If motorway service centres with their sweaty agglomerations of Burger King, KFC and Costa are the brothels of fast food, then garages are its knocking shops: the places where stressed-out people commit unspeakable and degrading acts with Peperami. No one in their right mind would ever visit a garage for the love of gastronomy, yet everybody who’s passing through seizes the opportunity to put something in their mouth. Why, when the combination of foods that are necessarily high in salt and preservatives with the tension of driving almost always results in flatulence, heartburn, or – a meal deal – both?
My theory is that garage food feeds that portion of our psyche that, through long association, has begun to mutate into a car’s on-board computer. Every habitual driver knows the strange melding that occurs between them and their wheels: feet rubberise, eyes acquire two semicircles of clarity and girth expands to fit the carriageway available. After hours in this altered state, when the fuel gauge indicates that you’re hungry, you pull on to the forecourt and ram the nozzle in, only to discover that nothing is glugging into your stomach.
The human-car chimera next enters the kiosk. Once upon a time, this was just that – a small booth in which a man in an oil-stained boiler suit counted out half-crowns while sucking Spangles – but now this has prolapsed into a supermarket-sized zone of commerce, offering everything from foldaway barbecues and lottery tickets to hormone supplements for pre-op transsexuals … and stupid amounts of food.
There’s a garage at the Woodstock Road roundabout on the outskirts of Oxford where I regularly stop. On heading in to swipe the plastic, I am freaked anew every time by finding myself inside a fully functioning M&S Simply Food outlet, complete with north-Oxford yummy mummies wandering around putting duck à l’orange in their baskets while little Tansy kicks off in her Maclaren buggy. The gathering pace with which supermarkets have gone into coalition with petrol stations suggests that complete mutation is not far off and that soon consumers will fill buckets with a mixture of Strongbow and V-Power unleaded, add Cadbury Mini Eggs and a tube of Zovirax, then knock the whole cocktail back. There’s still a Wild Bean Café tucked into the far corner of this giant garage but once you’ve ploughed your way along furrows full of porcini and cod in miso sauce, will you feel like putting a flaccid, microwaved sausage roll between your lips?
Yes, of course you will! You’ll also drink the piss-poor crappuccino and buy lots and lots and lots of crisps. After all, there are the kids to consider (even if you’ve never had any or they’re grown-up) and everyone likes different flavours, so you’d better get at least three bags of Walkers and one of those big, white ones of Kettle Chips seasoned with sea salt, because they’re sort of healthy, aren’t they? And they suggest to you – subliminally, at least – that modern Britain is a sophisticated sort of place where, for a modest outlay, you can stab your gums until they bleed with spears of deep-fried potato and at the same time rub salt in those wounds. Oh, and then there are Jelly Babies and Bisodol and two folding chairs for a tenner and a bottle of vintage Taittinger, which you buy simply because it’s so bizarre to see such a thing – and, what with the petrol, the cash register doesn’t stop sticking its paper tongue out at you for quite a long time.
I was in the local garage at lunchtime today and a man in pale jeans and trainers was holding a “light” chicken teriyaki sandwich and a package of two “individual” Melton Mowbray pork pies while he filled out his form on one of those National Lottery stands that looks like a giant, upended, blue turd. I considered the croissants and pastries that had been “baked in-store throughout the day” and meditated on the “savoury eggs”, neither of which seemed any more appetising than Go-Cat, which was also available in bulk. I’m not trying to pretend I’m some sort of hardened ascetic, I can assure you. I’d have been sucking on that ageing breakfast muffin full of warm bacteria like it was my mammy’s teat if it weren’t for one limiting constraint: I’d walked to the garage, rather than driven there. Try doing this and I guarantee you won’t buy any garage food at all – except for crisps.