It is evident throughout that Sal is an ever changing chameleon depending on his location and the people he encounters. Yet, what is even more interesting is the assimilation of food into this changing complex as well. One of the more imperative quotations from the beginning of the novel states: “so long’s we can eat, son, y’ear me? I’m hungry, I’m starving, let’s eat right now!” (8). Which is to say that in some way, Sal (as well as Dean who states the previous quote) has an empty soul, and sets out west to fill the void, to quench his hunger. It is then more tangible to suggest that while changing roles, Sal also changes his diet to correlate with these roles.
The first meal on Sal’s journey on the road consists of “franks and beans in a Seventh Avenue Riker’s” (7). This is the time period upon which Sal insists on being a writer, and why not exemplify that identity further by munching on a stereotypically American, writers “struggling meal.”
The second meal parallels Sal’s search for the “real westerner.” Once in Iowa he orders Apple pie with ice cream on three occasions. On the last occasion he states, “I ate apple pie and ice cream—it was getting better as I get deeper into Iowa, the pie bigger, the ice cream richer” (15). His meal then, is what he believes a real westerner would eat, and in turn they set up a direct relationship within a metaphor: as the food gets “bigger” and “richer” he begins to also find people who better fit his expectations of a true westerner. What is even more interesting is when Sal stumbles upon a man that fits his perceived notion of a true westerner, claiming “it was the spirit of the West sitting right next to me,” his order suddenly changes from apple pie to cherry pie because that is what the westerner is eating. Furthermore, not only is it cherry pie, but cherry pie “with a mountainous scoop of ice cream on top” signifying his elaborate and somewhat desperate attempts to fill his void, and attain an identity.
Similarly, the next stage in Sal’s life is his determination to become a hobo, wandering the road aimlessly—which seems to fit his character the most, considering his essential lack of identity. Yet, he can not become a hobo because even they have a certain identity that Sal can not hold on to long enough. One significant instance is when he rides with the Minnesota farmboys in the back of their pick up truck. He is so determined to assimilate himself with the other bum’s in the back of the pick up truck, and separate himself from the Minnesota farmboys, because the farmboys are not the identity he is trying to conform to.
In his determination he goes as far as to separate himself through their meals claiming, “We all shambled after them to a restaurant run by a bunch of women, and sat around over hamburgers and coffee while they wrapped away enormous meals just as if they were back in their mother’s kitchen” (24). Sal eats what he believes is a modest or typical “hobo meal” and criticizes what the boys are eating, almost in jealously because he can not eat it. The important fact however is that he still has ties to his aunt’s money, and can in fact enjoy a similar meal, yet in enjoying said meal he would be disconnecting himself from the identity he has chosen for the moment.
The next important meal is the meal he lives on when Sal finally finds his friends in Denver. They bounce from one bar to the next, one party to the next believing to be these outspoken rebels. Under this identity as the “crazy partier” he lives an absurd lifestyle, and therefore has an absurd diet. The only mention of food is when Sal claims, “Our breakfast consisted of stale beer” (55) which correlates exactly with the person he is attempting to be at that period in his travels.
The life that Sal finds himself conforming to next is the romantic life with Terry which interestingly enough he compares to food: “having found the closest and most delicious thing in life together” (85). Therefore, like all other identities and foods Sal consumes, Terry is just another one of these—however, she is also the first to give Sal some kind of substance and purpose to his existence beyond himself and that is the idea of family. Therefore, the meal within this identity is interesting because he is not eating individually but eating again as a unit, a part to a whole—just as with the hobos when he ate against the Minnesota farmboys, but with a more dignified tone. Under these terms Sal conformed to the family meal stating, “I bought cans of cooked spaghetti and meatballs, bread, butter coffee, and cake” (97).
One of the later and more metaphoric meals Sal consumes is when “everything was collapsing” (99) yet again and Sal felt compelled to hit the road one more time. However, this time unlike the others he finds no desiring in searching for an identity out west, but realizes who he is can be found at home. Thus, his failed attempts to find his identity, or to create a new identity for himself out west come to a bitter realization through sandwiches as seen when Kerouac writes, “And this was my Hollywood career—this was my last night in Hollywood, and I was spreading mustard on my lap in back of a parking-lot john” (102). What he wanted is portrayed in the repetition of “Hollywood” where as he determines who he really is again by food, or the mustard sandwiches. His failure in becoming a movie star is only realized, once he acknowledges what food it is he is consuming. To Sal, his life had come down to the mustard sandwiches which is a powerful metaphor in depicting a soul who is so irreconcilably lost and looking for something more “tasteful.”