Art is good when it springs from necessity. This kind of origin is the guarantee of its value; there is no other. – Neal Cassidy
In the middle of the night, partway through a cross-country drive, I unfolded myself from the driver’s seat at another random gas station. Someone special was waiting at the east end of Interstate 90, but the rig and I both needed fuel.
As sure as diesel hum at a truck stop, there is a chocolate muffin in the store. It’s wrapped in clear cellophane and called “Double Chocolate Muffin,” or “Chocolate-Chocolate-Chunk Muffin,” or something along those lines, depending on which semi-local bakery made it.
A gas station chocolate muffin can be hard to find. There is no one place where you can count on it being. But like love, you can find it if you look hard enough, or if you lower the bar enough, all the way down to Hostess if necessary. Not the cream-filled cupcakes; the chocolate muffin.
Anywhere else, the gas station chocolate muffin might be as forgettable as one highway mile after the last. But our expectations are low at the gas station, and our needs are specific. Enjoyed with a steaming cup of gas station coffee, that dark, chemically moist and shiny chocolate muffin keeps us truckin' all the way to the next pit stop. And the muffin, in turn, elevates that mediocre coffee into something like an artisan cup brewed by a beard in a flannel shirt.
The gas station chocolate muffin and coffee don’t just improve one another’s flavor. They combine their pharmacological forces in turning you into a well-oiled driving machine. Both bittersweet delicacies contain caffeine, of which only coffee contains grown-up levels, while cocoa is rich in a similar molecule, also a stimulant, called theobromine, which translates from Latin to “food of God.”
Not as powerful a stimulant as caffeine, it lasts longer, and eases the jittery feelings that caffeine alone can give. There is evidence theobromine improves cognitive function, while reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular diseases.
Cacao famously contains high levels of phenylalanine, which releases dopamine and norepinephrine, the endorphins responsible for the ecstasy of falling in love, and the energy that allows new lovers to talk for hours. Studies have shown most phenylalanine in chocolate gets broken down by enzymes before it has a chance to release those endorphins, but true Cupids know some of those biochemical arrows will hit their marks.
Chocolate also contains endocannabinoids, which human brain cells have special receptors to receive. And what discussion of euphoria would be complete without good old sugar, which triggers the release of yet more endorphins, plus giving you a sugar high, while dulling the bitter flavors of both chocolate and coffee. Luckily, theobromine also protects against tooth decay.
I got off I-90 in Newton, Massachusetts, and drove through the outskirts of Boston to my mom’s apartment. A few days later we headed for Montana, cup holders full of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, and Dunkin chocolate muffins in the console, which I incorrectly presumed would be our last best road muffins.
At the Clifton Springs travel plaza in Upstate New York, I got a Starbucks muffin and a double Americano. For nearly a thousand miles, that muffin was the best gas station muffin of the whole trip. I hit Chicago in broad daylight, which was a huge mistake. It was “crunk,” as they say in the urban Midwest, past tense of “crank.” But with that coffee/cocoa combo — my Road Warrior’s blend — percolating in my veins, I didn’t have to slow down.
In LaCrosse, Wisconsin, I discovered the gas station chocolate muffin of my dreams at a regional chain called Kwik Trip. The Kwik Trip muffins are baked in the LaCrosse-based “Kwikery” and distributed throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota. Instead of being hard to find, their muffins are displayed in well-lit cases. I was in love, but alas, I was also in a hurry. I hit as many Kwik Trips as possible before I crossed the South Dakota line, and left those lovely Kwik Trip muffins in the rear view mirror.
In Murdo, South Dakota, sometime after midnight, the mask-free convenience store attendant insisted there wasn’t a chocolate muffin. I checked by the coffee, and then the refrigerated case where the sandwiches are, and then over by the doughnuts, in front of the corn dogs, and kept going until I finally found that elusive, theobromine-laced asset on the Hostess rack. Not the creme-filled cupcake. The chocolate muffin. When you’re in limbo, you don’t worry about lowering the bar a little.
She managed to ring me up and take my money without acknowledging me or my chocolate muffin, most likely annoyed that I’d raided her stash. No matter. I had what I needed to plow through another tank of gas, all the way through that COVID-laced wasteland and into the world’s greatest state, while my Valentine slept safely in the passenger seat.
Double Chocolate Chip Muffins
When I got back to Montana, I reached out to Kwik Trip. I explained that their chocolate chocolate chip muffins are the best, and asked for the recipe. They kindly provided a scaled-down version of their muffin recipe for the home kitchen.
I’ve been making these by the dozens, and have discovered that, at home as on the road, I can live a long time on a diet of chocolate muffins and coffee.
The recipe below is faithfully reprinted as I received it. In private, I double the vanilla, and slip in a tablespoon of mayo, for a tad extra moistness.
Servings: 24 muffins
¾ cup vegetable oil
1 ¼ cup granulated sugar
½ cup milk
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
2/3 cup sour cream
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup cocoa powder
1 ½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 375°F and line muffin cups with liners (or lightly grease and flour).
In a large bowl, whisk together oil, sugar, and milk. Stir in eggs and vanilla until well-combined.
Gently fold in sour cream until just combined.
In a separate, medium-sized bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt.
Fold flour mixture gently into wet mixture, folding until just barely combined. Stir in 1 ½ cups chocolate chips.
Scoop chocolate muffin batter into prepared muffin tin, filling 2/3-3/4 of the way full.
Sprinkle tops of muffins with remaining chocolate chips.
Bake at 375°F for 18 minutes (toothpick inserted in center should come out with few slightly fudgy crumbs).
Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column carried in more than 60 newspapers nationwide. Though his audience is national, he says he “always writes about Montana. Usually.”