The Great Desi-American Road Trip

published Sep 2, 2017
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(Image credit: Pooja Makhijani)

Somewhere along Interstate 95, in the middle of Virginia, the pun-laden signs began. I sat shotgun, alongside my father, in our Dodge Caravan. It was the summer of 1989, and nine of us, including my father’s sister and her family and a cousin on my mother’s side — all visiting from India — were en route from central New Jersey to Orlando, Florida. This was our family’s first trip to states south of Washington, D.C.

My father and I spotted billboards with curious taglines every few miles: “You never sausage a place! You’re always a wiener at Pedro’s” or “Chili today, hot tamale!” Nearly all of them were unabashedly racist, although as a fairly sheltered then 11-year-old, I didn’t recognize them as such until I was much older and reflected back on our journey. We passed the miles anticipating our arrival at South of the Border, the enigmatic place these signs were touting.

Finally, in Dillon, South Carolina, we pulled into a empty parking lot and into the shade of a garish, water tower-shaped statue of “Pedro,” the mascot of this faux-Mexican-meets-Dixie rest stop. Nine of us tumbled out of the minivan, stretching limbs that had been contorted to accommodate us all. I was starving, but we were not here to eat South of the Border’s Tex-Mex cuisine or diner fare, as many of our fellow road warriors were.

My mother had already sprung open the trunk and set out an array of Tupperware containers and repurposed yogurt tubs on a nearby picnic table. I remember with extraordinary specificity the foods she packed — crust-less sandwiches made of buttered white toast, juicy sliced tomatoes, Kraft Singles, and her fiery mint-cilantro chutney; bhakarwadi, a savory, deep-fried pastry filled with a spicy and tangy poppy seed-based spice blend; and Doritos. We washed down our lunch with warm cans of Coke, and set back on our way. I wanted to buy a kitschy tchotchke or a soft-serve cone for the ride, but there was no time or money or need for that.

My memories of summer travel are forever associated with my mother’s hodgepodge of picnic foods. As immigrants with limited means, we traveled North America long before “couch surfing” and “shared economy” had been coined. I saw most of the country east of the Mississippi River and eastern Canada on the road. Precious travel dollars were hoarded for once-in-five-year trips to India. We crashed with family, friends, or family of friends along the way — a great uncle here, my mother’s cousin’s brother-in-law there, a neighbor’s great aunt there.

Our road trips — and our consumption of Americana and our family’s assimilation — just wouldn’t be the same without our traditional foods at the cookie-cutter rest stops and American vacation spots.

We ate fenugreek-spiced mathri, doughy crackers made with semolina flour, maida, and ghee, alongside a tangy mango achaar that seared our tongues in the foothills of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In the marina before embarking on the ferry from Sandusky, Ohio, to Kellys Island we had bhuga chawaran, a caramelized onion pilaf that’s seasoned with cinnamon, clove, black cardamom, and bay leaves. And at a rest stop on I-87 in Champlain, New York, awaiting the border crossing nutty, we snacked on granola bars and crumbly besan ladoo full of sugar, ghee, and cardamom powder.

Despite the fact that my family’s fortunes have changed dramatically since the late-1980s, hauling food on our road trips continues to be part habit, part tradition. Earlier this year, on a Memorial Day weekend trip to Lake Placid, a town we’ve visited almost annually since 1994, I helped my mother to arrange boxes of chevda, a spicy Gujarati snack mix with fried lentils and sultanas, sourced from a nearby temple; homemade oatmeal puris for my daughter; and bags of flaxseed-flecked tortilla chips — the Doritos having been substituted with Trader Joe’s packaged snacks — into the back of the car. “There are restaurants along the way,” I reminded her. “Even, gasp, fast food!” She brushed me off, and went back into the house to pick up fruit, spiced cashews, and mithai.

Although I tease her about her frugality and her disdain of pizza and burgers, our road trips — and our consumption of Americana and our family’s assimilation — just wouldn’t be the same without our traditional foods at the cookie-cutter rest stops and American vacation spots.

On our way Upstate, we stopped once on the six-hour drive to eat a spot of rice and dhal at my mother’s childhood friend’s home outside Albany. We arrived in Adirondack National Park having consumed much of our bounty, passing snacks from hand to hand. And while the village of Lake Placid has changed dramatically since the 1990s — my favorite bookstore has closed and a Starbucks has popped up across the street — we still spread the same sheet on a grassy patch on the banks of Mirror Lake to eat. My daughter asks for a cup of chocolate ice cream from the Ben & Jerry’s down the street; I smile, shake my head no, and give her the mandarin orange and a bag-full of dates and a few Trader Joe’s quinoa and black bean tortilla chips that survived our trip.