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Make That To-Go: Somehow It Tastes Better in the Car

March 08, 2000|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Little known fact: The calories you consume while you're in your car, even while it is stationary, do not count, because technically you are in an apparatus of motion, and everyone knows that motion requires energy and energy is created by the burning of calories.

At least this is what my girlfriend and I told ourselves lo those many years ago as we sat in her daddy's Rabbit outside the High's Dairy store in Westminster, Md., scarfing peanut-butter swirl double-dips with a few illicit Tandy Cakes on the side.

And anyone who is laughing snidely right now should take a peek under his or her driver seat.

Lurking there, I would wager, is evidence of the peculiar role of automobile as covert eating center--a crumpled Almond Joy wrapper, say, a Cheetos bag, a grease-dappled Carl's Jr. napkin or two.

I know a man who drove around for months with a box of a dozen doughnuts under his passenger side seat, remembering it only when the tail end of a cruller became so petrified it rattled whenever he made a sharp left.

*

There are many non-obsessive reasons we eat in our cars: We're rushed, we're stressed, we can. It is something, perhaps, our parents did not allow us to do and so provides that natural adrenaline of defiance.

But there's also the secrecy factor--what we eat in the car reveals a lot about our motives. We eat candy in the car and French fries, or those enormous chocolate cookies that remain mysteriously soft and chewy for days. Part of this is a function of most drive-through menus and the culinary offerings of gas stations, but part of it is simple closet mentality.

We eat in the car what we might not eat in front of our friends and relations. We eat it fast, without witnesses, and then we shove the earthly evidence away as if to render the episode nonexistent.

"I keep a stash of cookies in the car," says one mother of two, "because then I can eat as many as I want and not have to provide a good role model of moderation for my children.

"Not that I do it every day or anything," she adds quickly, in a distinctly I-could-quit-any-time tone.

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My brother tells of a friend who, distraught over a February breakup, recently sat with a girlfriend in the parking lot of a Rite-Aid, ravishing a box of discounted Valentine's candy. The really nasty kind that comes in the big heart with the fake rose in the middle. When they were done, they tossed the heart and sped off into the night--a pure Hollywood moment.

I myself, during one particularly low point of my life, regularly consumed an order of the Colonel's spicy chicken strips on my way home from work. One after another I ate them, without ever taking my eyes off the road, as if the fact that I was not looking at them made them something other than food. Part of the driving experience, part of the scenery.

In this cubicle-ridden, crowded, urban culture, our cars provide our most regular experience of solitude, of privacy. So it seems natural we would use them to engage in private behavior.

And the car has a historical role as adolescent haven and vice laboratory. Many of us engaged in our first experiences with sex, drugs and alcohol in a car. (Which explains our parents' incomprehensible-at-the-time reluctance to provide us with one.) This early imprint of secrecy makes the car the perfect spot for surrendering to the temptations of excess. It is at once a personal cocoon and a sort of emotional no-man's land; no one will ever make an "If These Walls Could Talk" about a 1983 VW Rabbit or even a 1999 Expedition.

But imagine the glee of the junk-food industry if someone did.

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Mary McNamara can be reached by e-mail at mary.mcnamara@latimes.com.

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