Friday, April 6, 2012

Eating My Way Through Spring Break

When one of my dearest relatives became ill in February, I was shaken to the core. After losing my mother so suddenly last summer, I was unprepared for a health scare involving another loved one. And when my Uncle Bill recovered, I wanted to see him and spend time with him. With the cunning often practiced by housewives who don't earn much and have to justify  the cost of such indulgences, I quickly hatched my vacation plan,  Operation Spring Break Relaxing Mountain Excursion (codename: OpS BrReME).

There's a bit of irony here, since Eric usually has some hectic, long-distance travel plan for the 10-day break, while I usually whine that we never get to just stay home and be lazy for a week. Then, when we go wherever he planned, I have a ball and feel sorry for the poor sots who were too lazy to leave the house for a springtime adventure. This year, however, with a tight budget and high gas prices, we had no such adventure in the works.

Mary Kathleen, my eldest, already had plans. Her high school orchestra arranges an optional spring break performance trip every other year, and she was headed to New York City to see the sights and play a concert at South Street Seaport. Mary had been saving faithfully from her numerous babysitting and dogsitting jobs, her birthday windfall and school fundraisers; she financed a large portion of her trip, and I give her great credit for her contribution.

Eric preferred to use his vacation time during the summer fishing season, so Camille and I had no fixed engagements for the week leading up to Easter, and commenced to plan a visit to the Blue Ridge Mountains to see Uncle Bill.

I'm not good at writing travelogues, since I can rarely remember what I do, no matter how memorable it should be. I may describe a wonderful meal, but name the wrong restaurant, or describe a beautiful view but forget the state I was in when I saw it. I'm not good with the minute-by-minute details. I just recall the general flavor of an event, and then embellish, hoping I trip over an actual memory in the process.

This trip was wonderful in many ways, but it can best be described by two verbs: driving and eating. I think the drive down was about 12 hours, and the drive home was at least that long, which makes 24 hours driving to and from my destination from Friday through Wednesday, six days. The distance from my house to my uncle's is roughly 600 miles, and the shortest route is an exercise in zig-zags. I know many people drove much further, but I'll wager they didn't go around as many curves or down as many 5% grades as we did. The driving was, in a word, adventurous.

So was the eating. It was adventurous on a competition scale. Six days of vacation should have included around 18 meals, give or take, and some snacks when meals weren't possible. If we estimate the average meal time as around 30 minutes, I should have spent about 9 hours eating over the course of the vacation. But I assure you, I spent more time eating than I did driving, which I already calculated at 24 hours. There were so many opportunities to sample a wide variety of food products, from homemade goods to haute cuisine, and I didn't pass up any of them.

I started the trip with good intentions. I packed a shoebox full of semi-healthy snacks for the drive: fruit/grain bars, roasted nuts and some cookies for the odd sugar emergency. In the ice chest were carrots, string cheese, yogurt and sugar-free drinks. We had a flat of bottled water and I took a thermal coffee cup for refills. I was prepared to eat well, but sensibly.

That lasted until the first gasoline stop. Sun Chips beckoned from the end-cap nearest the register. Crushed ice in the soda fountain convinced me break to my pop-free diet. A childish whisper from the end of an aisle turned out to be my sweet friend, Little Debbie, and her Cosmic Brownies were so fresh and colorful I couldn't resist.

Once I'd blown my sensible travel diet, four hours into the drive, that set the stage for my patented "Never Diet on Vacation" attitude, perfected after years of conflict between intentions and actions on vacation. I ratcheted down my discipline and amped up my appetite to meet the demands of the area hotspots and sightseeing venues. I did not disappoint myself.

I seemed to be eating something all the time. If my eyes were open, I had food at arm's length, or closer. Not that everything I ate was bad - I had some oatmeal for breakfast one morning on the screened porch overlooking the babbling brook that ran through the property of our rental house in Fancy Gap, VA.

But by the end of that day, I'd eaten a protein bar, a bowl of soup, a large salad, two huge chocolate chip cookies, an enormous bag of movie popcorn (shared) and no doubt a huge dinner I've already forgotten.  Oops, after consulting my notes I just remembered - it was a binge-a-thon at the only mall restaurant with available seating at 8pm on Saturday night: Golden Corral. (I'm hanging my head in shame as I write this admission. At least give me credit for feeling bad about it after the fact.)

As sacrilegious as it seems to eat at a chain restaurant or go out to a movie while on vacation to a place I'd never been, I'm guilty. Travelling with teenage girls means at least one trip to a mall and/or movie. We did both that day. But we made up for our generic food choices by hitting some unique local eateries. I partook at Barney's Deli in Mt. Airy and The Gap Deli in Fancy Gap, shopped at Poor Farmer's Market and Old Fashioned Country Store and tasted and bought all manner of fudge and candy at Nancy's, both in lovely Meadows of Dan, VA. I even managed to sneak in some Chinese food in Wytheville, just to balance the hemispheres a bit.

But my award for best Performance in Eating Establishments was achieved at The Greenbrier, a huge, gorgeous resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.  My first act of gorging was due in part to the exertion of the long and fascinating underground bunker tour. If you've never heard or read about the secretly-constructed concrete bunker, intended to house the Congress in the event of a nuclear attack during the Cold War, click here for the link to an amazing attraction. As a five-star resort with golf courses, a casino and a 6,750 acre chunk of prime beauty in the Allegheny Mountains, you could hardly expect an activity like the bunker tour to be capped off by anything less than High Tea. 

We enjoyed being served delicious hot tea. I noshed with reckless abandon on biscuits, scones and other mysterious cookie-like confections until I felt fully recovered and able to wait the interminable three hours until dinner. Another uncle and aunt have a home in nearby Someplaceville, WV, about 30 minutes away, which is where we headed after tea to rest and change clothes for dinner at the Greenbrier's steakhouse. I had not asked my uncle many questions about our dinner plan, enjoying the mystery and anticipation of the occasion. I knew we had to dress nicely and be mindful of the many fork choices, but I didn't know what to expect in terms of the food.

Burning calories and working up an appetite just by struggling into body-shaping fat-relocation garments and the dreaded control-top pantyhose, I was approaching a feeling of hunger as we were leaving our lodgings. Camille was thrilled to be participating in such a grown-up evening, and we both primped for the camera as evidence of this special occasion.

As a side comment, I realize "hunger" is a relative term. I didn't experience true hunger on this whole trip. The closest I came was the faint echo of a threat of a growling stomach, usually occurring only moments before I popped some nutritionless morsel in my face. When I say I was hungry, I really mean that I was just physically and/or mentally prepared to eat without waiting to be hungry. But when we arrived back at the Greenbrier, and I got a whiff of the restaurants in full service mode, my digestive tract and salivary glands behaved like someone who truly needed to eat. In textbook Pavlovian fashion, the smell of sizzling beef fat on a hot metal charger sent my drool production into overdrive. I had to guzzle a glass of water just to get my mouth calmed down.

Named for Jerry West, a famed basketball player from the area, Prime 44 West Steakhouse is a pleasant, masculine restaurant with a full complement of servers to make the guests feel pampered. From the complimentary cornbread to the magically special ice cream, every bite was scrumptious. I skipped steak but filled up on a delicious salad, lobster bisque to die for and a huge Maryland crab cocktail. My companions said little about their steaks, but they grunted and moaned in that unmistakable way that communicates taste buds in paradise. We all shared a huge bowl of lobster mashed potatoes, for which the chef gets my nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize for Food. It was a meal for the record books, and you should look at the menu to appreciate the wonder of it all.

The next day was driving home day, and what I really wanted todo was hire a flatbed tow truck to drag my gigantic, distended food-filled gut home, while I lay prone in the backseat of my car. That was not to be. I drove, with numerous body-cleansing stops, up to Cleveland, then over to Granger, because my calorie-engorged body could barely manage turns, exits and lane changes. I wish I could say I just drove and didn't eat a bite, but that wouldn't be true. In fact I ate an entirely unnecessary meal in the mid-afternoon, and munched on car snacks with minimal awareness of what I was doing. It was pathetic.

Now I'm home, the car is unpacked, the laundry is done and I'm semi-rested from the trip. This blog has been an exercise in reminding myself how I pigged out in the beautiful states of Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio (I managed to eat normally during our brief time in Indiana). Today, Eric took the girls to the mall so I could have some quiet time to finish writing this installment.  After this act of purging with words, I hope to be able to step back on the straight and narrow road of sensible eating and regular exercise.

After all, vacations are special. They are time set aside to do things you don't normally get to do in everyday life. So what if I went up a full clothes size in less than a week? Someone has a steady job thanks to my need for some new elastic-waist pants. And I'll get back to my normal habits and comfortable weight very soon. Starting right after I finish this Dairy Queen Blizzard my well-meaning children just brought me.

Happy spring break and bon appetit!

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