Sofrito | Fred Arroyo
Sleeping In | Micah Bateman
On The Road Again | Tyson Blanquart
Kohlrabi | Rebecca Bodicky
Chili-Mac | Michael Castro
Breakfast with the New Madrid | Ian Dorward
Delicious | Hilary Hitchcock
Transmigrated Duck Heart | Thom Fletcher
Improvising | John Garcia
Lines in the Van, Lines in the Sand | Chris King
Hermetic Rice | K. Curtis Lyle
Don't Forget About Your Veggies | s.c. truckey
Mastication | Brett Underwood
Tables | Justin Visnesky
On The Road Again | by Tyson Blanquart
It's 6:30am. I’m barely conscious, and I’m driving in morning rush hour traffic on Interstate 70 in Kansas City, MO, trying to get to my destination on time. In one hand, the steering wheel. In the other, a banana. In the drink holder, a cup of piping hot coffee from the hotel lobby. While creeping along in our cavernous 15 passenger van at an admirable 25 mph, I attempt to glance down at the directions to verify my exit. Meanwhile, my boss and fellow actor in the passenger seat uses the 25 minutes that it will take for us to get to our first school of the day for a quick power-nap. In about an hour, he and I will be performing a show for children ages 5-9. It’s about good dental hygiene. After this show, we have two more to do, and each school is about an hour away from the one before. We’re going to be on the road all day, and the only option we have for nourishment is to grab something to go between our second and third shows. For three months, this is pretty much how I existed.
I’m an actor. I do children’s theater. And between January and May, I’m on the road. We travel all over the state of Missouri. Left to right, top to bottom, corner to corner. We go to areas you’ve never heard of. Towns you had no idea existed. We travel into the rural-est of rural areas and the inner-most of inner cities.
It’s a great job. The show is educational and fun, and the kids generally love it. The pay is good, your co-workers are your friends and you get the satisfaction of knowing that you may have made a significant difference in some young person’s life. It’s a great job.
However, it does have its drawbacks: getting to your hotel at 1:30am only to have to be on the road by 6:30am to get to your first school on time. Getting faulty directions. And the never ending problem of “where to eat?”
Over the last two years that I’ve done this job, I’ve encountered some very strange little towns, and with them, very strange little local eateries. We try to eat locally when we have the chance, although sometimes it’s not even an option. During the tour, we stumble across some really interesting places. Some of them turn out to be fantastic experiences, others turn out to be just plain scary.
Some days you find yourself in a bind — days when you wind up in a town that looks like it just got electricity only a few years ago, and unless you eat now, you won’t have time to do so until after work. So grudgingly, you wander in to the local café a few blocks from your previous school to grab a burger and fries. As you walk in the door, you’re greeted with a wall of stale cigarette smoke from the patrons inside. You trudge ahead, only to be met with obvious stares of wondrous curiosity from the locals. And its only after you order your Sam’s Club store-bought cheeseburger that you realize that the name of the place is Karla’s Kountry Kitchen. Yeah, those are interesting days.
Then there are the fun days when you’re faced with the same scenario. But instead of heading to Karla’s, the principal of the school invites you to have a school lunch with the teachers and kids. If you’re lucky enough to go to that school on tater-tot day, then you’re walking tall. The teachers are always interested in your tales of the road, and the kids are tickled pink that they got to sit next to the guy who played that one dude in the show they just saw.
But more often than not, our food choices would be restricted to the big chain restaurants. The chains were convenient on a number of occasions, and true to form, they fulfilled their duties of providing us with food that we were familiar with. The idea that you can get a burger from a Burger King in St. Louis and then go to Columbia and get the same burger is oddly comforting when you’re on the road from three to five months out of the year. It gives you the feeling that you’re never too far away from home.
And then there are the pleasant surprises. In St. Joseph, about an hour north of Kansas City on the Missouri River, my boss and I were looking for some food in the down town area. We passed by a Hardees, but neither of us really felt like loading ourselves up with so much all-American beef. We passed by an unassuming café on Francis Street called the Kirkpatrick Café. We decided to go for it as it was local, we had some time and both of us were ready for something different. I honestly have to say that my lunch at the Kirkpatrick Café may have been the single most satisfying culinary experience I’ve had in years. This little bistro had a very unique ambiance. The weathered wood interior resembled something out of medieval times. The little cubbyhole that my boss and I were seated at made us feel like we were in a boat. It was certainly funky. The big test was the food. We discovered that the owner was a baker and bakes his bread fresh every day. My boss ordered the Hungry Matt, which is a bread bowl stuffed full of chicken, alfredo and vegetables served with a field greens salad and a ramekin of ratatouille on the side. I opted for the Creamy Chicken Alfredo Panini with fries.
After our first bite- and with our mouths still stuffed- both of us paused, looked at each other and gave the other the, “Hell yeah! This is fantastic!” look and head nod. The ingredients were fresh, the bread was phenomenal, and the service was top notch. Afterward, we chatted up the waitress (who was very interested in our jobs) and then happily paid the bill and left, satisfyingly full. The price on the meal was also a pleasant surprise, with each dish only costing about $8 a piece. I would have easily paid twice that amount.
We had a similar experience in Cameron when we visited McCorkle’s, a little old-school pub on the town square. The place opens promptly at 11:00am, and by 11:05 the place is full of locals having a three-beer lunch while chowing down on the Italian buffet for $6.99. Since we were under time constraints, we both went for the buffet. Again, we were thrilled to find that we had made a great choice. The spaghetti was a homemade concoction of sweet tomato sauce, Italian seasonings and little handmade meatballs. The lasagna was a hearty mix of meat and ricotta cheese, with only a hint of sauce to give it moisture. The garlic bread was cheesy and delectable. The atmosphere of the place looked like it hadn’t changed much since the 1930s, but this wasn’t a bad thing. It had charm, the staff was very courteous and the food hit the spot and got us through the rest of the day.
As one who spends a significant amount of time navigating the two lane by-ways of this eclectic state, I must recommend to you, the reader, to do yourself the favor of getting off the beaten path every now and then. When traveling across the great state of Missouri, be adventurous in your travel and dining choices. Sure, the Interstates might be faster, but it’s the little state and county highways that really show the true nature of Missouri and her eats. The Interstate culture has robbed us of our roots. If you really want to experience good food and great hospitality, you have to go back to the small towns, because they still do it right. Unless, of course, if you like getting a new Hot Wheels toy with your meal. To each his own, right?
Tyson Blanquart is a St. Louisian of eleven years who has written reviews and features for Playback:STL as well as plays and sketches for the NonProphet Theater Company. He has worked as an actor with various local theater companies and film productions, and is an amateur photographer and novice blogger, documenting the odds and ends of St. Louis and its many facets.