It’s that time of year to feature my annual rants and raves about American fast food—that drive-thru, eat-in-the-car phenomena that has become a defining part of our national food culture.
Actually, this is the first time I’ll have written about fast food in this format. But something that claims to be an annual event lends credence to the exercise. It also demonstrates staying power and longevity, as well as a certain authority about the subject.
That having been said, I don’t care much for fast food, although I’ll admit to my craving a Big Mac every year or so. From a nutritional standpoint, fast food is not very good for you. It’s generously described as being mostly empty calories with enough sugar content to provide a foothold for the onset of diabetes. The fact that much of it is quite tasty is what, I suppose, keeps customers making it a part of their regular diet.
There have been stories about people who eat nothing but fast food for a year. Then they die. It’s a good bet that there is a causal connection there.
All that is what distinguishes fast food from broccoli. Broccoli is high in every vitamin and mineral known to mankind. So what? It tastes bad in any of its guises: in casseroles, as a side, or in a salad. It’s difficult to cook. In most cases, the stalk stays firm while the florets turn to mush. And it is guaranteed to be cold by the time it gets to the table.
Cauliflower shares many of the same qualities. The main difference is that lab technicians have figured out ways to make pizza crusts from cauliflower. Those responsible for this heinous act should be drawn and quartered before they figure out a way to make crusts from broccoli.
As nutritionally sound as broccoli and cauliflower are, if that’s all you ate for a year you’d die by your own hand.
I’ve had some fast food adventures in recent weeks. They were out of necessity. While we used the drive-thru and ate in the car, the car was not in motion. We found parking spots that offered panoramic views of parking lots and big-box stores.
We ate at Wendy’s one day at lunchtime. The line of cars wrapped around the building at least once. Wendy’s distinguishes itself from the other fast-food joints by using square beef patties in its burger offerings. It’s a mystery as to why the meat is square but not the bun. Go figure.
McDonald’s beef patties are round. Their burgers—adorned with lettuce, onion and tomato, ketchup and mustard—taste pretty much like Wendy’s burgers. I’ve concluded that the shape of the burger is irrelevant.
Burger King’s beef patties are traditionally round. They are charbroiled, which makes them less greasy and gives them more flavor than those cooked on a griddle or in a microwave oven.
I got sick after eating at an Arby’s in Thousand Oaks, California. But the real reason I won’t eat at Arby’s is that the guy with the thundering “We’ve got the meats” scares me. I’ve heard that their milkshakes are really good. I don’t like milkshakes.
I ate at a Subway sandwich shop once. Their “foot-longs” aren’t that long, and they are mostly bread.
At about the same time as Glen Bell was opening his flagship Taco Bell in Downey, California, my Uncle Joe, the flamboyant Sicilian physician, opened El Adobe in Westchester, Illinois. The food was good at El Adobe, but it didn’t quite catch on. People in suburban Chicago didn’t know about Mexican food back then. Southern Californians did.
That year, 1962, also saw the low price of corn syrup drop the costs of soft drinks considerably. Two years later, high-fructose corn syrup was created, and food and soft drink products used it as both sweetener and preservative.
There was great excitement when word got out that our little town was getting a Taco Bell. I don’t find it to my liking at all. It’s too greasy for my tastes and nothing about it compares favorably to the street food I’ve enjoyed in Mexico, even it was dog or pony meat. Don’t ask. Don’t tell.
McDonald’s used to have the best fries anywhere. That was when the fries were cooked in beef suet, which gave them their distinctive taste. The Micky D execs caved to the demands of vegetarians and the fries are now deep fried in vegetable oil. They’re not as good.
For my money, the best burgers come from In-N-Out Burger, a local chain based in California with stores mostly in the Southwest. Their fries are so-so. Back in the day, my dear friend Jörg and I used to get In-N-Out burgers and McDonald’s fries. We’d wash it down with a Bohemia beer for what we thought was an ideal lunch.
Once, I went to a Long John Silver’s. I had the “Big Catch,” and it was quite good. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition and health policy watchdog group, named Long John Silver’s “Big Catch” meal the worst restaurant meal in America, noting that it contained 33 grams of trans fat, 19 grams of saturated fat, 1,320 calories, and almost 3,700 milligrams of sodium.
No wonder it tasted so good. All that was missing was bacon.
It’s plausible to think that same formula for a heart attack is used at Popeyes, a self-described Cajun restaurant. I had some kind of combination meal that involved chicken and popcorn shrimp. It was awful, probably the worst fast food I’ve ever had.
For the same reasons I won’t go to Hobby Lobby, I won’t go to Chick-fil-A. Ever.
I long for the fast foods of Chicago. Portillo’s offers a hot dog that rivals those at the concession stands at Wrigley Field. And Al’s Beef, where hoagie rolls are stuffed with roast beef and dipped in au jus. Both are to die for. Or from.
Photo illustration by Courtney A. Liska
The first time I served this simple salad, two of our dinner guests called to say they had been tortured all night with nightmares. Is there any higher praise?
Roma tomatoes, sliced
3-4 garlic cloves per tomato slice, thinly sliced
Extra virgin olive oil
Generously salt the tomatoes. Scatter the garlic over the tomatoes. Pour over the oil and let stand for one hour. Serve. Sweet dreams.