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Road Trip 2012: The Mid-Western Food In My Mind
Posted on: 2013-03-29

In May 2012, my mother-in-law gave us her old car - but we live in Halifax and the car was in Edmonton. So we flew there and drove it all the way back to Halifax. We had great weather and I had a new camera. This is part 11 of a series of blog posts about the trip.

(All of the photos are hosted on Flickr - click on any to see bigger versions and browse the full set.)

After two great days in Chicago, it was time to keep heading east. Today turned out to be all about restaurants and memories.

First, we grabbed breakfast at a nearby McDonald's we found on a Google Maps search - it turned out to be much more than just another McDonald's, though. It was huge and downright luxurious - the upstairs McCafe featured designer lighting and Italian-style leather chairs. It was most stylish McDonald's I've ever seen. Turns out we had managed to stumble upon the flagship Rock N Roll McDonald's.

McDonald's?

In Chicago, even the fast food joints have striking architecture and design.

We got back in the car and headed eastwards, through a little bit of Indiana and then across Michigan. We had a long day of driving ahead of us, hoping to get to Toronto in good time, and didn't want to have to deal with the traffic hassles of the Detroit area, so we took the northern route through Port Huron and Sarnia. (Apologies to my friends who I missed in the Detroit area!)

I had spent several years in the late 90s working in Columbus Ohio, so I was back in a part of the US that I knew. These days geographic regions are distinguished as much by their local chains, products, and franchises as by geology and biome. The Maritimes have Frenchy's and Irving. Canada has Tim Hortons. California has In-N-Out Burger and Fat Tire on tap. Ohio/Michigan/Indiana has Cracker Barrel, Max & Erma's, Bob Evans, and White Castle.

My office in Columbus was right next to a Bob Evans and I often had lunch (or late breakfast) there. Since we were driving through Bob Evans country, I thought it would make a good place for lunch. I liked several things about Bob Evans: their 'farmhouse' theme and design was pleasant but not overdone; many locations had a 'bar' overlooking the kitchen and staging area that you can sit at if you were by yourself, where the friendly staff would often chat with you; it was the kind of place that families went to after church or a little-league game or some other event; it had decent food at good prices, including an all-day breakfast; and, unlike so many restaurants in this part of the USA, the serving sizes were reasonable - you could order a burger and fries and not feel stuffed and queasy afterwards (unless, of course, you had it with sausage gravy). I hadn't been to a Bob Evans in about ten years, and I was curious to see if this was all still true. We found one in Battle Creek, Michigan:

Me at Bob Evans Battle Creek

The decor and layout had been changed a little, but it was still mostly the same. There were fewer seats at the 'bar', though. The menu was similar and the serving sizes were still reasonable as well. Good to see. The good ol' boys next to us were talking about guns - but that wasn't really a surprise, this being rural Michigan.

Earlier in the day we had also noticed a White Castle nearby as we were refuelling the car. As we got closer to the Canadian border, we realized that our odds of seeing another White Castle were getting thinner. Why did we care about White Castle? I had lived two years just a few blocks away from one and had never gone there. Well, Shannon teaches film studies and her two most popular courses are Pop Cinema and Film Genres - and one of the movies she uses a lot in class is Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle. It's a great example of the 'stoner comedy' but also says interesting things about race and gender politics and post-colonial identity. Even though we had already had lunch and she's a vegetarian, she still wanted to go to one. Our phone found us one near Flint (another movie reference):

Shannon at White Castle in Flint

It was mid-afternoon so there wasn't anybody else in the restaurant. I was still full from lunch but had two of their little 'slider' burgers (they tasted a bit like plain McDonald's burgers, but the fried onions were a nice touch). I don't know if the staff at this particular White Castle got many gawking Canadians passing through gushing about the movie, but they were polite about it, and even gave Shannon some extra branded boxes and bags that she later put up in her office.

Weird random coincidence: White Castle's original crenelated building design was based on Chicago's Water Tower that we had walked by the previous evening.

We made it through the border without much trouble and got to Toronto in the early evening. We got off the QEW a bit early and drove up to Roncesvalles, the neighbourhood we had first lived in together back in the early 2000s. We walked by our old house on Sorauren and then wandered up and down Roncesvalles. The old neighbourhood has gentrified a lot in the last decade, and now has lots of hip and stylish young families with expensive dogs. There are still pockets of the old Polish neighbourhood, though. Our old favourite restaurant, Chopin, was still there, with its Żywiec awning out front. Just like old times, Shannon had pierogis and I had schnitzel with mushrooms. And of course some Żywiec.

Having a Żywiec at Chopin on Roncesvalles

It wasn't perhaps the healthiest day of eating, but it was a good one for matching memories and expectations with the real world.

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