Dine Quixote: Hungering to get to Milwaukee

One issue critical to eating on the road is the length of the trip. If mile after mile and day after day becomes too much, not even an exotic morsel at a restaurant can stop you from jonesing for a bowl of chicken soup in your own kitchen. But if the trip is too short, then you begin to feel like a dog at the end of a leash -- jerked back just before you get up to running speed.

And that's how I started to feel about my trips on I-70 or the Ohio Turnpike. Most trips that Sherri Panza and I now embark upon are of the three-day-weekend variety. We reach Dayton or Columbus or Toledo and suddenly we're turning tail and running home.

That doesn't mean we don't eat well. Dayton means my mom's extraordinary Jewish brisket, and these days Columbus offers the North Market, replete with fresh produce, baked goods and a remarkable ice cream stand called Jeni's.

Back in the early 1980s, when I was living in Columbus, juggling graduate courses, shooting photos for UPI and polishing my knife skills in the kitchen at Lindey's in German Village, the North Market was a dimly lit large quonset-hut style of building with a few vendors -- cheese, poultry, fish, vegetables and meat. It was the only place where I could get fresh rabbit. Today, it is a first-class destination for foodies and tourists. I headed there to sample ice cream after it was touted to me following a column about nearby Cuban food.

Jeni's offers dozens of flavors, from which I sampled five. Winning me over was the sweet corn with blackberry, although it was a tight race with goat's milk and roasted red cherries. A small cup appeared with two spoons, because although I did not spy her, the counterperson did. Sherri had sneaked up behind me and was making "yum yum" noises. It is hard to comprehend, but the corn was as sweet as fresh-picked and the blackberry was rich but not overpowering.

And recently, your favorite forager was handed another chance to break free and run even farther. No. 1 daughter was hired as an assistant fashion designer and found herself packing a van and heading for Milwaukee. I conjured up mental trips of running through the streets of Chicago picking up its inimitable hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches and sitting in Grant Park, facing the lake.

Alas, my fantasies evaporated with the need to buy furniture and put it in a new-used van along with countless boxes of books, clothes, shoes and fabric. Also, I was under great pressure to stop overnight in Dayton.

On the construction-slowed way there, to ease the rumbling from within, I did get a chance to stop at a Chester's Chicken stand at a gas station near Newark, Ohio. It's one of those places where one end of the counter is a Subway and the other end is Chester's. The workers easily moved among the customers. However, there were no people seeking subs -- everyone was lined up for chicken. A good sign.

Now, chicken is a messy item to down while driving 70 mph. To spare ourselves the grease stains, we opted for spicy fried chicken fingers and yes, they were crisp, and yes, spicy all the way into the meat, and yes, I am glad I got to try it. And no, it didn't stop me from having thirds of brisket and kasha at Mom's.

Rising early the next morning, we made our break for the Indiana border. What had been on the original plan was a stop at the Sunrise Diner in Lafayette, home of Purdue University, which piqued my interest with its radio advertisements. But before that, I grabbed a corn dog at a truck stop to put to rest a craving that started on Labor Day while covering the Detroit International Jazz Festival. (The smell of frying cornmeal batter rose from food trailers, but as I raced from stage to stage, lines were far too long. I had to make do with sausages, gyros, catfish, chili dogs and ice cream.)

Corn dog gone, we jumped back on the interstate and continued northward. We had gone but a few miles and there was a huge sign, "Exit Now. Turn Left. Flapjacks." "Sounds like something for the trip back," I informed my passenger. We continued a ways and another sign beckoned: "Exit Now. Turn Right. Barbecue."I guided the van off the road at Lebanon, Ind., and discovered K&R's Hogwild BBQ.

Again, we were floored by the twists of life. When growing up I remember billboards everywhere. Lines of Burma Shave signs fought for our attention with See Rock City and Mail Pouch Tobacco. Then came Ladybird Johnson, an activist first lady who wanted to beautify America by restricting advertisements along the roads. Whatever happened to those rules? Along I-70 in Indiana, there were lines of billboards. They provide little but flashes of color and pure information, but without one Sherri and I would have missed a great lunch.

Indiana, a former resident once told me, is the most northern southern state. That should mean that it must have wonderful barbecue, but during previous trips it had eluded me. This time though, and maybe it was because I was driving to do a good deed, the 'cue was truly succulent. The pulled pork was smoky and the sausage sandwich was nicely spicy. The cole slaw hung in the middle between too sweet and too much mayo, making it a good foil for the hot sauce provided to squirt upon the meat. All sandwiches come with chips, so we ordered up a side of onion rings. Large ones, perfectly fried with bits of crisp batter hanging on for dear life. And they too made good dipping tools for conveying sauce. If Sherri hadn't stopped me, I would have leaned back and squirted the sauce onto my tongue. I love sauces that tingle. And those that burn, too!

As we left, we noticed a lot of bellies hanging over belts. Just like the fried pork tenderloins hanging over their buns.

Then it was time to roll north, very slowly through Chicago, and slowly, thanks to construction, on to Milwaukee. Tossing our suitcases into a motel, we made our way to la daughter's apartment building in the rehabbed Brady Street neighborhood, where we found her, enjoyed the usual hugs and kisses, and broke our backs hauling boxes.

All I could think about was eating. We considered Greek, Mexican, fish and Italian as we walked up Brady Street. There was even a crepe cart. But then I saw it. A small storefront with a cute sign advertising "The Dogg Haus" and Chicago hot dogs with all of the trimmings and Italian beef, dry or wet, hot or mild. Perhaps they had filet mignon on baguette but my mind shut down after seeing these and I was ordering the hot dog and a wet beef with enough chopped sport peppers to beat the chill.

My daughter asked if I liked her neighborhood and apartment.

Little girl, ya done good.

Larry Roberts, who shoots the We Are Pittsburgh photographic gallery for PG+ when he's not out foraging for road food, can be reached at lroberts@post-gazette.com.


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