SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Pull off the interstate these days looking for a break or a snack, and you just might find yourself at an authentic Indian restaurant. From member station WHYY, Laura Benshoff reports that, as trucking gets more diverse, so does the food at truck stops.
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LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: At Eat Spice restaurant and truck stop in northeastern Pennsylvania, there's live bait and Red Bull near mango lassi and a large carafe of homemade chai tea. Twenty-seven-year-old Sam Singh stops here during nearly every delivery along Interstate 80, drawn to the menu of Indian food.
SAM SINGH: We like Eat Spice, everything Indian food - chicken biryani, goat biryani, chicken saag, butter chicken, you know, egg bhurji, paneer something, like, everything.
BENSHOFF: The number of truck drivers is at an all-time high. While the field is still overwhelmingly older white men, immigrants are also drawn to trucking which offers decent pay compared to other blue-collar work. Farhan Warsame is from Somalia and says he makes way more driving his own rig now than he did when he used to work in a warehouse.
FARHAN WARSAME: I make a week the money I was - I used to make for the warehouse the whole month. I make around 1,200 maybe.
BENSHOFF: While pay motivates some, a permissive work environment pulled in others. Some drivers from India follow Sikhism and like the independence trucking gives them to wear a turban and practice their religion. But they're not all jazzed on American food. At Eat Spice, most of the customers are Somali, Indian or Eastern European. Thirty-year-old Aman Singh sits in a booth with a plate of chicken curry.
AMAN SINGH: I try American food, too, but I don't like.
BENSHOFF: He says freshly made food makes him feel better than fast food. Regular clients fuel the interstate economy, which is why at least two dozen Indian food restaurants have cropped up in truck stops in the United States. Eat Spice owner Raj Alturu says he wants to be inclusive of everyone who walks through the door.
RAJ ALTURU: We're trying to update the menu as we get requests from customers.
BENSHOFF: That means keeping some items, like the sandwich menu from the truck stop's old sub shop to cater to customers like Steve Emery.
STEVE EMERY: I kind of had a taste for tuna today. But they didn't have it. So (laughter) I'll go back to their old faithful.
BENSHOFF: The 62-year-old trucker wears a Van Halen T-shirt and orders a meatball sub from the American portion of the menu. He says he tried some of the food from the Indian menu. And he liked it. But he wants to stick to his comfort foods today. That means something completely different if your family is from Ohio versus Somalia.
Tucked into one corner of the menu are dishes like spaghetti chicken curry. It's based on a traditional Somali dish that a regular customer asked for and is pretty much what it sounds like. A few minutes later, that regular walks in.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He's the spaghetti.
BENSHOFF: He's the spaghetti?
Yousuf Dahar lives in Minnesota and was born in Ethiopia to Somali parents. But Dahar has cut back on the dish. He says all those hours sitting in the cab of his truck are catching up to him.
YOUSUF DAHAR: I used to like the spaghetti. But I stopped eating because, like I say, I'm getting a little bit fat, you know (laughter)? He
BENSHOFF: He grabs his lower belly for emphasis. He says trucking isn't healthy work, but it pays the bills. For NPR News, I'm Laura Benshoff in Whitehaven, Penn.
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