were gone. She put her arm around Elsie and congratulated her on her accomplishment. “We rarely get anyone who can eat that many before they give up because they’re so hot.”
Hey, listen, doggy bags are for wimps and to-go orders!
The rest of the group headed out the door for the RV while I paid the tab. I told the server that we were here on a trip for my folks’ 60thanniversary. She was stunned, to put it mildly, so I tossed out Elsie’s age.
“Seriously? Boy, I wasn’t sure she’d be able to handle it. We almost never have anyone make it through those wings, but she was a trooper. If I’d have known it was their anniversary, I would have given them a cupcake or something to celebrate. She is somethin’!”
No argument here. My next goal is to introduce Elsie to Guy Fieri. Oh, and Joey Chestnut, too. We’ve got heat down. Now we need to work on volume and speed!
Jeff Ryan is Guy No. 2 in the operation of Two Guys Farming, Inc., near Cresco, IA.
Jeff farms during the day, but in the evening he e-mails his observations about life on the farm to his city-dwelling friends. He weaves these observations into entertaining stories that are sure to bring recognition, sometimes tears, but mostly a few smiles and outright belly laughs.