Feasting on Starkist tuna pasta and road tripping across the United States sounds like a summer Jack Kerouac would be proud of. Unusual characters, run-ins with snowstorms, and camel spiders are normal along American highways, right? I recently interviewed the masterminds behind Tuna Pasta Podcast, Takashi Wickes and Nikhil Thota, and their three weeks of tenting adventures included all of those – and more.

Since the two University of Florida (UF) students are interning in California for the summer, they decided to road trip 6,387 miles between Gainesville, Florida and San Francisco. Interviewing a total of 43 people along the way, they compiled their audio clips into a podcast and christened it after their steadfast meal: Tuna Pasta.

Photo courtesy of Takashi Wickes

I spoke with Thota and Wickes about their Robert Frank-esque experiences and of course, their food tales from the journey. I was drawn to this podcast because the interviews were poignant, witty, and eye-opening, especially for a girl who hasn’t camped a day in her life.

Read their first-person take on their Fear & Loathing trip (without the psychedelics) and discover why two college guys would name a podcast “Tuna Pasta”.

Figuring Out The Route

Photo courtesy of Nikhil Thota

Since flying to California from Florida cost the same as driving, Thota and Wickes decided to road trip the hell out of summer and arrive in San Francisco at the end of May.

“We wanted to cover as much of the US as possible. DC, Chicago, the Rocky and Smoky mountains – we had a general structure of landmarks to go by. We wanted to be flexible and ‘in the moment,’ so we stayed in people’s yards using HipCamp,” said Wickes.

Although their route wasn’t conventional, they wanted to explore the New England area (i.e. Philadelphia) and hit Chicago along the way since Wickes’ brother lives there. In the Mid-West, the pair hit a rough patch when they hiked in three feet of snow, drove – soaking wet – through the flurries, and only arrived at the camp site at 11 p.m.

“In the middle of the trip, around Kansas or Colorado, we kind of hated each other because it was cold, uncomfortable, and the circumstances were not favoring us,” said Thota, laughing with reminiscence in his voice. Besides the late-night snow, they were running low on food and gas.

“And I had never driven in snow before,” said Wickes.

Adventure might be for the rugged, but it’s also for the first-timers and for people who don’t know their driver isn’t’ familiar with tire chains or salted roads…

Why Tuna Pasta?

chicken, sauce, cheese
Photo courtesy of Takashi Wickes

Tuna Pasta isn’t a normal podcast name, but I discovered it was a fishy metaphor for the purpose of Thota and Wickes’ adventure. Normal palates assume tuna pasta tastes odd or has a weird texture; you’re not dying to eat it after sweltering in the sun or hiking up a cliff. It’s judged prematurely and unfairly, but after eating it, Thota and Wickes realized the taste was exquisite (not to mention the health benefits of protein, vitamins, and minerals).

Similarly, the people they interviewed are viewed as the fringes of society – street performers, permanent tenters, Subway workers – and yet their stories are often the most intriguing. Their stereotypes precede them, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.

“It started out as a joke, but it became a real thing. It serendipitously happened…we were interviewing people you might judge and talking to them was an act of tuna pasta. Our interviewees were human tuna pasta,” said the two.

The original idea for the podcast was to record 24/7 the audio dialogue between Wickes and Thota. As that idea turned out to be dull (i.e. “The bread is really good today”), the guys interviewed their first subject in Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Georgia. 42 interviews later, and their audio recordings stretched to thousands of minutes of human grit and wonder.

As for the meal, each tuna pasta dish cost $1.20 and preparing the carbs on Takashi’s mini stove made cooking easy. Throw in a dash of lemon pepper, cheese, and pita chips, and their low-priced meals were fine dining. It’s fate that Tuna Pasta worked out; the other names for the show included “Two Dudes In A Car” and “Excuse Me, My Friend And I Are Traveling Across The Country.”

Memorable Food Stories

Photo courtesy of Nikhil Thota

Food is the basic human connector, so there’s bound to be oodles of food stories whenever a road trip is involved. For Wickes, the most impactful food experience was when they stayed at a family farm in West Virginia. Their host was an ex-Marine turned into sustainable farmer practicing “permaculture” farming.

“Our breakfast was local or homemade, and the farm used technology to make local farmers share more. Their honey was from a nearby bee guy, the jam was from local farms…they don’t go to the supermarket – they grow everything,” said Wickes.

However, these West Virginia farmers didn’t fit the Southern, Podunk mold.

“They were normal people, not the stereotype.”

Thota also remarked that the only time they frequented cities was to get food. Their main motivator to endure the blocked highways and rush hour traffic was to sample the local cuisine.

“And when you’re on a road trip, the number one thing to avoid is being hangry,” said Thota knowingly.

Interviewing Subjects In The Food Industry

Photo courtesy of Takashi Wickes

With dozens of interview on hand, one of their subjects had to be food-related. In a Tennessee barbeque restaurant, Hungry Bear BBQ, the two stumbled upon a man wearing Florida State University (FSU) glasses. For those who don’t know, FSU and the UF are archenemies, so naturally, Thota and Wickes had to talk with this garnet and gold character.

“He moved from Florida to Tennessee to escape parts of his life in Florida. He resettled here to be a barbeque chef and to eventually open a new shop,” said Wickes. “And, he sells Pokémon stuff on the weekends at flea markets.”

Wickes also spoke to a girl at a honey shop in Asheville, North Carolina. She was a bee culture advocate and was interested in honey from a young age.

“She had a lot of allergies when she was younger, so her parents introduced her to honey to fight them. She dropped out of college to take care of bees…she would tend beehives all day.”

The influence of food is pervasive and determines everything from our future career to what restaurant you’ll pick for dinner. People underrate the geography of food as well, especially in the United States. I asked Nikhil and Takashi about the food differences they noticed across the US.

beer, tea, wine, pizza
Photo courtesy of Takashi Wickes

As expected, there was more farm fresh food in the South and East, with less homemade food across the West because of desert land. However, there was one key observation I identified with as fried chicken masochist.

“We were able to gauge how close we were to home by how many Zaxby’s there were. The Zaxby signs dwindled and it was a sad sight,” said Wickes.

Taco Bell was the opposite of Zaxby’s, always faux-Mexican and present when the boys needed it the most.

“When you’re on the road and it’s 12 a.m., it will save your life,” said Thota. “It’s my family’s favorite food.”

Tuna Pasta Is More Than Just A Podcast

Photo courtesy of Takashi Wickes

Dwelling on Tuna Pasta doesn’t end when the recorded time slumps to zero: the lessons, stories, and music choices linger throughout the Friday and the upcoming week. For me, it’s the audio version of a Dorothea Lange photograph or a painting by Andrew Wyeth.

Thota and Wickes always ask this question to their subjects: “What is the greatest life lesson you would impart to someone else?” The simple answer, the conglomeration of their 40+ responses? Be a good person and do what makes you happy.

Listen to Tuna Pasta because their concept is weird, a little mind-twisting and a lot of learning.

“[Tuna Pasta] is something that might not be appealing at first, but it’s kind of cool…for us, a location is defined by the people there, and this podcast shows how great the US is,” said Wickes and Thota.

Intimate connections. Relatable stories and values. And always a dose of tuna pasta.

Social Media

beer, pizza
Photo courtesy of Takashi Wickes

See photographs and more BTS info on Tuna Pasta’s Facebook and Instagram.

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