Like most, if not all, Americans, I’ve eaten quite a bit of fast food. Several years ago, I made a concerted effort to eliminate it as a regular part of my diet, and I have done just that. Nevertheless, I still occasionally dine at these well-known eateries, especially when traveling
I’m not one of those who condemns fast food, mind you. I don’t even mind the pink slime that became an Internet sensation. Hey, if it cooks up into something tasty and moderately safe to eat, I’m fine with it. Fast food gives us consistency. When you travel for work as I do, it’s comforting to know what you’re ordering. A Big Mac is a Big Mac whether you order it in Hawaii or Pikeville, Kentucky.
What is fast food? My definition is that: (1) You must order at a counter or drive thru; (2) The food must be subject to uniform preparation rules; (3) You must pay when you order; (4) the food must be served in paper bags and wrappers; and (5) the restaurant must at least strive to get your food to you quickly (i.e., while standing at the counter or sitting in the drive thru). I except delis and sub shops from this definition for no reason other than they just don’t seem to fit. You can come up with your own definition. I really don’t care. After all, this is about me, not you.
Recently, I was standing in line at a Dairy Queen and pondered how much time I’ve spent waiting for food in one of these establishments. I gave up trying to figure it out, concluding that it was just a hell of a lot. It did, though, make me think about my long history with fast food. It’s been a quite a trip.
RAY KROC WAS A GOOD GUY
Through most of my childhood in Harlan County, Kentucky, we didn’t have fast food. The closest things were a couple of drive-in restaurants, but they weren’t all that fast. We did, however, travel outside the county often. One of the highlights of such treks was passing through Corbin, Kentucky. Corbin had a McDonald’s.
Dad would always stop and get us something from McDonald’s. Burgers, McNuggets, Egg McMuffins and french fries–they were fascinating taste treats. Dad would usually send me in to get the food. I loved it.
It was 1978, when I was 15 years old, that I had my encounter with Ray Kroc. For the uninformed, Kroc was the founder of McDonald’s and its CEO for many, many years. As a young baseball fan, I also knew that he was the owner of the San Diego Padres. I used this to my advantage.
On the way to a Cincinnati Reds game, we stopped at the Corbin McDonald’s. I was the only patron at the counter. The workers ignored me. They were engaged in some sort of inane banter behind the counter. Now, you must know that, even as an adolescent, I had a bit of an overblown view of myself. Thus, I became increasingly agitated. Finally, I said: “Hey! Customer here!!” The young lady at the register gave me a look of contempt and said “Just a second” and continued talking. Eventually, she took my order, but I was incensed. So, I wrote Ray Kroc a letter.
I had a written quite a few fans letters to baseball players. So, I knew that a letter addressed to “San Diego Padres, Jack Murphy Stadium, San Diego, California” would get to Ray. I wrote him and told him of the vile treatment I received. I typed the letter, so as not to indicate that I was a sullen teenager. It was heartfelt and my indignation dripped from it.
What I didn’t expect was that he would read it. He did, and he wrote back:
Ray was none too pleased with the laggards in Corbin.
As you can see, he wasn’t happy. As Ray promised, I also got a letter from a Regional Manager for McDonald’s. He said that he had heard from Mr. Kroc and offered his apologies (and gift certificates). The manager of the restaurant wrote me too (with gift certificates, of course). I felt like kind of big deal. It took us a long time to use all those gift certificates.
Ray Kroc was a generous man, leaving millions to charity when he died. He was pretty cool, too.
GOD SAVE THE (BURGER) QUEEN
To the best of my recollection, Harlan County’s first fast food restaurant was Burger Queen. That’s not a typo– Queen, not King. Its logo looked like this:
As you might expect, they sold burgers. They were thin little meat patties mashed between a tasteless bun. They were exceptionally salty, too. BQ also sold mediocre fried chicken. The Cherry Sprites, by contrast, were excellent. We loved the place.
(Okay, I know you Harlan Countians out there will point out that we had a Kentucky Fried Chicken first, but I just can’t count that. I don’t know why–maybe it’s the lack of burgers).
For you young folks, fast food restaurants used keep piles of burgers under heat lamps–no microwave ovens. If you wanted anything non-standard, you had to wait. I am well-known for my aversion to condiments–mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, etc. These befoul burgers and are unacceptable. BQ struggled with this concept. I always ordered two plain cheeseburgers, and they rarely got it straight.
One day, I met a couple of friends at BQ. I ordered my burgers and took them to the table. I unwrapped them, and-of course–they were smeared with ketchup, mustard and pickles–all the crap which would trigger my gag reflex.
My disgust showed immediately, drawing the attention of another patron, a rather rough-looking fellow with long, greasy hair. He walked to our table and asked: “Did they f–k up your order, buddy?” I said “Yeah, they were supposed to be plain.” My new friend advised: “Look here, take them damn burgers up there and stomp on ’em right in front of that bitch! I’ll do it for you, by God!” Despite the appeal, I declined his suggestion. I did get a couple of new burgers, though.
That’s my Burger Queen story. It’s not much of a story, but that’s it. Burger Queen became Druther’s (slogan–“I’d Ruther Go to Druther’s“), but it was pretty much the same food. Druther’s died out, except for one left in Campbellsville, Kentucky. I know. I saw it in the summer of 2012:
I asked a local about it, and he said it was the last one. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’d like to think so.
FAST BUT NOT FRIENDLY
When I was in high school, Harlan experienced a bit of a fast food revolution. Kentucky Fried Chicken and Druthers were joined by Wendy’s. Pizza Hut also came on board, sort of a fast food pizza palace. My friends and I made use of Druther’s, Pizza Hut and Wendy’s as hangouts–sometimes in the parking lot but often inside. Three or four of us would order Cokes and we’d sit there for hours (maybe it just seemed like hours). We weren’t really good customers, and we weren’t always welcome. A tale from Wendy’s illustrates the point.
Late one night, two friends and I were sitting at a table in Wendy’s, nursing our colas. I was pouring salt into a pile on the table while we discussed the news of the day. At some point, I asked if perhaps we should order something else in order to justify our presence. One of my cohorts remarked: “Hey, we bought Cokes. They can’t make us leave.” One of the employees at the business end of push broom heard this remark and said: “Then, you can sweep up this f—ing mess, you mother——s!” We took this as a subtle cue to leave, only to discover that we were locked in! While we fumbled with the lock, our former hostess hurled more invectives our way. One of my companions, in an ill-conceived effort to defuse the situation, said: “Look, bitch, why don’t you just fly away on that f—ing broom?!?!” The end result was that we were banned from Wendy’s. It has been over 30 years, and I have never set foot in that establishment since. As far as I know, the ban did not extend to all Wendy’s. I’m please to say that I have been to many others over the years without incident.
Today, I occasionally encounter unfriendly workers. You know them, too, I’m sure. They blankly stare at you with what my father called a “hang-dog” look on their faces. They mutely take your order, perhaps muttering a disingenuous “welcome” after you thank them. I try not to be offended. They don’t like their jobs and no civility on my part will change that.
KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID
The old military acronym KISS or “Keep It Simple, Stupid!” applies to dealing with fast food establishments. My aversion to condiments makes this difficult for me. For example, here’s a recent exchange with a McDonald’s employee:
HER: Can I help you?
ME: Two Angus Snack Wraps. No onion or sauce please.
HER: Do you want cheese?
ME: Well, yes. No onion and no sauce, though.
HER: Do you want lettuce?
ME: Yes, yes. Lettuce is fine. No onion. No sauce.
Here’s what I got: Two Snack Wraps with no cheese but onions. I blame myself. I threw off the order of the fast food system. It isn’t designed for gadflies like me.
Another thing is that I’m confident that they spit on special orders. I try to keep it simple. If there is something festooned with all manner of objectionable toppings, I just avoid it.
TAKING THE FAST OUT OF FAST FOOD
One obvious advantage of fast food is the fast part. We knowingly trade careful food preparation for speed and uniformity. We want our food quickly–at least I do.
Here’s a suggestion for everyone. If you and–say–5 of your family members walk up to the counter, take note if there is a lone person behind you. Allow that person and his simple, one-person order to go ahead of you. Think of it as the fast food equivalent of playing through in golf. Likewise, if you are a lone patron but are placing an order for scads of other people, be considerate of those behind you. Many of us are impatient and explosively violent when our patience is taxed.
Another suggestion is to have your act together when you order. If you need to ponder the menu and consult others before ordering, YOU ARE NOT PREPARED TO ORDER! Get the Hell out of the way! I just can’t stress this point enough. It’s a fast food restaurant. The menu should be well-known to you. There are even pictures of all the food on the wall, for God’s sake. It can’t be all that confusing. Your family members should also get their heads out of their…well, you get it. If you must have a family meeting at the register, you should be at home eating together in order to become more familiar with your family’s eating habits.
The restaurants themselves can help us, too. How about having more than one person working at the register? I fully understand why only one person can take orders at the drive-thru. When only person takes orders inside, this happens:
Your author is tormented by one register plus a confused family placing order. Note the obvious disgust of the arthritic biker in front of me.
If our society is to continue to function, this kind of thing can’t be allowed. I’m confident that the Roman Empire’s decay began over something like this.
Convenience is the great calling card of fast food. Believe it or not, there was a time when you could drive great distances in America without finding decent food–unless you were lucky enough to encounter a Stuckey’s. Now, we have fast food at almost every Interstate exit and in most towns of any size.
The restaurants also have restrooms, and most of them are reasonably clean. If one must make a–[ahem]–major transaction, cleanliness is paramount. There are no condom machines in them, either. I have never been comfortable with the public condom machine. What kind of person uses those? Worse yet, I don’t want to be confined in a men’s room with one of those folks. I have nightmares of washing my hands when I glance some demented drifter in the mirror opening a condom. While we have many fine truck stops in our great land, the combination of condom machines and showers just makes me uncomfortable for obvious reasons.
You are also fairly safe to nap in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant. What? You don’t do that? Well, you should. Napping at a rest area or truck stop is just an invitation to a serial killer.
Despite pleas from the likes of Michael Bloomberg and Michelle Obama, I suspect that fast food is here to stay. I’m fine with that. Technological advances will likely make the food faster and better for our children and grandchildren. I envision a day when lobster tails, deadly blow fish and prime beef will be served to me by pimply faced teenagers and ex-cons. I also hope that someone will perfect my idea of the “reverse” microwave oven which freezes hot things in seconds. I’m not sure how they’d use it, but I’m sure someone will figure it out. In the meantime, I’ll continue to indulge my weakness for Dairy Queen’s Reese’s Cup Blizzard and McDonald’s French fries.
Remember, too, that a lot of folks working behind the counter don’t like their jobs. Someday, robots will take our orders. Until then, teenagers and part-time workers will have to do. Be courteous, unless of course they’ve made you wait too long. After all, it is fast food.