Ah, the rest stop. Found along an off-ramp that doesn’t exit the highway, it's a place where people refuel their vehicles and themselves and where they eliminate solid and liquid waste from their bodies — and from their pets. When it comes to eating along a toll road, there isn't much choice: just the rest stop. When my family hits the road — often with our car filled to the brim — there's no time to pack a lunch, so we either time the drive to occur between meals or we suck it up and go to one of these places.
Here's the problem: the food at a rest stop can leave a person feeling downright ill. In fact, one’s compulsion to call rest stop food food depends upon one’s personal definition of the word. On Friday, I had a roast beef sandwich and curly fries at Roy Rogers at the Walt Whitman stop of the New Jersey Turnpike. These items were not food.
Why are our food options during road travel limited to industrial products? Why does the State of New Jersey award restaurant contracts only to companies that serve unhealthy, unnatural things? Peek behind the counter and behold workers scraping greasy griddles with sharp spatulas, pulling drippy baskets out of deep fryers, and running aluminum and azodicarbonamide- and HFCS-laden bread rolls. Ick! Sure, traveling people want food fast, but I know better options exist — options that would produce wholesome foods dished out to customers in a cafeteria-style environment. Been to Ikea lately?
I call for revolution. I challenge the Governor of New Jersey or the heffe of the NJ Turnpike Authority or whoever it is to alter the paradigm and, somewhere around Exit 7 — smack in the middle of the New Jersey Turnpike roadway — 86 one factory food spot and replace it with some folks who make real food. Test the market with something good and see if the people will come. I think they will. Who knows: people may even begin to look forward to the drive — all because they can’t wait to have an excellent roast chicken and potatoes with thyme and rosemary on the Turnpike.
Imagine what popularity would befall Woodrow Wilson or Richard Stockton if, rather than racks of foil paper-wrapped old sandwiches made with patties of questionable provenance, travelers could choose from fresh roasted meats, burgers cooked to order, and actual vegetables that are not fried. The people serving these foods could be the same people who have made them — from scratch! The business could use ingredients raised and grown on nearby farmland -- thus boosting local economies with new, dependable demand for their quality goods.
Imagine the applause from New York Times food writer Mark Bittman and the hoards of people who would choose this place instead of Roy Rogers, Burger King, and Nathan’s. Better still, imagine the improved feeling in your gut as you drive away, having consumed a healthy chemical-free road lunch. Sitting in the car — currently made uncomfortable due to the french fries and cinnamon buns and chickeny things — for another hour or two would feel less bad. Feel better just thinking about it? Me too. Revolution, I say.
It could be a place where — like in the cafeterias of yore — customers can choose from fruits on ice, ceramic plates with fat wedges of homemade cakes and merangues and tarts, self-service breads and soups and salads, fresh pizzas made with both unbleached wheat and sprouted-wheat quinoa doughs. Of course, the list could go on.
Impossible? I think not, because they do it in France. I’d seen it several years ago just west of Montpelier. I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but I was floored by the presence of fruit! So this summer, during a drive on the A11 from the north coast of Brittany to Paris, I stopped at a random rest stop just east of Chartres. My friend Laurent had urged me to stop in Chartres to see the church — “It’s a masterpiece,” he said — but I wanted rest stop food on the French toll road.
I had a quarter roast chicken with sauteed spinach, a roasted tomato, and a steamed mixture of carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. The chicken, of course, was breasty compared to ours; the tomato was sweet and juicy; and the mixed vegetables were salted just right. $10. You would spend more than that for less (and worse) food at a road stop in the US. It can work here.
To take a look at some of the items offered along the toll road in France, please rollover the above photo and click through the slideshow. And do consider this: don’t we deserve better in the USA?
I visited l'Arche Cafeteria at the Aire de Chartres-Bois near Gasville-Oisème.
For general information about food options within the French highway system, visit the Motorway Services website.
My favorite cultural homage to the New Jersey Turnpike is the song Big Road by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.