With social media driving our society nowadays, it is hard to overlook the convenience of utilizing the internet to find a place to “grab a bite to eat.” Gone are the days when a group of friends sit around and ask, “Are you hungry?”, and get the response: “Where do you feel like eating?” This nostalgic, slower paced method-of decision-making has been replaced by a ritual of whipping out the iPhone; pulling up Yelp, an online tool used to promote local businesses and choosing where to eat based on reviews, ratings, or popularity.
This technology-driven culture goes further, tapping into our “stalk your prey” instincts. We are still programmed to hunt down something to satisfy our hunger need, but nowadays, we are following mobile food trailer locations to their destinations via Twitter or Facebook. Many foodies simply pursue a food truck simply for the thrill of tracking it down and feasting on its offerings. It still satisfies that “seeking your reward” fix.
I am not writing this as a criticism, but I just want to present some food for thought. I am somewhat of a minimalist when it comes to technology, but I am by no means exempt from this tech-driven culture. For me, Yelp presented itself as a convenient “journal.” I do not use it to build local food connections, to get free stuff, or even to get famous. I simply started a Yelp account to mark where I have been. So what thrill do I get out of Yelp?
As you know, dogs mark their territory by peeing on a tree. I am sure that canines find even greater reward by claiming a tree that has never been marked by another’s urine. In this primal fashion, I get extremely giddy when I mark my territory first on an eatery in some Podunk town. Being the aforementioned minimalist, I use maps for road trips, an old-school Nokia for calling and texting, and a simple email for coffee dates. I will say that the discoveries of others (culinary Columbuses, if you will) often help me find the most amazing destinations, ones that have been discovered but may not have been reviewed on Yelp yet.
Texas Monthly’s “Best 40 Small Town Cafes”, released in 2008, assists me in planning my driving routes and stops. In this vivid list, the criterion was that the town in which the eatery was located could have more no higher than a population of 25,000 individuals. For example, a couple friends and I stopped in Roaring Springs, Texas en route to New Mexico at the Windmill Café. This town had a population of 286. We rolled in right at 11AM. We were the first ones in line for the country-style buffet. Church let out at 11:15AM. Sure enough, it seemed as if the entire town rolled in for Sunday’s family lunch. Those opposing GMO’s and corporation may frown upon the fact that Windmill used Tyson Chicken battered in some packaged fry-batter mix. But, I mean… these people are cooking from the heart. Needless to say, I was the first one to Yelp about this long-standing institution. Boy, was I proud.
Another benefit of Yelp: it leads you to truly local institutions, assuming you are in a busy enough city. Give it a try next time you are in a new town… assuming a Yelper (or many Yelpers) has passed through. The “top 5” lists undoubtedly are where the locals go. I offer you another fantastic experience: in Asheville, North Carolina (often called the most hippie city in the South), the top “Nightlife spot” was Wedge Brewing Company, a brewery that is located in a run-down bungalow in a sort of progressive artsy district. They offer 4 beers on tap for $3 each and house-made chips; there is a local tamale cart right outside, offering sweet potato and black beans tamales with hot sauce from scratch. Doesn’t this pre-dinner appetizer-drink experience sound a lot better than dropping by happy hour at Chili’s?
I offer these Yelp- and Texas Monthly-guided trips not as a story, but more as an inspiration. You may stumble upon your own local BBQ shack or new-found dive bar, and I encourage that you Yelp it! Mark your territory, and also document where you have been in the US to have a drink or eat something ingrained in the culture. I book my road trips around food stops, and I think that this practice is a great way to get to know your surroundings and the people, regardless if that means you have to get a little out of your comfort zone.
There are few things that are more satisfying than getting on the road at 6AM, driving in silence with your friends, arriving at some obscure Texas town at 8AM—the time when hunger really sits in hard, and stuffing your face with some fresh-baked biscuits and simple cream gravy followed by some black, often mediocrely brewed, coffee. The icing on the cake (not literally)? Leaving with an under $5 check. Leave a $2 tip, and you are set for a good amount of hours… unless you force yourself to eat again somewhere down the road.