Last updated on February 11th, 2015
I first met Jack Kerouac—well, his writing—not long after I turned 16, years before I became a food writer. But Jack, who would have turned 91 years old this week, remains one of my most steadfast inspirations. His isn’t the first name that typically comes to mind when discussing food in literature, and it’s certainly not the main focus of his rambles and tales, but it’s a crucial part of his work nonetheless. References to meals are peppered throughout Jack’s canon; from simple eggs fried in a camp skillet to the overwhelming menu of options in a great city like San Francisco. Food is mapped across the American landscape as clearly as interstate highways, and as Jack crisscrossed the country innumerable times over the course of two and a half decades, what he ate and where he ate it became part of his life’s story.
Though Jack died in 1969, air travel figured nowhere in his work; he traveled on the ground via cars, trains, buses, and his feet. But those of us who inwardly sigh at playing yet another round of turkey-sandwich-or-starvation roulette as we’re crammed into an economy airline seat or suffer through a greasy egg-and-cheese croissant at a rest stop on Route 80 will recognize the curt descriptions of sustenance for the lonely traveler that pop up regularly in his stories. On the Road, his most enduring work, is filled with scenes of eating hamburgers from Philadelphia lunchcarts, grabbing grub at a Nebraska diner, and making salami-and-mustard sandwiches before boarding the bus from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh.
For all the pop culture depictions of Jack as king of the Beats, carousing through North Beach and Greenwich Village with Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and the gang, he spent much of his time in self-imposed solitude. During his time as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in Washington State—subsisting for six weeks on coffee, Chef Boyardee spaghetti, Kraft macaroni and cheese, boiled potatoes, and flapjacks with maple syrup—Jack had nothing to do but watch for forest fires and dream of what he’d eat when he got back to civilization in San Francisco. He remembered childhood afternoons eating Ritz crackers and peanut butter with a glass of milk, looked at his pantry shelves sparsely populated with tins and cans, and thought, “My box full of potatoes and onions, O sigh! I wish I had an ice cream soda and a sirloin steak!” (Desolation Angels, 1965)
Longing for a blowout dinner or planning the next good meal—there are millions of Pinterest boards and blogs built around these topics today, but for Jack, it was another way to occupy his mind. Sad and broke in a skid row hotel room, Jack lusted after the food he couldn’t afford:
“Just show me the bluefish spangle on a seafood menu and I’d eat it; let me smell the drawn butter and lobster claws. There were places where they specialized in thick red roast beef au jus, or roast chicken basted in wine. There were places where hamburgs sizzled on grills and the coffee was only a nickel. And oh, that pan-fried chow mein flavored air that blew into my room from Chinatown, vying with the spaghetti sauces of North Beach, the soft-shell crab of Fisherman’s Wharf—nay, the ribs of Fillmore turning on spits! Throw in the Market Street chili beans, redhot, and french-fried potatoes of the Embarcadero wino night, and steamed clams from Sausalito across the bay, and that’s my ah-dream of San Francisco.” (On the Road, 1957)
(Lest you think Jack never had a high-end dinner in his life, the man took advantage of his otherwise unwanted fame with culinary luxuries: he crowed to his buddy Ginsberg in a 1960 letter, “just got back, TWA Ambassador flight, tax deductible, with wine and champagne and filet mignon and Chinese Tapei ambassador’s wife in front of me etc.”)
But the simplicity of making your own meals can be just as sustaining as a huge bowl of chow mein or a pile of steamed, spicy crabs. A few years later, as Jack tried in vain to escape the pressures of fame brought on by the long-awaited publication of On the Road, he holed up at friend and City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin in Big Sur. Alone with the crosh of the waves, the rolling fog, and the buzzing of flies, he savored his solo (and sometimes impromptu) meals:
“There’s the bottle of olives, 49¢, imported, pimentos, I eat them one by one wondering about the late afternoon hillsides of Greece—And there’s my spaghetti with tomato sauce and my oil and vinegar salad and my applesauce relishe my dear and my black coffee and Roquefort cheese and afterdinner nuts, my dear, all in the woods—(Ten delicate olives slowly chewed at midnight is something no one’s ever done in luxurious restaurants)” (Big Sur, 1962)
And, along with his fondness for flapjacks, Jack excelled at frying eggs “in my little skidrow frying pan about as half as thick as a dime in fact less, a little piece of tiny tin you could bring from a camp trip—the eggs slowly fluffled in there and swelled from butter steams and I threw garlic salt on them, and when they were ready the yellow of them had been slightly filmed with a cooked white…” (Lonesome Traveler, 1960)
So in America when I travel from coast to coast, stopping at roadside diners, spooling up great mounds of spaghetti from white bowls, seeking out brisket tacos, oysters, bourbon ice cream, and everything in between, I think about how food isn’t just something to get me going from place to place but a record of my experiences, your experiences, and the culture we share and take with us as we make our way throughout the country. I think of the joy I find in the mundane and the trivial, and I think of Jack Kerouac.