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Originally published Sunday, July 8, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Across the U.S., expanding menus and improved food

Mark Bittman shares recipes for Kale and Sugar Snap Pea Salad, and Crab Soup.

The New York Times

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There are times it seems as if progress in America's food landscape is measured in the tiniest increments and among the tiniest part of the population. But after a recent cross-country trip, I can share three encouraging observations.

One: Supermarkets are selling better food. Much of what's offered is overprocessed, much of it is junk, much of it isn't even food. But it seems to me, from a strictly anecdotal standpoint, that a growing segment of real food has taken hold. This goes for gas stations, truck stops, just about everywhere.

Two: Alternatives to the standards (steak, chicken, salmon, fajitas) are turning up in the most unlikely restaurants. Bean dishes, salads that aren't 50 percent cold cuts, pasta dishes that focus on vegetables instead of meat, are all becoming more common.

Three: Towns and cities that until recently might have been considered hopeless now offer creative restaurants serving interesting food.

In short, I think many of these changes are because of the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of our country, even in what may seem to be unlikely places. When a car bearing an obviously Muslim family of six unloads into a general store in Fredonia, Ariz. (with a sign that reads "Lotto Guns Ammo Beer," no less), and not a soul blinks an eye, you have a country and a world that feel a lot different than they used to.

And, as usual, social change is seen in food. I'm not saying they're selling ful mudammas in Fredonia, but they're selling tofu just down the road in Kanab, Utah.

It's not the revolution, but it may be progress. And that wasn't the case a few years ago.

On the first day of June, before dawn, my daughter Emma and I drove east from San Francisco, headed to New York. We had made the same trip in reverse three years ago. We pledged then that we would not stop for fast food, making every effort to eat only real food during the day and a decent dinner every night.

In 2009, our success was partial: In small town after small town — places like Pueblo, Colo. (gateway to the Rockies); Kayenta, Ariz. (gateway to Monument Valley); and Bailey, Nev. (gateway to Death Valley) — we ate memorably bad meals, in which, for example, the best option would be a BLT.

Our attempts to stock our car with real food before and during the journey were more successful: We relied, as we mostly did on this trip, on fruit, raw vegetables, nuts and dried fruit, pita bread, cheese and hummus. Not much more.

This was by no means a controlled experiment, but on this month's trip (which at nine days was two days longer), we ate much better. In fact, it was a fundamentally different experience.

Bear in mind that we were not looking for a road-food adventure worthy of Jane and Michael Stern. Rather, we planned to visit national parks and some friends, concentrating on eating miles rather than on eating. We simply wanted to eat as well as we could without fuss.

After driving through Yosemite and eastern California, stopping for lunch at Cisco's, an anything-but-McDonald's choice in Tonopah, Nev. (tuna sandwiches on toast, with pretty good potato salad and coleslaw), we completed an 800-mile day, arriving at sunset at the Grand Canyon Lodge, a venerable creation of the 1920s whose dining hall overlooks the canyon's north rim. (The terrace is perhaps the most beautiful place in the United States for a glass of lousy wine.)

Even the unimpressive menu there showed signs of progress, including a vegetarian pasta dish, a couple of salads and a credible black bean hummus good enough to order two nights in a row.

At the Lodge at Bryce Canyon, run by the same company, Forever Resorts, an organic half-chicken demonstrated that I, like many other people, am a sucker for the word organic, and that a) the word is not a guarantee of quality and b) truth-telling is not guaranteed on menus. (The chicken's origins aside, the "half-chicken" was a breast, which counts as a quarter.) Still, even greenwashing can be promising.

The trip continued with a long drive on Interstate 15, the north-south axis of Utah, where truck stops now feature 10-foot displays of sunflower seeds of different flavors (chile and lime!), more space than is given over to jerky and almost every other type of junk food. (Of course, the sum of junk food far overwhelms that of anything else.) There were also hard-boiled eggs, Greek-style yogurt and fresh fruit.

We spent a couple of days in Yellowstone, sleeping in West Yellowstone, Mont., where we sampled the obligatory bison burger (steer clear, no pun intended). The next evening, however, we found Cafe Madriz, a Spanish restaurant with a level of authenticity you could admire almost anywhere in this country. In a town of tourist traps, this exception was noteworthy.

Noteworthy, too, was a full-on, slam-on-the-brakes-and-make-a-U-turn supermarket in Lander, Wyo., a state that requires nearly all day to traverse, at least if you drive from the northwest corner to the southeast corner. Right down the street from a Safeway (which, because we were adequately provisioned, we passed by) was another market, Mr. D's Food Center, where an auxiliary sign read, "Organic Products."

Indeed, this to-all-appearances-conventional place offered organic tofu, herbs and many other foods, along with two large sections of organic produce, some of it clearly local (including Yukon Gold potatoes hiding under a blanket of brown paper "to keep them happy and yellow!").

That night we stopped in North Platte, Neb., and ate at the Canteen Bar & Grille, a homey and historic restaurant; at this site, nearly every troop train that stopped in North Platte during World War II was met by swarms of civilians supplying food. We ate a good meal, beginning with a soup of chickpeas, kale and tomatoes that would have been right at home in my kitchen.

In Bonner Springs, Kan., we ate better than anyone anywhere could wish for, but that was at the home of my friends Kerri and Sean, who served us beets with beet greens, steamed new potatoes, steak with chimichurri, pickled fennel, snap peas and more — all, except the meat, from their garden.

Crossing the Missouri and Mississippi rivers heading east brings both a sense of home and of disappointment to Easterners: There's nothing unfamiliar left, really. But we had high hopes for our last couple of nights and set our sights on Indianapolis, eight or nine hours away. I harnessed the power of Twitter to find a restaurant and chose Black Market, which was suggested by many and featured what appeared to be a promising menu, a laid-back feel and a pleasant walk from our hotel.

It's a winner, and evidence, I believe, that the interest in food that has spread throughout the country has made high-quality restaurants like this feasible in places like Indy, which has played at best a secondary role to Chicago in this part of the country. We had five good dishes (out of five ordered), including a spot-on salad of kale and snap peas and a huge and wonderful serving of Chinese-style pork buns, made with duck.

One more night, and we chose to spend it at the incomparably hideous interstate interchange of Breezewood, Pa., where the dining opportunities range from Perkins to Denny's to McDonald's all the way to Wendy's and Subway. Undeterred, we checked out a couple of barely surviving local taverns before deciding that it was worth driving 15 miles to Bedford, a bit of a tourist destination that showed some promise.

It was the right decision. The drive was beautiful and, after a walk around the charming little town, we settled on the Bedford Tavern, an old inn with a restaurant run by seafood fanatics from Maryland. Here — surprise of surprises, given our expectations — we enjoyed crab soup (see accompanying recipe), shrimp dumplings, barely cooked tuna with soy sauce, soft-shell crabs and a salad with the best dressing of the trip.

If it wasn't high cuisine, it was fun, delicious and another sign that food in the United States may be making a comeback. Not a moment too soon.

KALE AND SUGAR SNAP PEA SALAD

Adapted from Black Market, Indianapolis

Time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

For the dressing:

¾ cup canola oil

½ cup peeled, chopped ginger

¼ cup miso paste

½ cup rice vinegar, or as needed

Finely grated zest and juice of 2 lemons or limes

¼ cup sugar, or as needed

Coarse salt and black pepper

For the salad:

2 tablespoons sugar

4 dried apricots

1 medium bunch kale (Tuscan, red Russian, Winterbor or lacinato), coarse stems removed and discarded, roughly chopped

2 cups sugar snap peas, stemmed

4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

¼ cup almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves, or as needed

1. Make the dressing: In a blender or food processor, combine the oil, ginger, miso, ½ cup vinegar, lemon or lime zest and juice, and sugar. Process for about 30 seconds to form a creamy emulsion. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and add vinegar if needed.

2. Make the salad: In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the sugar with ¼ cup water. Add the dried apricots and poach just until rehydrated, 2 to 3 minutes, then remove from heat.

3. In a serving bowl, combine the kale, snap peas and feta. Add salad dressing to taste, and toss well. Sprinkle with almonds and garnish with poached apricots. Sprinkle with mint and serve.

CRAB SOUP

Adapted from the Bedford Tavern, Bedford, Pa.

Time: 30 to 70 minutes

Yield: About 2 quarts (4 to 6 servings)

2 tablespoons butter

2 medium red bliss or other waxy potatoes, cut into ½-inch dice

1 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning, or as needed

Salt

3 ½ cups beef or vegetable stock, or as needed

2 tablespoons lemon juice, or as needed

½ cup dry white wine

2 large tomatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice

1 pound claw crab meat, picked over and any cartilage discarded

Saltines, for serving

1. In a large, deep pot over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Add the potatoes and sprinkle with pepper, 2 tablespoons Old Bay and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 to 3 minutes.

2. Add 3 ½ cups stock and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and add 2 tablespoons lemon juice, wine and tomatoes. Cover and cook until the potatoes are tender and the flavors melded, 20 minutes to 1 hour.

3. Just before serving, add the crab and simmer just until thoroughly heated. If the soup seems too thick, add more stock as desired. Adjust the seasonings, adding salt, lemon or Old Bay to taste. Serve hot, with crackers.

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