Paul Vlachos is a New Yorker who understands The West. And he is a New Yorker who understands New York. Wherever Paul goes, he finds signs of life…
Please let me explain myself.
Even though Saint Francis said “it’s better to understand than to be understood” – please let me explain myself and to make myself understood.
Years ago, I was talking with my longtime friend and soaking buddy, Paul S., the guy who introduced me to western hot springs, and I was going on about some crazy route I was taking to get from one point to another. I must have mentioned a few food destinations and, since he was already quite familiar with my peregrinations, he cut in and said “Listen, these trips are all about the food for you.” And, while I may have been under some illusion or denial up until that moment, his statement made sense and it made life easier. Sure, it’s all about the food. I mean, I love the driving, I love the solitude. I love getting back into what little is left of unspoiled nature. I love getting some perspective on the country and my fellow citizens. I love the majesty of America’s landscape. I love the ruins, the architecture, the abandoned gas stations, the journeys back in time over one hundred miles of backroads.. I love the purple mountain majesties and all the other verses to “America, the Beautiful,” as much as I love Woody Guthrie and his diamond deserts and all the verses to “This Land is Your Land.” I love the smell of gasoline mixed with the dawn while I’m filling up my tank and thinking about where I’m going to turn at the next junction. I love camping in Canyon Country. I love all that and more.
But I really love a good chile relleno in Las Cruces, New Mexico, or a piece of Mile High Blueberry Pie in Salmon, Idaho, or tray full of fried catfish and stewed tomatoes with okra in Birmingham, Alabama. Or some New York City Pizza. Or a slice of frozen key lime pie dipped in chocolate on a popsicle stick in southern Florida. I could go on. The list is long. And let’s face it – I’m not the only one who feels this way.
There is a rich field of literature on food and road food. I have no desire to add to it – although that said-same Paul whom I mentioned earlier, he and I have often joked about putting out a book called “Great Restaurants of the Great Basin” that would total no more than four pages. You get the idea. I have driven hundreds of miles out of my way for a good sandwich. And I’ll leave you with this before I get into today’s subject – in “Kolyma Tales,” a magnificent book about the Gulag, written by Varlam Shalamov and filled with some of the darkest stuff you could ever imagine, the author states calmly, but with absolute certainty that, after all else falls away – friendships, love, civility, all the trappings of society – we are left only with hunger.
So, with that, I will say that my original theme today was going to be “Comfort Food.” I was not going to have a theme – and I sometimes prefer to have no theme at all, but “comfort food” popped into my head last week as I was meditating on this Zephyr column and, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had been neglecting one of my favorite subjects. I started to go through photos and began to think about the decisions that go through my mind when I photograph something. I won’t go into that here, but I will state that the connection between one’s gut and one’s brain has been well-documented by science. So, I began to pull photos. I began to see the makings of a multi-part photographic series. I realized it might take a while for me to sort it out on a psychic level. The photos became a flood. I then decided that I needed to take this slowly and to mull on it for another two months. As this was all going through my brain, the subject for this issue suddenly floated to the top of my mental fryolator – DONUTS.
I won’t pretend to not like donuts. Why would I do that? I love donuts. I may love blueberry muffins more, but I still love donuts. I do NOT stop at every donut shop I pass, though. I would have to get a seatbelt extender if I did. But there is something about donuts that is part of the hidden key to the American psyche. One small crumb of the Great American Dream that Hunter Thompson sought in “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas.”
Every town has a donut shop. If they’re too small to have a donut shop, you will still find fresh ones every morning at the mini mart, sitting in a particleboard and plexiglas case under hot lightbulbs, with a little box of wax paper sheets sitting below, maybe a pair of plastic tongs, and a few urns of coffee steaming next to it. Any crappy day will be a little easier to bear if you start it out with a good donut and some coffee. That’s simply a rule of the universe, fixed, immutable. Please don’t lecture me about fats and sugars, about health and sickness, about body mass index and diabetes. I know we all cannot eat donuts. I have reached my limit on other things in this life. I know about excess. I have paid the price and I stay away from certain things, but when it comes to donuts, you’ll have to pull the last one out of my cold, dead right hand. A blueberry muffin will be in my left hand and, most likely, I’ll have a burrito wrapped up in my pocket and an empty pizza box in the back of the van, along with a receipt from the drive-through Dairy Queen 50 miles back on the highway.
To paraphrase Walt Whitman:
“I celebrate donuts and sing donuts,
And what I assume, you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as donuts belongs to you.”
Here, then, is the true heart and soul of America.
1. Burien, Washington – 2017
2. Inglewood, California – 2009
3. West Palm Beach, Florida – 1998
4. Barstow, California – 1999
5. Pecos, Texas – 1995
6. Yucca Valley, California – 2015
7. Detroit, Michigan – 1997