A Brief History of Tour Food
From punk stew to hardcore moms, Converge bass player and food lover Nate Newton gives you a brief history of tour food.
“I like food/ Food tastes good.” In 1981 the Descendents unknowingly wrote a lyrical masterpiece and, unwittingly, my mantra. Yeah, that’s right, I like food... a fuckin’ lot. It’s a miracle that I’m not morbidly obese, or haven’t died of a heart attack or diabetes because I love to stuff comestibles in my face hole so goddamn much.
I’ve spent the last 20-plus years of my life in hardcore bands and been fortunate enough to spend a great deal of time travelling around the world playing music. This has led to some truly great meals that I will remember the rest of my life, like eating fresh mussels in a tiny restaurant on the beach in Pinnarella, Italy, fresh unpasteurized cheese in New Zealand, and pancakes at Glo’s in Seattle.
Throughout those many years on the road I also experienced the opposite end of the spectrum, and bad meals occurred far more often than the life-changing ones. You always hear music industry types talk about how the internet changed everything, how it took the power away from the major labels and put it in the hands of the fans and the artists. But what they don’t talk about is how it changed being on the road, and more specifically how it changed eating on tour. With Yelp, Urbanspoon, and food blogs, all you need to do is touch the screen of your iPhone and up pops a list of all the best places to eat, wherever you are. Most kids who are now just entering into the world of touring are unaware of just how grim things used to be.
So for those of you never travelled without your beloved iPhone, I offer you a small glimpse into the Stone Age: the history of tour food.
Born in the grand tradition of the intrepid Texas rangers who spent their days on horseback bringing banditos to justice in the old West is, punk stew stalwart of tour food. At its essence, punk stew is a sad amalgam of soup and chili, or at least that what it’s supposed to be. When I started spending a lot of time on the road in the mid-90s, there were quite a few vegan straight edge “promoters” in the hardcore scene. There was one in every town: a somewhat slovenly guy who accessorized way too much, namely tight chokers and Krishna beads (though he was rarely a devotee), and his clothes were ill-fitting and usually consisted of a pair of cutoff “shorts” that were easily eight sizes to big and barely cleared his Jack Purcells. His shirt usually had a graphic that mimicked the logo of a metal band, but instead of the band’s name it said VEGAN. He often had a shirtsleeve on his head holding back dreadlocks. His backpack was covered in patches, and not good patches—just whatever came in the shitty 7-inches from his distro. This guy lived in every town in America and Canada in the 90s and somehow continued to thrive in Europe for an additional five or so years.
Imagine this person being responsible for paying you money, feeding you, and giving you a place to sleep while on the road. That was our reality. Looking back, these days I wouldn’t trust this guy to wash my windshield. The internet has made him superfluous. In those grim times, this guy would give you something he referred to as “food,” which would show up in a giant pot and there was usually a Tupperware container of cold rice to go with it. You would open the lid of the pot to see a lukewarm pool of reddish-colored water that, if you were lucky, would sometimes have part of a tomato floating in it. If you were really blessed, he would put stuff some sort of fake meat in there along with a few carrots. It was like eating an entire pot full of that nasty water that comes out of a ketchup bottle if you don’t shake it up first. While it’s always a kind gesture for someone to make food for you, the bar was set at the bare minimum. You would eat this stuff and immediately be hungry again in five minutes. You’d reluctantly go back to the pot of gruel to make yourself another mixture of cold, wet crimson slop, and it would be gone because all of his roommates who were “helping with the show” ate it. Then, as you stood there staring hopelessly at the bottom of the pot with hunger, weakness, and utter despair coursing through your veins, one of the roommates would inevitably walk up to you and say, “ Hey man, wanna buy a dialer?”
Vegan Chinese Food
I know a lot of vegans. I’m technically not even a vegetarian anymore because I eat seafood, but calling myself “pescatarian” is just painful. In my mind, when I read the word pescatarian I hear it in Jim J. Bullock’s voice. But that’s not my point; with the exception of a select few, most vegans I know have horrible taste in food. Their senses are so warped by their hunger that they think anything vegan is amazing. Just look at Instagram. How many times a day do you see pictures from your food-obsessed vegan friends of something that looks really underwhelming and hardly constructed from vegetables? It’s like they’re announcing to the world, “HEY GUYS LOOK, I FOUND SOMETHING I CAN FINALLY EAT!”
Back to the 90s, when you got to town early enough and the promoter was classy, instead of whipping up some punk stew he’d take you to a vegan Chinese restaurant. You were paying, of course, but in his eyes the fact that he brought you to his secret spot was really the payoff. Every bigger town had one. In Boston it was Buddha’s Delight, Philly had Cherry Street, and in DC it was Harmony, where you had to order the shitake mushroom appetizer but “mistakenly” pronounce it “SHIT TAKE.” It was the food equivalent of eating deep-fried rubber balls drowned in overly salty sauce with a sad assortment of “vegetables” (water chestnuts and a mushroom, also fried).
Fried foods are—or at least used to be—one the cornerstones of the touring vegan’s diet. This was long before hardcore kids realized that eating vegan and eating healthily aren’t necessarily synonymous. I would watch people pile heaping mounds of deep-fried wheat gluten onto their plates and, like little children, making sure to order specific dishes without the vegetables. They wanted more fake meat instead. It was like a cruelty-free Paula Deen diet. You would eat this stuff, and within 20 minutes feel like you were on heroin. You’d be nodding off, wanting to puke, doing the zombie walk due to the fact that your stomach hurt so badly because you couldn’t shit. That was the other thing: Nobody ever ate any real fiber. Instead we ate garbage that sat in your guts for weeks. And you ate it a couple of times a week, because without fail you would pull into another town and the promoter guy would be there waiting to take you to his favorite vegan restaurant.
Yeah, I know, it’s fucking gross, I get it. But let’s be honest, not every town in America in the 90s was a bastion of culture and fine vegan food. Paducah, Kentucky, for instance, didn’t have a Buddha’s Delight or a health food natural grocer co-op. Taco Bell can be fucking delicious sometimes, I won’t deny that, but for some reason it makes me shit olive paste. I avoid it at all costs these days but in 1994 if you were in Little Rock and you wanted to eat something vegetarian, after you finished quoting Bangin’ in Little Rock incessantly, you found the nearest Taco Bell. Say what you will but back then Taco Bell was like a lighthouse on a stormy night at sea.
No matter what, you knew you could eat there and for under three bucks. If you needed food after a show, T-Bell was usually the only game in town. My go-to meal of choice was the Double Decker Taco Supreme with no meat, a bean burrito, and a cup of water. Every now and then I’d get fancy and order a taco salad with no meat and ask for extra beans. When the seven-layer burrito came out it was big news in the hardcore scene, a topic of discussion almost as common as the guy who got accused of rape in HeartattaCk or whether or not Oreos were vegan. They weren’t, by the way. Hydrox were, and I hate that I know that.
Occasionally you’d deal with a “promoter” who, judging from your pre-show phone conversation, was just another slovenly guy who lived in a house or apartment with ten other slobs. On arrival at the venue, your mental image would be shattered when you realized the promoter was actually a kid still in high school who lived with his parents. A doing-math-homework-at-the-show-while-he-collected-money-at-the-door-of-the-Moose-Lodge-real-deal-kid. These situations were always a little bit precarious because the kid was usually really nice and just loved your band but was always ill-prepared. The show was always completely disorganized, and chances are he didn’t even have a PA. You would end up singing out of another band’s bass amp, even if managed to bring a microphone with the right cable. Notice I said a and not some.
At the end of the night, he’d say you could stay at his house and it conjured up images of showing up at 2 AM and his parents getting out of bed screaming at him before telling you to leave. I did end up staying at one of these kids’ houses a couple times, but I found it was usually quite the opposite. They were usually kind of rich and lived in a giant house with his ex-rock-‘n’-rolling hippie parents. Many times his parents were divorced and he lived with his mom, who would overcompensate by not enforcing any rules.
On arrival his mom would be up and waiting for you. She had made up beds for everyone and set out towels so everyone could shower. She’d even offer to do a load of laundry for you. The best part? She was into her kid being vegan so she actually cooked an amazing meal for everyone and would stay up all night sitting at the table with you, shooting the shit. You’d wake up to breakfast and be sent off with snacks. Moms are fucking great, aren’t they?