What I Learned About America as I Ate (and Biked) Across It

What I Ate as I Biked My Way Across America

By Andrew Chang

It’s probably not a surprise that cycling across the United States would be an amazing experience for people who like exercise and travel — but it’s actually a trip for foodies and history buffs, too.

This summer, I rode a bicycle from my home in New Jersey to San Francisco. I spent roughly eight hours a day for two months cycling lightly traveled roads across 12 states, burning twice the number of calories I’d use in a typical day.

In this time, I visited 64 restaurants (including fast-food joints, dairy bars, and quick-serve spots) and 49 gas stations and general stores.

Traveling this way not only gave me an excuse to eat all sorts of high-calorie things I normally wouldn’t, but it helped me avoid the chain restaurants along the interstates that have made America feel so homogenous.

I’ve traveled pretty extensively and dined accordingly — from brined herring in the Netherlands to antelope in Kenya to snake’s blood in Taiwan — but I would have never expected to come across such culinary adventures in my own country.

Of course, when you cross 4,200 miles by land anywhere, you’ll inevitably find people eating different things, based upon the history and resources of where they live.


The Bierock is a bun filled with cabbage, cheese, and sausage. (Photo: Andrew Chang)


By far the most memorable thing I ate was something called a Bierock, from a gas station in Tribune, Kan. Pasties, momos, shu mai, pierogis, empanadas — almost every place has a food made from meat wrapped in dough — including the Sunflower State.

What charmed me most was that in so-called white-bread Middle America, this food’s ethnic roots were clear. It was a bun, slightly oily, crispy on the outside, not very doughy, surrounding a filling of cabbage, cheese, and sausage.

I’d been told they’re typical of the Mennonites, a community I’d associated with Germany — but with the cabbage, this food had a strong essence of Russia. However, a whole history I was barely aware of was packed into this tasty softball-sized package. I discovered that the Mennonites had actually spent time in Russia between leaving Germany and arriving in Kansas.

The result was something like a calzone, with its sausage-and-cheese filling, but with the crunch of cabbage, and a more buttery, but not flaky, shell.


While Kansas may have stood out for one meal, Kentucky was memorable for having the most kinds of regional cuisine to sample.

There was perfectly fried chicken — crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside (the kind that KFC wishes it could produce) — at Riverview Restaurant in Hawesville.


A plate of mutton, beef, and pork ribs in Owensboro, Ky. (Photo: Andrew Chang)

At Old Hickory Bar-B-Q in Owensboro, I had a platter of mutton, beef, and pork ribs. I could barely tell the difference between the meats — it was all smoky, brown, and somewhat dry; tasty, but few things aren’t after riding 100 miles. I also tried a local specialty called a Burgoo, a sort of barbecue stew that at one time might have included squirrel, opossum, and raccoon. While it might sound exotic, it was rather indistinctive, if tasty, as if you took a pulled pork sandwich, took out the bread, and turned it into a stew with vegetables.

In the town of Maysville, I tried a Hot Brown, another regional specialty, which is bacon, turkey, and bread covered by rich white cheese. Invented at a Louisville hotel in 1926, it tasted like the result of a wild night between an open-faced turkey sandwich, macaroni & cheese, and a BLT. It was delicious, like any moral lapse should be.


Pimento cheese sandwiches in Kentucky. (Photo: Andrew Chang)

In another part of Kentucky, I tried a pimiento cheese sandwich — spicy processed cheese spread on cheap white bread — a staple as familiar to Southerners as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but an exotic treat to this Yankee.

I was excited to have my first Hunt Brothers Pizza — a beloved regional pizza chain that has more locations than Domino’s or Pizza Hut, but is found mainly in the South and Midwest. Finally, in Dry Ridge, not too far from the Ohio border, I even sampled some Cincinnati cuisine — local favorite LaRosa’s Pizza, a 60-year-old Italian-food chain.


Missouri was the site of my most unusual dining experience. Previously, I had only known cashew chicken to be an entrée in Chinese restaurants. But in the Show Me state, it seemed to be a deli standard, offered alongside BLTs and Reubens.

Missouri is also home to the St. Paul Sandwich, an egg foo yung patty between two slices of white bread.


Lunch at a July 4th celebration: a Navajo taco, steamed corn stew, blue corn mush, and fry bread. (Photo: Andrew Chang)

I had one of the most exotic meals of my trip in Blanding, Utah. I had never been in a Native American community before, and I was fortunate to arrive on July 4th, when the town park was full of food vendors participating in the celebration. I tried the Navajo taco, steamed corn stew, and blue-corn mush. Like the Bierock, these foods also reflected region and history. The corn items come from the Native Americans’ traditional diet. And for the taco, it’s basically standard taco fillings wrapped in fry bread, which is made from simple staples of flour, salt, and lard. It was created when the U.S. government, which had forced Native Americans to relocate to areas that couldn’t support vegetables and beans, gave them canned goods as well as white flour, processed sugar, and lard to sustain them.


Not every day brought culinary adventure. Hamburgers were ample, but vegetables and fresh fish were impossible to find. And there were lots of chances to carbo-load.

Milkshakes became a staple of my diet. A fellow cross-country cyclist claimed they are the perfect food for such an adventure — cooling, hydrating, and full of calories.

Candy bars, too, were pretty common. I came to favor three in particular: Snickers and Twix, because they have the most calories per penny, and Paydays, because, being chocolate-free, they don’t melt.

As we crossed the country, one of my fellow riders reflected on the irony of our being in the best shape of our lives, but also having the worst diet of our lives. He wasn’t wrong, but it was also a necessary part of crossing America by bicycle. And in the process, the food — high calorie or not — helped us make sense of the country.

The Bierocks showed me how even the most “quintessential” American communities were ethnic at one time. The Burgoo testified to the hardscrabble lives of the first settlers in the Kentucky hills. Even the Snickers bars, packed with calories, spoke to a time before power bars, when more Americans earned their wages with physical labor and needed those extra calories to make it through the day.

Put that way, our astonishing diet was a small, yet tasty, price to pay to learn about my fellow Americans and all their varied origins and lifestyles.

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