The coach potato

It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that people change for the worse when they slide behind the wheel of their car. Beardless youths become racing drivers with psychotic tempers. Fragrant soccer mums turn into modern Boudiccas, driving the SUV through the school run like a Hummer out of Mogadishu. The car, one of the few places we can be alone and in total control, is armour, refuge and escape for all of us… not least we food lovers.

Let me be clear. I like good food, properly served in well-managed surroundings. I don’t like manufactured junk, poor service or a messy eating place. And yet, as I have discovered, in the car everything changes.

It began innocently enough. Driving alone, I stopped for petrol, spotted a bag of cheese corn chips. The thought process went like this: 1. Blimey, I haven’t had a bag of those in ages 2. There’s not much else on offer and 3. Nobody will ever know.

The powder they put on cheese corn chips is a culinary Class A drug. A megaton of salt, plus something that tastes impossibly cheesier than cheese and sufficient MSG to render palatable a fromagier’s espadrille. The next trip I had them again – but this time, I knew what would happen: a kilometre-and-a-half up the road they would be gone, leaving my tongue shrivelled like a recherché piece of charcuterie. The only thing that could slake such thirst was obviously an ice-cold diet cola. And there it was, right next to the till, and, hell, I reasoned, it’ll keep me alert while I drive.

I don’t remember exactly when I moved on to the pasties, but it wasn’t on the A30 in Cornwall. Still my mouth can’t forget the deliciously claggy feeling of unattributable fats adhering to my palate. You can rinse them off with machine coffee – though that’s likely to trigger the kind of reflux that means you have to get off at the next exit for a UHT milkshake.

The truth is that the car liberates something within us, and if that’s unattractive, we just have to learn to embrace it. Mine has become a mobile facility for my indulgence in the kind of crap food that my higher self – call it professionalism or arrant snobbery – could never allow myself to delight in where I might be seen.

I’ve let the crumbs build up in the footwells now. The names of the service stations have become like poetry to me. Clacket Lane and Woolley Edge are my elBulli and my Noma; Leigh Delamare and Birchanger Green my Adrià and Redzepi…there’s even a Heston Services near Bray.

I am happy – grateful for my car. As the toxic, orange fallout of cheesy snack product drifts softly onto my bulging T-shirt, I am momentarily free to indulge without shame the joys I would otherwise have to deny myself.

Tim Hayward is editor of Fire & Knives.

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