Friday, September 18, 2009

Stories from the Road -- Runza

Outside a small portion of the country, basically centered on Nebraska, no one has heard of the runza. For me, the food is considered a birthright.

I mentioned in a previous post my love for runzas, especially the homemade ones my mother would frequently make. A runza is essentially a roll of cooked dough with beef and cabbage inside it. There are variations of the runza, which include switching the beef with pork, the cabbage with vegetable bits or no vegetables at all, adding mushrooms and swiss cheese, etc. The absolute requirements of the runza include the dough and the meat product inside it. In the plains of Nebraska, if you ask anyone what their idea of comfort food is, the runza will undoubtedly make the list.

Essentially any road trip that has included Nebraska for me has included a stop at Runza. The local fast food chain that makes a name from its product is one of the only fast food places I can actually recommend, much less visit without vomiting minutes afterward. Runza also likes to hold onto the old-school fast food commandments, including using intercoms rather than computer monitors and ruffling the fries.

Let's face it. Driving I-80 in Nebraska is no walk in the park. On one side is an endless field of corn or soybeans. On the other is a feedlot. Sometimes the sides alternate, but the views are the same mundane plains for hours. Sometimes, I am moved by the empty flat spaces, especially in the Sand Hils and the high rolling plains of the Nebraska Panhandle. The endless fields of grass, with spotty instances of cattle and their ranchers, are a daunting reminder of just how small you really are. However, the vastness of the terrain also becomes exhausting to the eyes. A long drive across the state necessitates hearty food in large quantities.

My favorite Runza stop is in North Platte, just north of the interstate on US 83. It is probably the Runza I frequent most. Basically any drive I've taken west from Lincoln has involved a stop here. North Platte is western Nebraska's version of a city, but an outsider recognizes this instantly as a large village surrounded by nothing. Depending on your viewpoint, North Platte is an oasis or an empty mine.

However, most Nebraskans see it as the former. Any town with a Runza in it is "a city". For me, any town worthy of serving the hot delicious goodness of cooked dough with meat bursting from it qualifies as a Nebraska oasis.

Any Nebraska sports fan has had a runza at a sporting event. To not serve them is criminal in the state. I have not gone to one Nebraska basketball game without having a runza. It wouldn't be the same otherwise. It wouldn't even be worth going. I remember drives to the football game specifically because I looked forward to the runza I would be eating at the game. Made the long traffic jam worth it.

When taking the long road trips, you make the most out of the long days with only a destination to look forward to. For me, in Nebraska, there is no way to enjoy a drive more than by eating a mushroom and swiss runza while overlooking the sun and the prairie. No moment in Nebraska is more genuine and more symbolic of life in a place most people sleep through. They have no idea what they are missing.
Runza! Putting all other fast food restaurants to shame since 1949.