Gas stations: then and now

gas stationsOnce upon a time, gas stations gave away all kinds of cool stuff, most of it targeted at kids. As a child of the 70’s, I clearly recall of our Exxon “NFL Helmets” drinking glass collection, and my miniature Noah’s Ark collectible series (What genius ad team decided that was the perfect gas station promo?). The point is, these giveaways worked. My parents would bribe me not to annoy my older brother on road trips by promising me a new plastic animal for my Ark. My brother didn’t have to punch me in retaliation, my parents didn’t have to pull over; everyone was happy.

I’m not exactly sure when the freebies stopped, but that’s not the only thing that’s changed in American gas station culture over the years. Prior to the opening of the world’s first dedicated gas (or “filling”) station in St. Louis in 1905, hardware stores and mercantiles had gas pumps. The price of gas when the first “drive-in” filling station opened in 1913? Twenty-seven cents a gallon.

As I write this, I’m in Oregon, on the final leg of a 10-day road trip from my home in Seattle to San Francisco and Lake Tahoe. The cost of gas in Truckee, California, where my brother lives is $4.09 a gallon. I paid $3.59 in Mt. Shasta today, and thought myself lucky. Oregon also reminds me of another way gas stations have changed between then and now.

[Photo credit: Flickr user iboy_daniel]gas stationThere were still full-service station attendants when I was a kid: clean, smiling, uniformed pumpers of gas who cleaned the windshield and checked the oil for free. Today, however, Oregon is one of the few states that prohibits the pumping of gas by motorists. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been yelled at in this state for absentmindedly getting out of my car and touching the pump. I actually enjoy pumping gas, but I’m not going to fight about it. I just think southern Oregon might want to look into hiring gas jockeys who look as though they haven’t spent time in a federal prison or crawled out of a meth lab, especially when they don’t even bother to wipe down my windshield. “Here, take my debit card, please.”

I think the trend toward enclosing urban attendants in bullet-proof booths is something that’s fairly recent. That makes me kind of sad. No one should really have to risk their life working the graveyard shift for close to minimum wage, but being a gas station attendant is definitely a high-risk occupation in a lot of places. If nothing else, the temptation to snack on the plethora of chemically-enhanced food and beverages in the workplace creates a hazardous environment.

Although a dying breed, I’ve seen some pretty sweet, old-school gas stations in the rural Southwest, South, and California’s Central Coast that sell regional bbq, Indian fry bread, or biscuits and country ham. I once visited a gas station in Tasmania that sold artisan bread, local cheese, butter, and milk (in bottles, no less), and local wine, jam, and honey. I really wish gas stations/local food markets would catch on the States…it would make getting gas less painful, even if it further depleted my bank account.
gas station
Gas station design has changed drastically over the years. Many rural stations in the fifties and sixties sported kitschy themes, such as dinosaurs or teepees, and were roadside attractions in their own right. Today, we have mega-stations like the Sheetz chain, which is wildly popular in the northeast for made-to-order food, all of it annoyingly spelled with “z’s” (If you need coffeez to go with your wrapz and cheezburgerz, you should check it out). There is something to be said for one-stop mega-station road shopping, however. It’s incredibly convienient when you’re short on time or in the middle of nowhere, and in need a random item.

I love dilapidated old filling stations, but I’m also lazy, so it throws me when I can’t use my debit card at the pump. It’s kind of a moot point, because I possess a bladder the size of a walnut. The cleanliness of gas station restrooms, while still an advertising hook, used to be a point of pride. These days, I feel like I should be wearing a hazmat suit when I use most small chain station toilets. Seriously, if you’re not going to going to clean or restock your bathroom, ever, please don’t post a sign telling me to report to the management if it needs “servicing.”

As for those fun giveaways disguised as advertising? I think that maybe the Happy Meal is what killed it for gas stations. Once fast food outlets started giving kids toys, the ad execs had to come up with a new plan. Which I suppose is why most gas companies target grown-ups now, even if they still use cartoon graphics. Does the sight of anthropomorphized cars dancing atop the pump actually sell gas and credit cards? I’d rather have a set of drinking glasses.

[Photo credits: Magnolia, Flickr user jimbowen0306; DX, Flickr user Chuck “Caveman” Coker;

A taste of California history: Santa Maria Style barbecue

Hey, Southerners. I love you, but the barbecue trail doesn’t really end at the Texas border. California has its own tradition, and it can be found in the heart of the Central Coast wine region. As a native Californian, I throw down the gauntlet in the temple of meat. Our beef barbecue doesn’t hide beneath sauce; it stands proudly on its own, adorned only by its residual juices. That takes balls. And speaking of balls, I should add that our barbecue historically comes with a side dish that, well…just keep reading.

Since the 1850’s, Santa Maria Style Barbecue has been a rancho celebration or post-cattle branding staple. After the Mexican-American War, when Mexico ceded California to the United States, Spanish and Mexican colonists and soldiers (“Californios”), established ranchos along California’s rich, central coastal grasslands.

Their heritage merged to form a true California cuisine, one that incorporated the corn, tomatoes, beans, and peppers of the New World with the beef, lamb, and olive oil of the Old World. The parilla, or grill, became the province of the vaqueros (cowboys) and rancheros (landowners). The mild, Mediterranean climate fostered a tradition of outdoor cooking still beloved by Californians today. Barbecues became a way to get down and party with one’s family and neighbors, to mark special occasions, and to partake of the culinary offerings that reminded these early settlers of their homelands.

[Photo credit: Flickr user yaelbeeri]

Only top sirloin or tri-tip steak can be used for Santa Maria Style Barbecue (depending upon where you do your research, it’s variously called Santa Maria bbq, Santa Maria Barbecue, etc.: I defer to the Santa Maria Chamber of Commerce version). Tri-tip is named for the small, triangular muscle off the bottom sirloin, from which it’s cut. It’s a fairly juicy piece of meat, with a bit of chew to it; it can be difficult to find outside of California.

The meat is seasoned only with salt, pepper, and garlic salt, and hung on steel rods, before being grilled over native red oak (originally, the meat was cooked in a pit). The accompaniments include tiny, pink, native pinquito beans, salsa cruda, and tossed green salad. The meat is served thinly sliced, with plenty of toasted, buttered, sweet French bread to sop up the juices.

I grew up eating Santa Maria barbecue because I come from a horse ranching family. We frequently attended rodeos and spring cattle gatherings, the successful completion of which are celebrated with a big barbecue. I recall watching the California equivalent of pit masters firing up massive grills fashioned out of halved oil drums, then rigging the hunks of meat on their skewers.

Years later, when my brother was attending college in San Luis Obispo, he would bring slabs of tri-tip home whenever he visited us. My favorite part were the salty, juicy, crusty bits of fat shaved from the grilled meat. My dad, himself a former wrangler, would present them to us on the tip of a knife, in between sneaking pieces for himself (I’m pretty sure this behavior had absolutely nothing to do with his colon cancer diagnosis 18 years ago). For days afterward, my mom would add tri-tip sandwiches to my lunch bag- a welcome respite from warm, soggy PB & J’s.

My first experience with an authentic California rancho barbecue occurred when I was ten. A former vet school classmate of my dad’s invited us up to his cattle ranch outside of Santa Maria, to participate in the spring cattle gathering. We spent a cold, dirty, exhausting weekend riding over rolling green hills, rounding up the cattle to be vaccinated, castrated, and branded.

Work done, it was time to party. The old oil drums were heaped with red oak, and as is the tradition with brandings, the calf “fries,” or testicles, were grilled up as an hors d’oeuvre. The charred, crispy little morsels, still tender and juicy on the inside, were then laid on a flour tortilla, slathered with salsa, and rolled up, taquito-style. At that stage of my life, pizza was a culinary adventure, so eating greasy “prarie oysters” wasn’t an option.

But when my dad smilingly presented me with a testicle taco, how could I refuse? To say no would be to disappoint the man who had given me life, to fail the cowboy brotherhood. I wouldn’t be one of the guys. I had to prove I had cojones of my own! I grabbed the dripping tortilla and bit down…chewed…swallowed. It was good: smoky, salty, a little chewy, the tortilla a perfect foil for the savory juices dribbling down my chin.

Yep. Tastes just like chicken.

Santa Maria Style Barbecue can be found in and around the towns of Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo, usually on weekends, at local charity events. If you’re jonesing for a taste of true California on a weekday, you can stop by or The Hitching Post in Casmalia, which is still considered tops in ‘cue. You can also call the Santa Maria Chamber of Commerce at (800) 331-3779, to see what’s smoking around town during your visit.

Black Knight Barbecue Sauce

My dad discovered this recipe in a magazine insert in the early ’70’s called “Chuckwagon Cooking from Marlboro Country.” He always served it with grilled tri-tip if we had guests from out of town so he could show off his adopted state’s cowboy and culinary heritage.

Makes approximately 2 ½ cups

1 cup strong black coffee
1 1/2 cups Worcestershire sauce
1 cups ketchup
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 T. sugar
1 T. salt
2 t. cayenne pepper

Combine ingredients in a medium saucepan and simmer for 30 minutes over low heat, stirring occasionally. Adjust seasonings to taste before serving.

[Photo credits: Los Osos, Flickr user goingslo; Branding, Flickr user marty 11; “Prairie Oysters,” Flickr user ffunyman]