In recent years, Yo La Tengo has traveled the country primarily by tour bus. It’s a great way to travel, particularly in terms of sleep and not turning yourself into a pretzel, which is common after spending long hours in a van or car. But one of the things that’s bad about it is that we no longer stop at many of the places we used to visit along the way. After the show, we get on the bus and the driver drives all night while we sleep. When we wake up, we’re in the next town, getting ready for the next show.
The first time we went to Europe, years ago, I remember how different the rest areas were. It wasn’t as franchise-based as it was in the US. They were more like cafeterias whereas back home you often had to go out of your way to find good road food. We’re not the kind of people who take pictures of our dinners, but what we eat matters to us.
Pre-Internet, we used to travel with a book that we’d thumb through a lot, called Real Barbecue by Vince Staten and Greg Johnson, and several other books by Jane and Michael Stern, who would also point out different places around the country. The Sterns wrote so personally, you had to learn how to interpret their enthusiasm. Their love for marshmallow Jell-O, for example, was not ours. But their writing was always entertaining, even when we came to a different conclusion.
For barbecue, Vince Staten and Greg Johnson sent us to a place in Indianapolis called Pa & Ma’s, which quickly became one of our favorites. There was an open brick pit as soon as you walked in, and the food was served with soul food side dishes.
Over twenty years ago we were touring with our pals Run On. Both bands would stop and Pa & Ma’s at different times. I remember that one of the band’s members was a vegetarian, and he was bitter with us because he felt we had cleared out too many of the vegetarian items before they got there. I also remember that another member of Run On was in The Shams. At some point The Shams went to Pa & Ma’s and left behind one of their press photos, which the owners hung on the wall, next to photos of sports figures and politicians.
I don’t know if the restaurant is around anymore, but one of the best things about Pa & Ma’s was its sauce, and I know for sure that someone is still making it. I once went into a supermarket in Indianapolis with James [McNew] and literally bought a case. It comes in three flavors: hot, mild, and sweet. They’re all really good, but the hot version also is really hot, which is a plus.
You know, I once read this article by Malcolm Gladwell about all of these boutique mustards that are around, and what a huge industry it’s become, whereas ketchup has been dominated by a single brand. And I have to agree that when I go out for a burger if they say the ketchup is made in-house I don’t think it’s going to be as good as Heinz. But that’s not the same reaction I have to Pa & Ma’s sauce, which we use at home as an all-purpose ketchup substitute.
Part of its appeal is that it isn’t widely known or widely available. A couple of years ago I remember tracking someone down and convincing him to let us mail-order a box. He said yes, I think, because he was intrigued by the idea that someone would work so hard to get the sauce. We noticed just the other night that we’re running low on our current supply, so I’ll have to see if he’s still around—especially since our upcoming tour doesn’t take us through Indiana…
One of the things about touring is you’re always working. You’re not a tourist. You’re not vacationing. You’re barely visiting a city. To pull into a rest area and get a bag of KFC or McDonald’s or whatever is kind of soul crushing, or at least it is for us. When we can go instead to a place like Pa & Ma’s we can feel like we’re actually experiencing something specific to the place—something worth a detour.
To this day, some of our best memories of touring are driving up to some local or regional road food stop we read about. I don’t always remember the show, but I always remember the barbecue.
Wanted/Needed/Loved: Musicians and the Stuff They Can’t Live Without is an illustrated column where musicians share the stories behind meaningful objects. As told to Allyson McCabe and illustrated by Esme Blegvad.
Ira Kaplan is the co-founder, vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter for Yo La Tengo, the long-running Hoboken, New Jersey-based indie band renowned for its original material as well as its inventive repertoire of cover songs. The band has just released its fifteenth full-length studio album, There’s A Riot Going On, which Matador describes as “an expression of freedom and sanity and emotional expansion, a declaration of common humanity as liberating as it is soft-spoken.“ YLT is currently touring Europe with US dates to follow.