A second post in an unintentional series on road trips

On a sunny Thursday in October 2019, I was in a car with two octogenarians driving toward Memphis, Tennessee. We were on Interstate 40 having just passed through Little Rock, Arkansas. I was at the wheel of a Chrysler 300. The octogenarians were my parents. The Chrysler, theirs. We were road trippin’ to Huntsville, Alabama to meet up with my husband. Our one niece was getting married on Saturday. I had flown over a week earlier to visit my parents and brother; Bill was flying into Huntsville. There is no convenient transport from my parents’ house to my mother-in-law’s. The eight-hour drive is actually the simplest option and my parents volunteered their car and persons for the trip. My dad had driven the first leg from their home in South Arkansas to Little Rock. I had the next shift with the challenge to get us through Memphis. Dad took the co-pilot spot to keep me company, but he was quickly snoozing. 

Our route would cross the Mississippi river, the iconic American waterway which nourished commerce, urban development, and literary rafting in the 19th century. My dad once drove us to the edge of that river so we could get out of the car and touch the water. So we could say we’d connected to that liquid highway, Old Man River. I’m sure we sang the song too, the parts of it we knew, about being tired of living and scared of dying. The Mississippi is wide. It takes an appreciable minute to cross even now, in a car, at 75 miles an hour. 

Transport now is primarily back on land moved by wheels, the locomotives still in the picture, but the roads belong to the trucks. The peddler’s wagon gone gigantic. My parents warned me that I-40 from Little Rock to Memphis is known for particularly heavy truck traffic. Two of the latitudinal highway options across middle America, I-30 from Texas and I-40 from California, converge in Little Rock, continuing as I-40, which is your best option if St. Louis, MO or Shreveport, LA is too far out of the way. With North Alabama our destination, we took our chances with the 18-wheelers racing to deliver their cargo in good shape and on schedule, so we can buy whatever we want, whenever we want. Having grown up in the 70s, the romanticised trucker culture that brought us TV, movies, and a damn good song about A Convoy, is slapped like a sparkly iron-on decal on the t-shirt of my childhood mind. But even though I believe truckers have hearts of gold, sharing the road with a lot of them is frustrating, moving walls that hem you in and can create their own wind shears and dangerous spray, depending on the weather. In college I lived near a semi-truck driving school, and more than once held my breath as a truck with a looming STUDENT DRIVER sign ground to a stop behind me at a traffic light. 

I followed one truck or another with shipping company names painted large in action fonts with arrows or speed streaks and a frequent red-white-and-blue nod to Old Glory. For a while I trailed a Bison Transport truck, the head of the mighty beast in profile. We were pounding across the prairie, alright. At one point my chemical engineer dad roused from his nap and looked at the tanker truck in the next lane with an H202 placard on the back. Hydrogen peroxide, he said drowsily and closed his eyes again. My mind went to memories of hydrogen peroxide and pierced ears. In the 80s we dabbed H202 on our ears to help heal piercings. The brown, serious looking bottle was a staple in our bathroom cabinet along with mercurochrome, Sayman salve, alum powder and a horse and/or people liniment called Asorbine Jr. Modern piercing practice now avoids hydrogen peroxide, suggesting it slows rather than supports healing. Mercurochrome was banned for sale in the U.S. in 1998 for the crime of containing trace amounts of its titular element, mercury. The salve and alum and liniment may be old-fashioned but as far as I know, safe. 

These disgraced first aid items are but minor entries on the List of Things from Childhood that We Now View Differently. It’s an uncomfortably long list: Disney and aspartame, bananas and feminism, newsprint, the US electoral college, disposable diapers, Indian headdresses made from construction paper, likes, straws, and grass (all kinds). On that day in the car I was cranky about Bill Cosby, extremely defensive of the Ingalls Family and relieved that we can actually eat fat again. Of course I expected my worldview to evolve. One hopes to gain perspective throughout one’s life. Adult Sharon is more liberal politically, has done some deconstructing and reconstructing of her Christian faith, and agrees America is not one hundred percent exceptional.

But Bill Cosby? I never thought of myself as a Bill Cosby fan; it’s just that Bill Cosby was always there. Starting in the late 1970s with his Picture Pages segments on the children’s programming staple, Captain Kangaroo, to his Fat Albert cartoons on Saturday mornings, ubiquitous Jello commercials and The Cosby Show which aired for eight years starting my sophomore year in high school, overlapping with A Different World that featured a college-aged cast when I was myself college aged. Cosby was a constant. Funny and lovable and everywhere. I didn’t track too closely with Cosby after college. I know he had at least one more sitcom and did other things, but if I caught a rerun of The Cosby Show on TV I would watch it and my husband and I still tell Fat Albert jokes–You’re like school in the summertime. No class. When I looked up Picture Pages to confirm the air dates I saw a picture of Cosby standing at an easel, and I smiled. I instinctively smiled. I trust that Bill has been correctly convicted and please, yes, humanity, let’s stop anyone from leveraging fame or money or actual talent to use another person and get away with it. But the Bill Cosby era was my era and I smile instinctively and I don’t know exactly what I need to confront. 

I successfully navigated through Memphis. I turned on Google Directions to have my lady friend guide me through the lane changes, over the Mississippi River, and on to the straight, flat section of Highway 72. My dad took another turn at driving until dusk when I reclaimed the wheel for the rest of our journey. 

The Chrysler is a dream to drive. My parents were awake for much of the trip and we chatted about whatever we saw or heard on the radio or popped into our heads. We stopped for a meal and ate car snacks and drank diet cokes dripping from the cooler of ice. As a child I loved being in the car with my parents and brother, Chris, in the closeness and safety of our intertwined destiny. When Chris and I weren’t screaming at each other, of course, and he wasn’t squeaking styrofoam packing from his Christmas presents against the window. or yelping to communicate with imaginary were-deer lurking in the piney woods. Once when Chris and I were in our thirties we took a trip with Mom and Dad and decided as four adults, we needed to rent a minivan. We piled into the vehicle and Chris and I settled in, each with our own row of seats. We looked at each other with amazement–we could have had this! All those years, all those miles…we imagined a different past. 

I know we’ll be held to account for our cars in the future. The progeny of my generation or the next will judge and shame us for cruising around the countryside in machines guzzling dinosaur juice. For filling a web of scars in the earth with concrete. For prizing our autonomy, personal music choice and thermostat controls over the good of the planet. For buying food through the window and being transported in pajamas in the dead of Christmas night. For getting up at 5:30 in the morning to drive the six hours home from college in time for Thanksgiving dinner. For circling the local hangouts looking for friends and for packing all our belongings and crossing three states to a new home. For waiting out the rain in the driveway. For watching the corn go from five feet tall in Texas to ankle height in Indiana on a June road trip. For hitting the road on the way to anywhere, and well, kiddo, all I can say is, it was glorious. 

Every summer I watch the temps dance around the 100F degrees mark in Texas, and I do not miss it AT ALL. But if I’m being sentimental, I can always relive this day in my memory…

Just as we crossed the border from Louisiana into Texas, the air vent in my car released a small  puff of fog. A dying breath. Two-thirds into this 900-mile trip, with 300 miles of sun-baked highway to go, temps tipping 100F, and nary a cloud in the sky, the car carrying me, my mom, and a beagle named Toblerone lost air conditioning. 

I contacted my husband in the U-haul van in front of me. The first vehicle in our convoy, he was driving with our friend Kyle riding shotgun, hauling all our possessions and towing our second car. Interstate travel in 1998 took you through fiefdoms of roaming charges with many signal-barren patches in between. We had bought walkie talkies and tall vehicle-top antennas for this move from Alabama to Texas, so we could coordinate pit stops, and also in case of emergencies. 

“Emergency!” I shouted into my handset. “Breaker, Breaker, Emergency”. We pulled over to discuss our predicament. We were on our second exhausting day of moving house, five hours from our destination in Austin. We were laden with earthly belongings and careful plans. The obvious truth fizzled on the asphalt as we considered options. Stop, switch, repair? No, continue. Drive on with Bill and Kyle traveling in cool van comfort as we followed behind in an 1992 easy bake oven. (For the record I did not want to drive the van towing a car, so switching was not an option. Even though I’m sure Bill offered.)

We bought a bag of ice and found some hand towels in the trunk of my car, randomly tucked next to a silverware chest. We wrapped ice in towels and held them on top of our heads and laid one aside Toblerone in the back seat. She was panting so fast I get dizzy trying to imitate her. When we stopped to eat, she flipped on her back as soon as her paws hit the pavement, so I carried her to the grass.

Now, August in Alabama is not exactly sweater weather, but Texas is hotter. I’d spent 19 of my 29.9 years in Texas, so I knew the three-skewers of Texas heat–the sun melt-glaring down, the burnt wind on your face or back, and the baking pavement radiating fresh heat with every step. Those who know that heat, avoid it. But that day we drove straight into it. The wide Texas sky was painfully blue and I prayed for clouds. We drove and dripped and panted and accepted our insignificance on this barren place called Earth. Finally, depleted, we pulled into the La Quinta Inn parking lot. “Inauspicious beginning,’ I pronounced, with a wet towel draped over my face. Our house plants were crisped, and I’m sure Tob’s doggie diaphragm was sore for days, but we had arrived and the inn welcomed us with conditioned air and showers. 

Months later I would notice that transplants from the North East in my writing workshops loved to employ the limitless Texas sky as a symbol of fresh starts, full of giant possibility. City dwellers taking to the open highway with abandon and a new license to drive. I wondered, Where does a Texan raised on wide open spaces go in search of new horizons. Years later I would learn the destination–Ireland. 

Friday morning I set out for work armed with a flapjack for sustenance. It was Bill’s flapjack. He gave it to me because I had already eaten my flapjack days before–on Monday, one day after purchase–and had also eaten the last of the frosted mini wheats. It was a very Bill-like thing to do. Plus he likes to make porridge at work for breakfast.

I don’t like to make porridge because it overflows the bowl too easily in the microwave. Unless it’s pinhead oats that have been slow-cooked that I am just reheating. Sometimes Bill cooks oats overnight and in the morning makes me a breakfast container with cinnamon and golden syrup. It’s a Bill-like thing do to.

When we used to work together he would make me a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast–we were in Texas and it was oatmeal then–and I would eat it as he drove us to work. I remember when I first got the job at his company and (probably) the first morning we were driving in and laughing together and he said, Why did I ever drive to work without you?

But life morphs along, and now he drives to work without me and I take the bus, but I had Bill’s flapjack.  As I crossed the Liffey Friday morning, I looked out at the river and reminded myself how cool it was to be taking a bus to my job. In Dublin.

I decided to get a scone for breakfast and save the flapjack for afternoon snack, afternoon snack being just as important as breakfast. I’ve been promising myself a morning scone since my bus changed routes due to LUAS construction and I now get off on Camden Street. Because a girl does need a treat when ten minutes is added to her commute. And Camden Street is delicious, and is getting more so every day.

sconeAt the counter at the Cracked Nut I ordered a scone and a latte.

“A skinny latte?”

Hmmmm, probably a good suggestion, I think to myself, but I clarify, “No. A scone and a latte.”

“The opposite of skinny,” I quip.

When I arrive at my desk with my apple and cinnamon scone, I find a piece of banana bread waiting for me. A girl does love finding treats on her desk.

I check my email and my benefactor is revealed. My friend has been a bit under the weather, stuck in the house with zero energy, so he was driven to baking. And he was kind enough to share some with me.

“You respond to zero energy differently than I do,” I said. I’d spent every evening of the previous week horizontal on the sofa, sniffling and pitiful. And every morning taking a taxi into work.

So, now on Friday: a flapjack, a scone, and a slice of banana bread. What began as lack, was now bounty, comfort provided in one of the best ways possible–baked goods. And delivered through the love of a husband, a city, and a friend.

I learned a few things in 2014. This is one of them.

René Redzepi is the best chef in the world.

This is all I knew about Redzepi as we drove down to County Cork for the Ballymaloe Literary Festival last May. His restaurant Noma is the best restaurant in the world. That and something about Scandinavia and impossible reservations.

The Redzepi session was sold out when we got our tickets, and I wasn’t too concerned about it. But in the car on our way, I saw a tweet about an extra ticket to Redzepi and I snatched it up.

So I had very little expectation of this greatest chef in the world. As a matter of fact, I was surprised when the thin, shaggy haired guy that I almost bumped into coming back from the loo appeared moments later on stage. Not as surprised as our friend Caryna was when she asked for his ticket at the door, however.

Redzepi began to tell us his story. I was fascinated. 

He told us about growing up with a Macedonian father and Danish mother. On holidays when his schoolmates were taking off to Italy or France, he would visit family in Macedonia. He was ashamed of this as a child. There were few amenities in Macedonia. They slept on the floor and ate communally. There was no word for ‘foraging’. Foraging was part of what they did for food. Meat was for special occasions. Oh, the excitement of those days. The kids would help chase down a chicken, and bring it to an aunt. It would be slaughtered right there, no doubt, and they would watch her pluck the feathers with anticipation. Then it would go into the oven, and still they watched, the skin turning golden, the smell just driving them crazy, and fat dripping onto potatoes below. And then finally the eating. Everyone together, eating from shared plates. Licking fingers.

The ‘old ways’ are foodie Shangri La now. We suburban souls who grew up knowing chicken only in square packages from antiseptic, white supermarkets, or in a bucket shoved through a window in a drive by dining. Oh, we crave authenticity! So Redzepi is right on point with current farm to mouth trends. (Confession: I personally have never even bought a whole chicken. I’d be a horrible pioneer, so I’m a bit like, Redzepi did it, so I don’t have to….) But the thing I like best about his recounting of his childhood is that best-chef Redzepi recognizes something he considered a deficit turned out to be a strength. It wasn’t something he asked for. It was given to him.

Redzepi’s tale continues with a bit of disaffected youthdom, signing up for cooking school with a mate, and then not immediately, but at some point realizing he was kind of good at this, and he liked it. So, onward. He emphasized in his story the value of mentoring, of having someone who wants the best for you. And he gives much credit to the luck of timing, the way his path took him from Ferran Adrià to Thomas Keller to Grant Achatz. Yes, he was eager to learn, he was bold to ask for jobs, but he seems a bit amazed still at how many doors actually opened when he knocked, and that he absolutely wouldn’t be where he is if they hadn’t.

Redzepi values the path. Working as a waiter was a crucial stage he says, to be the person presenting that plate of food, to see the reaction, both good and bad. He never wants to lose that connection. Doesn’t want to be the chef holed up in the kitchen. Would you invite friends over for dinner and never leave the stove? He had to learn to manage the people in a kitchen–the things they don’t teach you in culinary school. It would have been worthless to achieve something like World’s Best Restaurant, he says, without being able to share it with a team.

Another key moment from his story are they early days of Noma when a lunch service had zero customers. Zero. Take note: everyone has to start at zero.

I wrote in my notebook: René Redzepi likes lunch!

I like lunch too! Although I think this statement was about keeping perspective, not discounting certain eating experiences. I think Redzepi would love to have a food truck.

You gentle readers probably already know everything I’ve written and more about René Redzepi, have already read his Journal, of which I am only on page 40 (19th March), possibly have even cooked something from the supremely beautiful (that light!), borderline insane Noma cookbook (hay oil!). I’m so glad I was able to discover Redzepi in person and hear his story. I came away so full from his talk.

Since he is a real person to me, I might take the time to understand why one would take a carrot, sous vide it for 45 minutes, then char grill it for an hour (turning every 15 minutes), brush with a sea buckthorn reduction and then dehydrate for 4-5 hours. (Recipe, page 58). That is putting a lot of faith in an orange root. But it is winter. We have carrots and little else, so we are going to cook the heck out of that carrot.

You go, René. Call me. We’ll do lunch.

I learned a few things in 2014. This is one of them.

I learned a new word this year.

It was included in one of those lists floating around Facebook of words with no direct translation in English. Like the Japanese word for a buying a new book to add to your existing pile of unread books (tsundoku), and the German word for emotional eating, literally translated ‘grief bacon’ (kummerspeck), and the Southern phrase ‘fixin’ to’. *

And while I have both tsundokud and kummerspecked (and am always fixin’ to), one word shot into my heart with an arrow of recognized truth, and I think it did for you too. And you whispered “Yeah..” And I imagine you smiled.

The word is from Spansh: Sobremesa

“Sobremesa, literally ‘over the table’, has no precise English translation, perhaps because there is no cultural equivalent. Sobremesa is the leisurely time after we have finished eating, but before we get up from the table. Time spent in conversation, digesting, relaxing, enjoying. Certainly not rushing.” (http://www.sobremesa.us/)

Yeah…Sobremesa. Not being Spanish, maybe I don’t know Sobremesa in its fullest, but I do know what it is to linger over the table, in that glow of contentment both physical and emotional. Fullness.

One particular day of Sobremesa stands out from the past year. It was in Round Rock, Texas, at the concrete-pillared intersection of Interstate 35 and 3406, in the sunny, front room at Chuy’s.** With six friends who had not all shared a table in many years, since one of the boys among us was a baby, and the other not even a glint. The boys are lively, little people now, drinking chocolate milk, but also the bewildering evidence of time  passing, even if it felt like no time had passed at all.

In Tex-Mex tradition, I think we front-load the Sobremesa. Gearing up for our meal over many baskets of fresh, hot tortilla chips and salsas and the irresistible mystery that is jalapeno ranch. Baskets emptied and then filled. Time passes, but is then restored. Giant glasses of iced tea and diet coke sucked dry, and then in a blink, full again. A never ending spring. We say, No More, but then continue to crunch away, in shared denial that we each have two pounds of food on its way. Steak burritos and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.


When the food arrives, it is platters laden with comfort, doused in spicy sauce. With your choice of rice and beans. And afterwards, no dessert. There is never any dessert after Tex Mex. One would have to eat less chips and salsa, and that never happens. But after the plates are cleared away, no one moves to gather belongings and leave. Our glasses keep being filled. We stay. We linger.

On this day I remember discussing the paintings on the wall, of watermelons growing on trees and frogs dancing with princesses. Fantastical. It is all so very fantastical! This curly headed lovely with a giant heart and giant smile, and her man (for he is truly manly) who lives to help others. And the tall, broad-grinned guy with a specialty laugh, who has learned to eat spicy salsa, and who knows every kid’s name, everywhere. And his blond beauty, who is thoughtful and creative and a bit serious in a way that gives her such substance. And my guy, who combines killer wit and kindness and is so excellently bearded. And me, who will make you laugh and laugh with you and will cry with you too. In that moment, we are our best selves. We are all truly wonderful.

The Sobremesa was fueled by the soothing familiarity of the surroundings and these faces, and the pleasure of being at rest. A lot of life orbits had to align for us to have those hours together. As in all friendships there have been sorrows and joys, some shared directly, some observed. And in our larger circles there are even more joys and even more sorrows. Later that day we would visit a friend in hospital, and perhaps that’s one reason why we lingered. Everything in that moment was lively and bright. But not too bright, the Texas heat kept at bay by air conditioning, and any particular sadness or worries driven away by laughter and genuine smiles and hearts being replenished. We stay.

The power of the table is strong. Our time spent there is not frivolous. Let us invite one another. Let us linger.

* I kid. ‘Fixin’ to’ is English! Although some would disagree.

** Related reading: My defense of Chuy’s.