Our Dye-Free Summer Road Trip
If you followed my silly stream of tweets in late July and early August, then you know that I took a chance on a 1,900-mile road trip from “The Big A” to the live music capital of the world – Austin. Also lovingly known as Hippie Haven, and Bat City. The “chance” part is because I did this with my dye-sensitive child, along unfamiliar terrain, to visit many old friends and their kids. Luckily we only experienced two food reactions, and the biggest one may surprise you…more on that later.
Was it easy? Not gonna lie – nope. Lots of planning and self pep-talking were required. And caffeine…to which I’m sensitive. We drove so many hours in our tiny clown car of a Prius that I think I may be qualified to drive a big rig now. You may call me “Label Readin’ Mama”, formerly of the Georgia Fun Police (that’s a little inside CB radio joke for my sister-in-law Shiloh and her husband, Jaime). Not quite as exciting as “Honky Tonk Hot Wheels Dye Fast Mama”, but better than “Manager-Questioning Road Food Trucker” or “Uneasy Rider”.
I was 10-7 for nine days, good buddy (that’s trucker lingo for “out of commission”). I’m still recovering, hence the chirping noises coming from my blog. I wanted to do this post up right! So after mountains of trip laundry and back-to-school madness, here I am back in the saddle again…yippy ki-yi-yay, I go my own way (translation: I’m slow).
I had big ideas about what we’d see on our road trip. I’ve always wanted to tweet pictures of myself standing next to a Muffler Man. I made a list of places we’d stop to do some character-building gawking. My list of roadside gems included:
Cross Garden (“Hell’s Warning Label”) – Prattville, AL
World’s Largest Rocking Chair – Gulfport, MS
World’s Largest Statue Of Ronald Reagan – Covington, LA
Giant Accordian – Crowley, LA
Giant Empty Head of Justice (??) – Lafayette, LA
Giant Frog Statue in Rayne, LA (the “frog capital of the world”)
Giant Dalmation Fire Hydrant, Thomas Edison Museum, *and* Muffler Man who looks just like Alfred E. Neuman – Beaumont, TX
Giant Saxophone made of VW Beetles, Giant presidents’ heads, Space Center, Giant Beatles statues, Art Car Museum, Giant Freak Armadillo – Houston, TX
Cathedral of Junk, Giant spider statue, Museum Of The Weird – Austin, TX
Have you been to any of these places? Please tell me if they were worth the stop. ‘Cause I missed them. All of them. Seems I was way too ambitious, as usual, and my eyes were bigger than my internal clock. But we did see a couple of great things…more on that below.
The one thing I did right was to use the “Sit Or Squat” app to find clean bathrooms along our route. While finding bathrooms was easy, it gave me trouble when I tried to enter a good rating for a clean Shell station in Birmingham, AL. And I’ve found that once you’re in Louisiana and Texas, the app either lies or re-sets the standard for “clean.” My daughter was wishing we had sprung for that REI camp toilet (basically a $20 bucket).
But the app doesn’t tell you where to find the least perfumed, non-neon-pink-dyed hand soaps or desiccated air freshener thingies, so it’s wise to carry some of your own hand soap or sanitizer into bathrooms. And a scuba mask with air tank…for obvious reasons…but also because many children who are sensitive to synthetic food additives also have negative behavioral reactions to synthetic fragrances, like all those nostril-assaulting plug-ins in your auntie’s house.
Would I sound a touch too hypochondriac if I said that I think I’m now allergic to public bathrooms?
Side note – Even the harmless looking cream colored SoftSoap contains three FD&C dyes.
I swear I don’t live in a bubble, you guys.
But I am inspired to develop an app based solely on my 7 year old’s first reactions upon walking into any given bathroom. Audio recordings and all. Good times.
Finding safe food was far trickier than finding a clean place for a 10-100 (that’s pee break in truckerese). I really tried to use the Allergy Eats web site to find allergy friendly restaurants, but it was pretty much a health food desert out there on I-20. I had to reset my bar for acceptable meals, and supplement with loads of snacks from home.
Here’s a sampling of the dye-free snacks we packed for our incredibly long trip: Nectar Squeeze apple-mango sauce (found at TJ Maxx), Late July blue corn tortilla chips, Late July mini peanut butter crackers, fresh fruit, Switch brand sodas, Virgil’s cream soda and orange cream soda (!!!), Hanson’s Key Lime Twist and Cherry Vanilla Creme sodas (I think the Mandarin Lime is yuck), Blue Sky Mandarin Lime (also gross), Unreal brand chocolate candies (unjunked versions of Reese’s PB cups, M&Ms, Snickers bars, and Milky Way bars), pistachios, spicy “Santa Fe” trail mix and mocha mix from Sprouts, and organic fruit leathers. My failed attempt at pantry-cleaning granola bars went untouched, even after I hammered the cemented blocks into a bagged “fun mix”. The brand of vegan marshmallow I had used turned into dust instead of gooey goodness.
We used an app from MOG.com to set the soundtrack for our travels. The first leg included funk, blues and 80s dance classics. We sang along with Prince, Midnight Star, Parliament Funkadelic, Michael Jackson, Rick James, John Lee Hooker, The Gap Band, Commodores, Sly and the Family Stone, Dazz Band, and the Ohio Players. Unfortunately, my kid still has “Super Freak” on brain repeat, but thankfully hasn’t paid much attention to the lyrics, ewwww (How did we kids survive the 80s, anyway?!).
I have to brag just a little…my daughter was a great traveler over all, except for a few minutes of arguing out of boredom or fatigue, and a couple of complaints about butt-numbness. Ten hours in a compact car full to the brim is no fun for anyone, but she contentedly read loads of books and watched episodes of “Ruby Gloom”. Maybe it felt like a kid fort on wheels, perhaps. She was a real trooper and I’m very proud of her.
With the recent hubbub about azodicarbonamide (a synthetic bread additive that is reportedly related to azo dyes, and can cause reactions in dye-sensitive individuals), we opted to skip Subway and Starbucks. I did love the Starbucks Lime Refresher drink when I needed a boost. The lime one tastes way better than the hibiscus one, in my opinion. We stayed away from all those tempting cake pops, sandwiches, and whoopee pies. My daughter was so easy about avoiding all of it, even as she stared into the glass display case of colorful offerings while we ordered our trenta caffeine jolts.
Georgia On My Mind
We left our house already starving because I’d used up or frozen any foods left at home. After getting out of the Atlanta metro area, we picked up some decidedly non-portable eats at Moe’s Southwest Grill on I-20 in Douglasville. I have to admit that their “Welcome to Moe’s!!” was half-hearted at exit 34. We were fresh-faced and raring to go, so we of course attempted some eat and drive acrobatics. Mistake. Burritos have drippings (droppings?) of some sort, and no matter how carefully you maneuver your noggin-sized “Home Wrecker” into your mouth, you’re going to get more wreck on your lap than in your stomach. The good news was that the kids’ meal burrito was tiny by comparison (normal-sized circa 1950), and my kid loved it. And the “all natural” chocolate chip cookie made both of us happy.
Alabama The Beautiful: Where Fireworks Are 70% Off!
We usually hit a Mellow Mushroom wherever we find them because they use homemade dough and try to use local ingredients. Since we already stuffed ourselves with burritos, we had to regrettably skip this pizza palace in Anniston, AL (I-20, exit 188), but it’s worth mentioning in case anyone reading this is traveling that way. I got a glimpse of the real Talladega racetrack (“shake and bake!”), and enjoyed an Unreal Candy pit stop at a clean Shell station near Acton Road in Birmingham.
Mississippi: Birth Place Of America’s Music
We stayed in Mississippi on the way to Austin, and also on the way home. We first rolled into Jackson, Mississippi listening to Johnny and June Carter Cash singing “I’m goin’ to Jackson…” which is both funny and disturbing, if you actually listen to the lyrics. After a long day of travels, I rewarded myself by holing up in the locked hotel bathroom with a Virgil’s cream soda. Heaven.
I recommend the Holiday Inn Express in Clinton, MS for anyone going that way. Their front desk and kitchen staff were very helpful in trying to find ingredient labels for the breakfast bar offerings. I was out of luck on a few items since the shipping boxes had already been discarded (good enough clue to me that we probably should skip those anyway). And the packets of Quaker instant oatmeal had caramel coloring, so we had to skip that too. My daughter was patient as we opted for safe eggs, biscuits, sausage, bananas, dye-free yogurt, English muffins, and juices…and avoided brightly colored “blueberry” muffins and Froot Loops. We could almost follow a rainbow trail of certain destruction among the dropped Froot Loops left by crazed kids. We skipped the Smuckers jelly because it had high fructose corn syrup – just because we already avoid HFCS, not because of any allergies.
Now Mississippi is my old stomping grounds, where I spent a majority of my formative years (and where I wish I had spent my older teenage years). So on our way back through, we stayed a couple of nights near the coast down in Ocean Springs. I visited with an old friend who just had her first child, a beautiful baby girl. And of course I had to drive around my old neighborhood and inspect the overgrown lot where my old house once stood before Hurricane Katrina and some tornadoes snatched it away. I do this about once a year or so – and I can still see the blue bathroom tile remnants on the ground, where we had many dachshund baths, makeup and cologne lessons, fights over the mirror, and embarrassing moments (like that time my brother’s handsome best friend walked in on me using the bathroom – gawd!).
We drove around the beautiful downtown Ocean Springs area with its seductively lit Government Street bars and the for-real old timey shops along Washington Avenue. I saw the library where I spent many a happy afternoon with my mom, the place where my favorite snow cone stand once stood, the refurbished giant Native American head welcoming us at the foot of Biloxi Bridge, and the church where I think my sister was married (the priests were very cool there, as far as my 9-year old brain could remember). I even spotted my Kindergarten, where I produced my own musical on the playground (in my head) and received numerous time-outs for chatting when I should have been listening. Ocean Springs beach at night is peaceful and beautiful, bringing back memories of sailing lessons and people fishing for flounder in the shallows.
I met a friend at the Lyn Meadows Discovery Center in Gulfport, Mississippi so our kids could play. This place made me want to play. The woven climbing structure through the center of the building was very cool, and the dress up “hotel” area is just awesome. I really loved the basketball court where kids can play B-ball while seated in a wheelchair. If you’re ever in that area, please take your kids there! It’s next to miles of gorgeous public beaches too, so pack a picnic and some sun gear.
As for food, I was thrilled that Tom’s Extreme Pizza was not only near our hotel, but delivered to it. I had been dreaming of their Catalina dressing sauce for a year. If you’re not familiar with the old Biloxi tradition of putting French or Catalina salad dressing on top of your pizza, please google the story, and then try it for yourself. We had gorgeous ice cold oysters and a spicy “voodoo” poboy followed by key lime pie at Biloxi’s Half Shell Oyster House. Chicken fingers did the trick for my daughter. Every place is dimly lit around there, it seems.
Our departing breakfast was at the Bayview Gourmet in Ocean Springs, and it was soooo good. I tried grouper with crab meat, eggs, red pepper grits, a biscuit, tomatoes and Hollandaise sauce. My daughter ate scrambled eggs and bacon, which is something she does not often do, so you know it was gooooood. We grabbed a quick lunch at Arby’s on the way out of Mississippi, which was another messy commitment, and also a bit disappointing. Their chicken salad sandwich was edible, but the kid’s meal contained red-dyed yogurt “dipping sauce” for the side of apples. The yogurt, which also contained fake flavors, had “Naturally Fresh” scrawled across the lid. Nuh-uh.
Louisiana: Sportsman’s Paradise
Going west, we traveled through northern Louisiana. My iPhone map showed the most intricate web of canals I’d ever seen. Sportsman’s paradise, you say? I started to wonder if that was a code slogan for “Louisiana is for murderers”. ‘Cause this place has a million places to hide the evidence. Such a mysterious place, Louisiana. The French saint names are charming, but then you’re intrigued by the odd sign pointing to places like the “Baptist Pumpkin Center”. What does it all mean? Stranger still, the Abita Brewery was somehow lumped in with crappy food choices on the exit sign. Dear Louisiana, please do fix that. Pretty please?
On the way back, we drove past gorgeous swamps with their swimming trees on “The Dime” (I-10), and had quite a ride on a wobbly bridge during rush hour in Baton Rouge. I can’t recommend that last bit.
Texas, Don’t Mess With
As we crossed the state line from Louisiana into Texas, I noticed that the trees were shorter. But it wasn’t as bare as we had expected in East Texas. It did start to feel a little desperate as far as food goes. There were long stretches where we’d see houses but no stores or restaurants. We wondered where these people got their food? Then I realized, remembering the “Poultry-Exotics Expedition” sign, that they probably raised their own food. This is why I needed to take a road trip. I’d been in the big city too long!
Our GPS gave up telling us where in Tarnation we were. Apparently I-20 didn’t exist in the plane of existence in which we were traveling. After a loooooong time, we found the Sirloin Stockade in Corsicana. It was similar to a Golden Corral buffet place, only with topnotch country-western music, and my daughter was able to try a few things from each food group. I had an Emergen-C Kids fizzy drink packet on hand (by the way, they lie…it was lacking in fizz). We of course skipped the rainbow sprinkled shovel-it-yourself dessert area and gave her a small bag of dye-free gummy bears. She was happy as can be.
The one thing I found interesting along that route was the preponderance of “cowboy churches.” This is something new to me. Seems like a very specific demographic…
While we were in Austin we stayed with old friends, splashed in some pools, explored underground caverns, and heckled the Olympics on TV like we knew something about real swimming and proper gymnastic dismounts.
And we ate. And ate. And ate. Sweet Jesus on a Cheetoh, did we eat.
Austin’s food is an eclectic mix of traditional Southern chicken-fried everything, organic whole-foodie heaven, and fearless foodtruckery.
Not to mention, everything really is bigger in Texas. The sky-high overpasses and ramps were 10-100-in-your-pants-inducing enough. I tried a huge deep-fried avocado for the first time at Morelia’s Mexican Grill, and couldn’t figure out how they sneaked fajita steak and cheeses into it without showing an opening. It was like a crispy dinosaur egg. The servings were gigantic and the margaritas were even bigger. We skipped the brownie dessert since it was pre-packaged (not made from scratch) and contained synthetic flavorings. The server was really awesome about letting me know the ingredients. I always had dye-free drink mixes and safe candies ready for my daughter.
Our friends told us to try Bee’s Knees gluten-free bakery, where they make everything from scratch. The only dyed offerings there would be the special order cakes. Everything in the case was free of synthetic dyes and flavors, and delicious – from the cake balls to the cupcakes. The kids murdalized those things in record time.
We ate dinner at Threadgill’s World Headquarters, an old haunt of Willie Nelson’s, and home away from home to decades of great musicians of every genre. The walls were covered with gig posters, old photographs, and album covers from Frank Zappa to Janis Joplin. Regrettably, I didn’t try the chicken-fried steak, which was apparently as legendary as the restaurant.
In fact, the only non-fearless eater I met in Austin was a cashier at a Walgreen’s in Round Rock, who was literally scared to try the Unreal brand of unjunked chocolate candies. I offered to open up my bag and share some samples with her, but she quickly declined with a worried look…she explained that she “just didn’t think they’d taste right without all the usual stuff in them“. That kinda made me feel a bit sick just to hear. So sad – Girlfriend doesn’t know what she’s missing…
Austin is also home to the largest urban bat colony in North America. After dinner at Threadgill’s, we boarded a bat-spotting tour boat which took us down the river and under the Congress Street Bridge at sunset. I loved watching the bats pop out of their crevices and flutter under the bridge and over the helpless, uncovered crowd standing by the banks. Somehow I missed the fact that adult beverages are allowed on the boat tours. Damn. I’m sure the bats found us to be entertaining nonetheless.
Sprouts Market (formerly Henry’s) met our snacking needs for the trip home. They have lots of great bulk bins full of snacks like mocha trail mix and Santa Fe hot trail mix, pistachios, and dried fruits, etc. My daughter and her friend joyfully kept pointing out that ‘sampling is okay!’ while they tried various flavors, like a couple of cheap old ladies. It should be noted that despite its sign out front, Sprouts is not an all natural market. There are still plenty of brightly dyed candies and licorice sticks to be found.
Hey you know what’s…odd? I’m not sure that the “Keep Austin Weird” slogan couldn’t be used for any other biggish city, like Atlanta. Atlanta…whoo…yeah. Weird. Austin was just a nice small city with lots to offer, and I hope to spend more time there in the future.
So I guess you’re wondering about the reactions I mentioned. The biggest surprise of this long trip was the fact that my daughter didn’t have her usual reaction to dyes. She did incessantly pull out her eyelashes, eyebrow hairs, and leg/arm hair the entire trip, and for a day or so after we got back. I suspect it was from annatto or the preservatives in fry oils and packaging (TBHQ, BHA, and BHT – which are petroleum-based, just like synthetic food coloring).
But the worst reaction happened to me. I knew I was sensitive to MSG, caffeine, and petroleum food coloring. So I thought I was doing a good thing when I ordered myself a diet green tea at a Sonic on the way home. There seemed to be Sonics in every small enclave of civilization on I-10 across Texas. Like the governor has a deal with them or something…it was weird. Within a half an hour of drinking this “tea” and passing several more Sonics, I was itching all over my body, and trying to drive while scratching like a maniac.
And my mood changed. I became agitated with other drivers, getting that old paranoid, grumpy feeling that they were messing with me on purpose (like the fast lane cruiser that dawdles but won’t let you pass) – the exact same way I’ve felt during past reactions to dyes and annatto. I became a more aggressive driver for a little bit there. I was cursing, angry, impatient…thank goodness my daughter had headphones on or else she would have heard some new words. The worst words. You know what I’m talking about. F words, C words, M words, the whole ding dang alphabet.
I got myself into a real 10-33. I was lucky Smokey didn’t give me a ticket because I was probably driving erratically, what with all the scratching.
How do I know it was an allergic reaction? Because (dye-free) Benadryl made it all go away within a half an hour.
I suspected that it was either the petroleum-based sodium benzoate in my green tea, annatto in the food, or the preservatives in fry oil. I called them later asking for the diet green tea ingredients. After a bit of confusion, they kindly read aloud the ingredients: Water, phenylalanine, aspartame, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, phosphoric acid, acelsulphamine, natural green tea concentrate from tea leaves, and citric acid. What, no crude oil straight from some Texan dude’s front yard? Sounds like a freaking science fair project.
I hadn’t had much caffeine this year, but I’d had some at Starbucks during our drive to Texas, so this Sonic drink wasn’t my first exposure to caffeine that week. The reaction felt so over-the-top, it was a little scary. Like I couldn’t believe I was feeling that way. But the whole time, I knew why it was happening, I recognized that old out-of-control feeling, and therefore was able to manage it a little better. That helps SO much. This is one reason why I believe it’s terribly important to explain to our kids why they’re feeling bad after ingesting stuff that they’re allergic to…it can empower them to know they’ll soon feel okay again.
I think if I had to do this trip over again I’d –
2) Go in the Fall or Winter (the heat in July and August are super dehydrating).
3) Avoid fried food.
4) Ask more questions at restaurants, no matter how embarrassing.
5) Go on a weekend so I can hit up their farmers’ markets.
6) Do more local fun stuff (swim at Barton Springs pool, ride the trains through hill country, see the ACL Festival, do more shopping on Congress Avenue, play on Ocean Springs Beach, eat at Good Karma in Ocean Springs, have a ladies’ night out…). And,
7) Bring more drinks than I think we’ll need, so that I’ll never have to depend on the creepily ever-present Sonic as a last resort.
So, do you have any road food stories to share – good or bad? Please share them in a comment here.
Label Readin’ Mama signing off with a 10-10 (that means I’ll shut up now but keep listening for your responses).
Over and out.