If my paternal grandmother loved anything, it was snacking. No matter where she went, she always had a purse full of snacks. Pretzel sticks, popcorn, chips, dried fruit… it was nothing elaborate, but she hated being hungry, and frugal as she was, I never, ever saw her use a vending machine.
She always had the usual suspect snacks stashed away in her purse, but when we had a road trip planned, it was a whole different situation. She would pack coolers of food—cut celery and carrots, carefully halved sandwiches, sugary, packaged snack cakes and of course, the ubiquitous pretzel sticks. It became a family joke that we barely had to leave the neighborhood before she would turn around in her seat and, in a booming voice, ask, “Who wants snicky snacks?”
I guess that means I was programmed from a young age to appreciate the utter delight of the road trip snack. In fact, in my mind, the snacks are half the reason to go on the trip in the first place. I’m definitely not opposed to a McDonald’s stop at some point along the journey (preferably first thing in the morning so I can wash my soggy hashbrown down with some burnt coffee), but fast food just can’t compare to the joy and comfort of knowing that you have several full meals stashed away in a cooler, ready to go whenever your stomach starts grumbling… if you ever even let it get to that point, anyway.
The exact snacks required for a trip vary depending on how long the journey is, where you’re going and who’s in the car, but for me, pretzels are absolutely essential. I know that some find them bland or boring, but that’s part of why they work so well on the road. Right after college, I took a poorly planned two-week road trip around the Southwest U.S. with a group of friends. We had to rush through New Mexico en route to the Grand Canyon, and I was the one driving. If you’ve ever been to rural New Mexico, you know that the tumbleweed trope is a real thing out there: There was nothing, nothing for miles. It was during those few hours at the helm of our rented Jeep that I mindlessly worked my way through half a family-size bag of Utz pretzels—the nothingness of the flavor complemented the nothingness of the horizon perfectly, and I was only forced to start pounding instant coffee to stay awake once the sun had set.
Later on that same trip, when we had gotten tired of sad Tofurkey sandwiches pieced together with the scraps from our infrequent grocery store trips between sights, we made white rice in our Motel 6 with the help of our $15 portable rice cooker, which, after two days of use, died on us. After using nail clippers to break into the canned chickpeas we had purchased, we added the beans and a smattering of veggies to the rice where they would sit for days as we slowly made our way through the unrefrigerated abomination. By day three, the rice-veggie mixture was almost completely lukewarm and unappetizing, the wilting tomatoes seeping into the fluffy rice, but we ate it anyway on the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley while we watched the sun disappear behind the rolling sand hills. Despite the fact that the food itself was absolutely rank, it’s one of the best dinners I can remember. We left the dunes at dusk, tipsy from warm PBR, somehow satisfied by our meal.
For me, the road trip snack is such a joy not because of the food itself—on the road, you’re often relegated to whatever you can find. It’s special because of the setting: On an adventure, everything tastes a little better. And even more than the setting, road trip snacks are special because of the people you share them with. I’ve never had deeper chats with friends and family than when we’ve all been stuck in a car together, passing a bag of potato chip dust back and forth, stopping only for cheap gas station coffee and subsequent emergency bathroom breaks. That’s exactly what a great meal is supposed to do: facilitate connection.
Recently, I had to make a long drive on my own, and before I left, I packed a cooler full of my favorite road trip snacks as usual: sandwiches, sliced strawberries, pretzels, of course. But something about the food fell flat. There was no one to open the pretzel bag for me, to hold my sandwich as I took my first bite, to grab a drink from the cooler in the back. No one to ask, when we were just minutes down the road, if I wanted a snicky snack. I pulled over at a diner off the highway instead, stared at my phone just like everyone else in the place, ate my seemingly unsalted fries amongst the traveling families and the tired truckers. The delight of the road trip snack, it seemed, must be shared.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.