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March 06, 2007

Day 1: Brooklyn to Chicago

Illustration by Graham Roumieu

I first met Graham not long before he and his wife split up. Graham is an illustrator and he's coming with join me on the trip across America, partly because, like me, he wants to gauge the state of the American soul, but also because Graham is one of those people who really likes road trips.

Graham grew up in a place called Smithers, British Columbia, which is about 300 miles south of the Alaska border. That may explain why Graham has written not one, but two books about Bigfoot although in my opinion, the best picture he's ever drawn is of smurfs.

Blizzard_80days We started dim and early out of Brooklyn yesterday morning, rising at 5 a.m., and hitting the road by 6. We drove under the Hudson River, past Jersey City, and eventually crossed over the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. Like almost every other river we crossed today, the Delaware was unmarked, an idiotic signage policy that deadens the sense of geography. The Poconos rose up big in front of us, and by 9 a.m. the irony and edge of New York City had given way to the dependable sincerity of the countryside. By 11 a.m. we bought a half tank of gas and met our first full on local. He had an easy manner and when I asked him how he was doing, he said, "A little tard" (tired).

By early afternoon, we had seen two car accidents, eight dead deer, a Cartman doll face-down in a pool of motor oil, and a sign for the "Wendell August Historic Forge." This is the world that is I-80. The Poconos served up no fewer than five snowstorms, the worst of which was a full-fledged blizzard, but when it wasn't snowing, there was blazing sun.

Salad_bar_80days_1We turned off the freeway and drove a little way's south to a place called Newton Falls for lunch. It's a town with a big water tower and a nice enough main street where there's a barber shop called "Sheer Madness." We ate just up the road at the local trough called Roby Lee's. Everyone who was anyone in Newton Falls ate lunch at Roby Lee's, which has an old school salad bar--bacon bits, shredded cheese, iceberg lettuce, Russian dressing, etc.--the likes of which I haven't seen in a couple decades at least. Unfortunately, the food was bad. I had a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of chili. The cheese was some of the most processed I've ever tasted, and you could taste the canned tomato sauce in the chili. The meal didn't seem so much cooked as assembled. Graham's turkey with mashed potatoes and stuffing was edible, but we were both sure it came out of a box.

It's not easy saying these things. Everyone here likes the place just fine, and the  last thing I want to be the kind of mincing food writer who waltzes into small towns and starts complaining if the bread is made with anything other than heritage wheat. The point, though, is that the meal truly sucked, while, all around us, were endless fields of farmland. That just isn't right, I don't care what you say.

When we got back to the car, the lights were still on.

By the time we hit Indiana, the land flattened and the anger level on AM talk radio started rising. The latest controversy was about a bankrupt school board that blew $350,000 on a baseball field for the students. We passed two RV factories as well as a number of dealerships.

Mark and his (loaner) Mercedes E320

Chicago started as a sprawl of industrial jungle--smokestacks, rusty looking machinery and cranes. But finally, after a long build-up, the city presented itself with the same kind of looming grandeur as the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz, a collection of tall skyscrapers shimmering at the end of the highway. We drove write into the thick of buildings and stopped at the Primehouse for a steak dinner, only miles from the Union Stockyards, a place that not a single person in my hotel had ever heard of.

The big story at Primehouse is its bull, who is named Prime. Prime is known for siring progeny with densely marbled flesh that achieves the USDA grade of Prime, which is why David Burk, the owner of Primehouse, paid a quarter of a million dollars for his prize bull. These days, Prime bides his time on a farm in Kentucky impregnating the unending line of cows that are presented to him. In short, it is the ultimate male life, though if I were Prime, I think I'd choose someplace more exotic, like Monaco or Tokyo.

Across from us was a table of strapping guys, downing steak and red wine and erupting in laughter every forty-three seconds, or so. I would bet good money that each owned a large high-definition TV for sports-viewing purposes. The women here seem to wear more make-up than women in New York City, but the intention is to look as though they aren't wearing any make-up at all, which is not how the women in New York City do it.

The steak was good, but not great. I had a rib eye that had been dry aged downstairs in the restaurant's rock salt-tiled aging room for 40 days. The problem was that, like all grain-fed beef, it had a rich mouth-filling fattiness, but not much in the way of actual beef flavor which, let's face it, is the whole point of steak. The charred exterior was pleasantly bitter, and the flesh itself, cooked rare, had great texture, but you could hardly taste the beef. That may be why Primehouse serves two in-house steak sauces, both of which taste stronger than ketchup.

So far, I haven't seen anyone with corn-fed teeth. But I'm looking.

Tonight we sleep in Cheyenne.


I was a truck driver a few years back, before I went to college, and I could never find good food on the road. Most of it's mediocre at best and some of it is absolutely inedible at worst.

If you should happen to find food that's actually good, I'd bet we'd all like to hear about it.

And the Cartman doll face down in a pool of motor oil is amusing. I like your friend's illustration of it.

I think your characterization of the crowd in the David Burke's was misleading. In typical New Yorker fashion you visit Chicago for one night (in early March no less) and make generalizations about the entire population of the city based on makeup and laughter. Imagine someone rolling into New York and visiting the bar at the Hudson Hotel and then making generalizations about the people in New York. For starters, David Burke's is located in the James Hotel and most of the people were probably out-of-towners anyway. Secondly, the Union Stock Yards no longer exist. I think the were replaced by the Dan Ryan Expressway in the 70's. Finally, while I agree that Chicagoans tend to laugh a little louder than New Yorkers, I would suggest to you that this loudness does not stem from a lack of sophistication. There's another story to be told in Chicago, and your one day visit in early March (aka. The time of the year when Chicagoans either leave for warmer weather or stay holed up until St. Pat's day) does not do the incredible city of Chicago justice. Maybe one day you'll be able to take a closer look. I hope you do.

I see you're from Toronto. I take everything back then.

I'll bet if you paid close enough attention you passed A LOT more than 2 RV factories on I-80. Did you even notice the RV/MH Hall of Fame?

I live in a small town in rural Virginia and have friends in other small towns in rural VA and have to say I am astonished at how BAD the food is in all these little places. Everyone in my town serves Sams club meat on white bread. Everything comes out of a can. We ordered chicken wings at The Dew Drop Inn and the sauce was sqeezed on top of the wings. I don't even think about eating out in my town!

See it on Google Maps:

I've traveled a bit and have eaten more beef than I can tip over. So, as you, I am eternally in the search of the best. I honestly don't know how much you actually like steak, because everyone don't order steak sauce if you're expecting a good steak to begin with. However, there are the occasional few who grew-up on A1 or Heinz 57 and don't know better. Also, and this is just a suggestion, but if you're gong to order a steak RARE, order a filet then, not a ribeye. Sorry, thought that was common sense, guess not. Lastly, before writing your next article, you might want to do your homework first, because I found (just by asking one of the waiters, who surprisingly knew so much about the product they stood behind)out that the cattle were fed 100% vegetarian diets up until only the last 3 months before harvest. Prime, has his own website also, just incase you would like to look it up. Noticing that you are a NY'r yourself, I hope you will give it another try, since they just opened a Primehouse in New York and have found it 100 times better than Peter Leugers!

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