Fast Food Follies: A Brief Personal History

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

© 2013

Don’t Be A Clown

I’m sure that every American has seen a clown. I don’t mean someone who acts like a clown. I’m talking real clowns with the garish make-up, fright wigs, baggy clothes and huge feet.

I don’t like clowns. I know that’s a classic cliché, but I’m serious about it. I really don’t like them. They’re not funny. They’re not even mildly entertaining.  I suspect  that clowns were created because people didn’t have television or even comics.  Anything would seem funny back then, especially back when there was stuff like the Black Plague and The Crusades.

It’s an insult to be called a clown.  “Hey, clown!”–those are fighting words.  What if I said:  “You should go see my doctor.  He’s a clown” ?  I guarantee you wouldn’t.  Clowning around isn’t good.  That’s how people get hurt.

Sports teams aren’t called The Clowns, with the exception of the great Negro Baseball League team, the Indianapolis Clowns.  I suspect they only got that name because the white man forced it on them.

I normally eschew research, but I have done a cursory review of the history of clowns. They’ve been around a long time. Evidently, ancient Egyptians started this foolishness. Clowns have been big in France for a long time. Of course. In France, they have serious, white-faced clowns called clown blanc. These are dignified clowns. One more reason to hate the French.  It also might explain why they love Jerry Lewis.  Jerry Lewis, by the way, made a movie called The Day The Clown Cried, which was so awful it couldn’t even be released.  Figures.

We Americans are known for our circus clowns. They tromp around in over-sized shoes doing “tricks” like stilt-walking, making balloon animals and juggling.  Those are all nifty, but shockingly annoying when performed by a clown.  Most of them, thank God, are mute. Sometimes, they show up at kids’ parties.  That’s always a downer.

My earliest clown memory was at The Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus I attended in Knoxville, Tennessee when I was probably 6 years old. We sat near the floor and a clown made a balloon dog and gave it to me. He terrified me (the clown, not the dog). If he’d handed me a Chupacabra, I wouldn’t have been more frightened.

Oddly enough, I got a clown mask at that circus. It’s probably because I begged for stuff all the time for no reason. It was a white plastic “bald” head with a big red nose attached and shocks of red clown hair on both sides. Once we got it home, I couldn’t even look at it. My Uncle Jack wore it once without his dentures. He scared the crap out of me–and my mother. You don’t forget seeing a toothless clown smoking a Phillip Morris non-filter.

We’ve seen our share of evil clowns.   I think The Joker is a clown.  Captain Spaulding from The Devil’s Rejects is certainly a clown.  Of course, there is the Insane Clown Posse and its legion of Juggalos.  The modern-day clown does much more harm than good.

Stephen King knew that clowns weren’t funny when he wrote It about Pennywise The Clown. Pennywise lived in the sewer and killed children. The Master of Horror knew there was great symbolism in an evil clown floating among the turds. Remember the film, Poltergeist? A kid gets strangled by a clown. Clowns can’t be trusted.

Who is the most famous of all clowns? Emmett Kelly? Lou Jacobs? How about serial killer John Wayne Gacy? I bet a hell of a lot more people are familiar with his work. Part-time clown, full-time murderer.


John Wayne Gacy: He was a barrel of laughs.

Ronald McDonald may well be the best-known modern clown. His shtick involves peddling gut-busting fast food. In a way, he, too, is a serial killer. It may come as no surprise, but I’ve had serious beef with Ronald–and I’m not talking about a Quarter Pounder with cheese.

I once worked in a large law firm. I decided that we should work the phone bank during the PBS Spring Telefund Drive. Since I was in charge, I chose Saturday morning, so my kids could see me on TV.  A lot of kids would call.  It was always fun. Plus, we had a former Miss Kentucky hosting.

Now, this didn’t sit well with everyone. Some folks in my firm thought we should work during Masterpiece Theatre or some other haughty programming, as though our clients were sipping brandy and watching PBS in the evening. One of my partners simply said that he didn’t like Kentucky Educational Television. Now, that guy was a clown, figuratively speaking, at least.

One of oddities of those Saturday mornings was that Ronald McDonald worked with us. That’s right–Ronald Freakin’ McDonald himself.  Most of us know that there is no THE Ronald McDonald.  There are a bunch of Ronalds scattered about the country.  It’s like a gang.

This Ronald was a professional clown, for sure.  He arrived at the TV station with a couple of handlers–his posse, I suppose.  I imagined a limo with him sitting in the back dragging on a Marlboro and swigging Scotch.  That probably didn’t happen, but he did carry a gym bag with his big-ass shoes in it.  He would sweep into the studio in full regalia, like some kind of rock star. His job was to tempt kids to call in or, better yet, get the parents to do so.


Ronald McDonald engaged in one of his typical fraudulent phone calls.

Each year, I awaited Ronald’s arrival with seething contempt.  I would tell people things like that he was outside smoking (which he probably was, but I can’t prove it).  I would claim that he reeked of Jim Beam 8 Star.  I would deride his gym bag.  I told our host that Ronald was a “conceited jackass.”  She didn’t argue.  I would find out the extension for his phone and forward my calls to him. He would talk to our host in his stupid sing-song voice on camera and then sound like Krusty The Clown when the camera was off.  I imagined hitting him over the head with a folding chair during those breaks.  Who the hell did he think he was, anyway?


One of my law partners (he’s the one on the right) trying to explain some simple concept of telephone etiquette to the buffoonish McDonald.

Fortunately, I never attacked him.  I had enough trouble at that firm without being the guy who killed Ronald McDonald.  Oddly enough, I like McDonald’s.  Ronald, though, is another story.

I’ll admit that I had no real reason to dislike Ronald, other than the obvious–the clown thing. He’s probably a fine fellow. Maybe this says more about me than it does him, but you get my point.

Not everyone has the same issues with clowns as I do.  Some folks like clowns. Otherwise, we wouldn’t see them. I used to have a secretary who liked clowns.  At least she like Emmett Kelly.  She is a fine person. As far as I know, she has no affinity for serial killers or Ronald McDonald.

I once worked with a lady who would occasionally dress like a clown and do face-painting for kids. She was also a fine person, but the clown get-up made her look evil.  It didn’t really make her evil.  At least, I don’t think so.

Clowns are so freaky that psychology recognizes fear of them as a disorder. It’s called coulrophobia. Coulro is from the ancient Greek meaning “stilt walker.”  There is no record of clowns in ancient Greece, and I know of no one afraid of stilt walkers.  In any event, that’s what it’s called.  Clowns are so creepy that they caused a disease named after something almost totally unrelated to their evil.

If you are a clown, let’s get one thing straight:  I’m not scared of you.  I would gleefully beat your ass.  I just don’t like you.  If you think that’s fear, bring it on, clown!  See?  That sounds like an insult, doesn’t it?

If you want to be a clown, you can go to Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Clown College.  Seriously (is that the right word?), you can.  Penn Jillette is an alumnus, but he’s not a clown.  Weird.

As a parent, I have many fears for my children.  I can’t imagine the horror of one of them telling me that he has decided to attend Clown College.  What could possibly have gone wrong in your childhood that Clown College seems like a wise career choice?  Then again, Penn Jillette has done quite well for himself.  Maybe I’m the clown.

So, if you’re a clown, and this offends you, I’m sorry.  Not really.  Almost no one likes clowns.  It’s time we all admit it.  I would enjoy your juggling and stilt walking just the same without the clown accoutrements.  Now, stop clowning around.

© 2013