It didn't start as a quest for the perfect macaroni and cheese.
In fact, my family's recent road trip through Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky and West Virginia was meant to be a literary, not a culinary, pilgrimage.
Last summer, my partner, Elissa, and I read all nine volumes of the Little House on the Prairie series aloud to our 7-year-old daughter, Sasha. We finished the last book the night before school started and hatched our plan: Over spring break, we'd drive to the Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead and museum in Mansfield, Mo. - the place where she wrote her books and spent the last years of her life.
All winter, we fantasized about what we'd find along the way: biscuits lofty as cumulus clouds, fresh-baked pies thick with fresh raspberries. And we promised Sasha a peak Southern experience with one of her favorite foods: the creamiest, lushest macaroni and cheese of her life.
We packed our 2003 Honda Civic in mid-March and headed toward Missouri, determined, like all pioneers before us, to satisfy our idiosyncratic hungers.
The first night, we drove only as far as Columbia, Md., and dined with my aunt and uncle at Hunan Legend - a Chinese restaurant with no mac 'n' cheese on the menu.
The next evening, in Knoxville, Tenn., we succumbed to the path of least resistance and slipped into a vinyl booth at a Ruby Tuesday's. Sasha scanned the menu eagerly: no mac 'n' cheese.
"I hate this trip. I'm not eating anything ever again!" she declared, a vow that lasted as long as it took to promise her ice cream from Baskin-Robbins if she'd consent to some broiled chicken and a few sprigs of broccoli. But I was starting to feel a keen sense of dislocation. When you can eat anything, anywhere, even scallion pancakes at a La Quinta Inn in Knoxville, how do you know where you are?
The Ingalls family probably knew the backstory of every bite they put into their mouths: turnips stored in the root cellar, butter creamed by hand from a cow milked that morning, biscuits kneaded from flour Pa got in trade for animal skins. These days, we're grateful not to have to grind our own cornmeal or pluck our own chickens - but we hunger for something more authentic than a Ruby Tuesday's with its menu of placeless, predictable food.
At the same time, "the real thing," culinarily speaking, is always relative. We might romanticize the Ingalls family as the original "locavores," but I remember one telling episode in which Pa brings home a tin of oysters as a Christmas surprise. In the midst of garden produce and wild meats, they savored the briny and exotic, a food that tasted of a place they'd never been.
Day four of our trip, and we still hadn't found the holy grail. Rotiers, in Nashville, served mac 'n' cheese only on Tuesdays. And we'd arrived on a Monday. On Day five, we caught up with Elissa's parents, who'd been driving from Denver, and made our way to the museum as a group.
There in the Missouri hills were all the icons we remembered from the Little House books: Pa's battered fiddle, Laura's hand-penciled manuscripts, photographs of a clear-eyed girl in braids. Sasha busied herself gathering silk flowers in the cemetery on site, where storms had tossed the blooms askew. She saved the largest bouquets for the graves of Laura, her husband Almanzo and their daughter Rose.
We ate well in Missouri. The first night, we ventured into downtown Springfield to discover Nonna's, a place with exposed-brick walls and fresh pasta. The second night, we lined up at Lambert's Cafe, whose billboards advertise "throwed rolls" and mean that literally: Busboys emerge from the kitchen with carts of warm, poufy rolls, then lob them across the restaurant to customers who raise their hands as if hoping for a fly ball in right field.
Surely, we thought, we would find the long-anticipated mac 'n' cheese at Lambert's. But Sasha's face crumpled when we delivered the bad news.
"You promised," she wailed, and it was true: Just the night before, I had shaken her hand and solemnly vowed she'd have mac 'n' cheese before the trip was over.
We had two more nights. Finally I resorted to the Internet. I opened the laptop and Googled "macaroni and cheese, Kentucky," "macaroni and cheese, West Virginia." I was determined to find a place that, as they say in the South, God willing and the creeks don't rise, we could reach by lunchtime Saturday.
But the creeks had risen, stormed over their banks, in fact, and flooding slowed traffic on I-40 for hours outside St. Louis. In some places, muddy water lapped up to the shoulder of the highway. That night, we were grateful just to cross the Illinois border.
Finally, on day eight of our nine-day trip, we arrived at the promised land: Lynn's Paradise Cafe in Louisville, Ky., the place I found in my late-night Web search. Her macaroni and cheese had been praised by none other than Oprah Winfrey. But we'd make our own assessment.
Sasha scanned the children's menu. On this journey, while awaiting mac 'n' cheese, she'd eaten vegetable dumplings in Columbia, Md.; mashed potatoes in Ozark, Mo.; soy nut-butter and jam sandwiches at a rest stop outside Roanoke, Va.; a turkey hoagie from Amighetti's in St. Louis; and she'd watched adults drink turquoise beer on St. Patrick's Day in Nashville.
Here at last was our nirvana. Lynn's was decorated with thrift-shop lamps on every table, sculptures that look like pajama-clad legs protruding from the wall. Best of all, Lynn's menu had what we were looking for. Sasha's macaroni and cheese glowed like sunlight in an oval dish. And I finally got my biscuits, spread with sweet, nutty sorghum butter.
We wanted to take it all in: the rapture of good food, long imagined and worth the wait; the kooky, bright chaos of the cafe; the giant wall map noting visitors' hometowns (there were dots on Paris and the Aleutian Islands). We wanted to savor the culmination of our quest, this penultimate day before the journey would loop us back to our own homestead and its comfortable routine.
Instead, we just took some multi-berry pie for the road. And as we piled into the car again Sasha asked, "What are we having for dinner?"