Car Food Survival: Altoids?

Besides all the other benefits conferred -- such as never having to serve as designated driver -- the number-one advantage to being a car slob is that it could keep you alive.

Take the case of Robert Ward. The West Virginia man was trapped in his vehicle, following a plunge into a ravine, for about a week. How did he survive? By eating the Taco Bell condiments that he hadn't bothered to pick up from the floor mats. Of course, Ward must have been a real pig and collected quite a few of those tiny bits of sauce for them to have made any real nutritional impact. But still. He's here to extol their virtues. No doubt he'll be the spokesman for the next Taco Bell campaign, kind of like Subway's Jared. Testimonials are always so much more believable when they're not from a talking dog. Or he could be the test driver for the Ford Model U concept car, which has seat foam made out of soybeans, a roof derived from corn, and oil from sunflower seeds. Tastes as good as it drives, no doubt.

Anyway, Ward got me to thinking. We're a car society here, threatened constantly by canals, overpasses, and those who learned to drive by watching CHiPs reruns dubbed in Spanish. I, for one, tend to literally -- or litter-ally -- live in my SUV, both because I am always on the go and because I am an inherent pack rat. Add kids to the mix and you've got one messy Montero. But I look at it this way: Should I find myself in a Tillie Tudor-type situation, I will have old, flat Diet Cokes to hydrate me; petrified Pillsbury pancakes that the kids discarded to nourish me; and at least a couple of lurid-hued Fruit Roll-Ups I can use for flare-type signals. Here I am, they'll say. I feed my children sugar and chemicals. But at least I'm better than the mom in that commercial who has to call for roadside assistance and the tow truck driver that responds is so sensitive he brings crackers for the screaming baby. What kind of mom doesn't have a fully stocked center console?

In fact most people who have kids have a better chance of finding something to eat in their cars in an emergency situation than those who don't -- even if, like 5061 owner Xavier Lesmarie, who hides imported Italian licorice in his car, it's to keep the kids out of it. Bee Heaven farm proprietor Margie Pikarsky acknowledges, "I always have who knows what crumbs (food crumbs, crayon crumbs, pencil crumbs, plant crumbs, paper crumbs -- just lots of little shits) thanks to my daughter." Thanks to their two girls, chef Michael Schwartz's wife's car often yields half-eaten lunches "and the stuff that's in the car seats -- raisins, popcorn, pretzels, grapes, whatever," Schwartz reports.

In fact those who are involved intimately with food or the restaurant industry, it stands to reason, also probably have lots of goodies on hand. George Slover, general manager for Barton G. and a self-described "restaurant junkie who is [also] a workaholic," would appear to be a prime example. His car might yield anything from "a popcorn ball from Barton G. that I nibble on my way home at 3:00 a.m." to "a box of truffles from a gift bag from Miami Rhapsody Gala in November [and] a bottle of vodka that I received as a sample last month." A stand-up representative for all gastronomes, no?

Apparently not. I must have surveyed 40 colleagues and acquaintances about the one food item that would keep them alive during a gastro-auto crisis, and a large number of answers came back similar to food writer Viviana Carballo's: "Do Tums count?" Indeed Terry Zarikian, who publicizes the China Grill Management properties, asked me if one can eat paper. Sure, I guess, though the last paper I've eaten had more to do with the rolling kind than the press release kind. And Todd Wernstrom, executive editor of The Wine News, would quite frankly be doomed. He says, "For the record: No food of any kind is allowed in Todd's 9-3 Saab convertible! You're allowed to drool outside of it, not in it." You'd think he'd at least allow some vino.

Still most people at least carry water as a general eight-glasses-a-day rule. And they can usually scrounge around for something to flavor it with. "At any given time there are six almost-empty water bottles with about one sip apiece," talk radio's Joyce Kaufman (WFTL/WDJA/WJNA) says. "And I always have Ricola cough drops -- what broadcaster doesn't? I'll be dead in three days, but I won't have a scratchy throat when they pry my fingers off the steering wheel." Chef Norman Van Aken told me that if he were welded by circumstance into his car, he'd be "S.O.L. The only thing I typically have is my bottle of Volvic water ... and perhaps a drained cup of Starbucks." Restaurant publicist Dindy Yokel, who reps Nemo, admits that she might have "a few leftover cookies made by Hedy Goldsmith [which] taste almost as good stale as they do fresh," but more likely all she would have on hand would be "little bottles of Fresh Breath ... and maybe a pound of Starbucks coffee."

I've never felt the attraction to either Starbucks or those liquid palate refreshers, but plenty of folks like to drive around with Altoids in their laps, it seems. Restaurant publicist Carla Marsh claims, "I can live (and indeed have survived for long hours on I-95) on tangerine Altoids; I am a slave to them!" Likewise Marlene Herrera, community director for the March of Dimes, says she would "probably survive on my tin boxes of cinnamon Altoids and my stash of water bottles located under my passenger car seat which are for the gym."

Ivonne Perez Suarez, media relations coordinator for the Biltmore Hotel, disdains the trendy mint, though. She goes for the specialty blend the hotel sells, Choward's Violet mint. And yes, she says, it tastes like you are eating the flower itself. But I bet those would be mighty good with a cup of canal water.

So much for the folks who would make a fresh-smelling corpse. But like myself, plenty of people have no intention of becoming one. They're the ones who stock their cars for an emergency, whether it be a traffic jam or a real jam. Overwhelmingly, everyone from Sheri Ketchum, public relations manager for Beringer Blass, to freelance travel and food writer Joann Biondi recommends one comestible to keep in the glove box: dried fruit. Mango poster photographer Mark Diamond sums it up: "It's never too hot or (certainly not) cold inside a parked car to 'ruin' it, as it's already dried up." The same goes for Father Chris Marino's ring-top Italian tuna packed in olive oil, which he never travels without. And, he says, "Canned fish and dried fruit aren't that bad together." This rule of preservation does not apply to dried legumes, however, as Jeffrey Wolfe of Wolfe's Wine Shoppe notes. He accidentally has been transporting "a box of French green lentils that will never go bad in the South Florida sun, yet would require serious dental work if eaten uncooked."

Runnerup to dehydrated apricots? Luna bars. Elaine Mellis, director of public relations for Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, recommends the LemonZest flavor. And Bunmi Moses, development officer for United Way of Miami-Dade, counts "three to four Peanut Butter 'N Jelly, S'mores, and Nutz Over Chocolate Luna bars" among her "stash" (also including Werther's Originals, which redeems her). A few fellow foodies, like the Harbor Grille and Forte Jazz Café owner Neil Zucker, also count Red Bull as a good resource. Both he and The Wine News managing editor Kathy Sinnes also keep ready-to-drink coffee, such as Starbucks' canned double espressos, on hand. A necessity, no question, should one have a rave to attend after the Jaws of Life shows up.

Of course, what goes in must come out. Which is why, in the end, I'll take the advice of Jo Diaz, a wine country publicist. She recommends "muffins, but [not] bran ... for obvious reasons."

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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