The Busman’s Holiday Buffet; Travels of a Blue-Collar Foodie
I spent a good part of the last thirty years traveling around the country as a furniture mover. I worked what was called short haul, roughly within 500 miles, for the first year or so. Working out of Phoenix, AZ this job took my co-driver and I to Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and mostly, to California. The company I worked for used a Union 76 fuel account and credit card, so those were the main truck stops we stopped, fueled and ate at. The restaurant that most of those truck stops had was Denny’s.
One of the first fallacies to be forever put to rest by this experience was the “Truck drivers know the best places to eat, look for the places with the most trucks parked in their lots” myth. Truck drivers eat at places where they can park a 75’ foot long truck. Those logistics tend to limit your dining options. Think about the last restaurants you went to that had truck parking. Because we were also running on a tight schedule, staying close to the highway and making the truck stop a one-stop shopping exercise made more sense. The problem was, eating at Denny’s twice a day, six days a week, we ran through their limited menu options fairly quickly. Truck travel is a lot like business travel in that the sights, accommodations and especially the food tends to become disturbingly uniform after a while. I will die happy if I never have to see “Moons Over My Hammy” again.
The obvious solution to our boring routine was to try other dishes at other places. Some truck stop food was good. Some was more adventurous. Some was…questionable. Nothing will drive you back into the welcoming arms of the known like driving 7-800 miles after unknowingly ingesting the unknown wrapped in a bad burrito. Some of the smaller places had private, locally owned and operated restaurants or diners, while the larger ones tended to go with big fast food chains like Burger King or Wendy’s. The most common features were price and quantity. Truck driving does not pay much, and it is easy to overspend on food when every meal and snack comes at an aggravated retail price. Big and cheap and more bang for your buck was the biggest constant. We had slightly different needs from our more sedentary fellows, though, as we had to load and unload a truck full of furniture, by hand, often up and down stairs, every other day or so. We couldn’t afford to get too far out of shape or overweight.
We were still largely limited to Interstate-adjacent fare, but we did enjoy options that many other drivers did not. We drove a smaller, 24-ft long truck called a straight truck for one. We could, with varying degrees of effort, get into places the big trucks could not. Secondly, because we delivered furniture to people’s homes, we were not entirely limited to the commercial districts that freight haulers were. Our biggest constraints were time and money. We ran on something of a miserly food and lodging per diem. For us to eat someplace a cut above the truck stops, we had to scrimp and save on hotels and other meals. We also rarely knew where good restaurants were, and largely operated on a hit-and-miss strategy of trying to find places that looked promising.
The first and best thing I discovered was the endless variety of Mexican food that differed from state to state. Different Southwestern states were settled by people from different parts of Mexico, and their culinary traditions are reflected in those regional dishes. Arizona is characterized by mostly Sonoran Mexican food, while Texas offers Tex-Mex, New Mexico features the local chilies first and foremost and Colorado’s Mexican dishes tend to be more cheese-heavy. My co-driver was from Wisconsin and clearly no stranger to cheese-dominated cuisine, but tended to be a little less adventurous in reaching beyond standard Taco Bell fare. I managed to convince him that Mexican food was uniquely suited for road food owing to the spiciness of the chilies acting as on onboard disinfectant that rendered any malicious microorganisms that may be found therein stunned and inert if not totally lifeless.
I lied. He believed it. Our menu choices expanded exponentially.
The other big payoff was the occasional shot at fresh seafood when we ran to California. I spent a large part of the 80’s enjoying fresh Red Snapper at seaside restaurants before finding out in the 90’s that it probably wasn’t really Red Snapper. Whatever. My memories are unalterable. Buckets of steamed clams, Gulf shrimp and scallops, even things like abalone that didn’t quite pan out as expected were still worth living on Power Bars and sleeping in the truck for, just for the experience if nothing else. There were a few misfires, like Pacific spiny (rock) lobster and West Coast oysters that were somewhat disheartening, but were still valuable experiences. I could now say “Yes, I’ve been there and yes, I’ve tried ******. I was underwhelmed.” Moreover, I could say it with authority.
Perhaps the most important part, for me at least, was doing all of this on the clock. Actually, I worked on a percentage, so it was my clock, but I got paid to drive to these places and I not only had my meals partially subsidized as part of my pay, but I could write the remaining expenses off of my taxes. This brings me back to this blog’s title, The Busman’s Holiday. The term originally referred to bus driver’s who would vacation at the same destination that they drove paying customers to while on the clock. This also brings me to point I made earlier that truck driving really doesn’t pay very well. I developed a habit early on of structuring my work to pay for—at least in part—the things and opportunities I could not afford otherwise.