Seriously, why do we eat all this shit? Fast food stopped being cuisine a long time ago — now it’s culture. You can read Hunter S. Thompson, take your new first love to three baseball games and follow it up with some Jimi Hendrix, but you won’t ever really be a part of American culture until you actually put it inside your body and introduce your intestines to honey mustard sauce and post-industrial grease.
Nobody likes fast food, nobody sane eats it full-time, but we all do eat it. Boycotting it is like refusing to buy a car: nothing morally wrong with it, the world would probably be a better place if everyone did it, but still — it just seems weird, almost anachronistic.
What’s an alien, stranded on your typical suburban main street of suburbia with nothing but a space suit, five dollars, and a tattered picture of his three-armed girlfriend back home to do? The beauty of the system is that you no longer need to be literate or even speak a word of English to get yourself a 1,000-calorie meal. But what to make of the logos growing across the landscape like wildflowers trying to outrun a forest fire? Which value meal to purchase? Which French fry superior? Should he just pack it in and beg for meatloaf by the side of the road?
The Roman Empire of fast food — except there are no dirty Goths up north. Instead, the very faith of its citizens has wavered. No longer do they want a sandwich that delivers roughly half their daily recommended intake of fat and sodium in a dozen delicious bites! What’s worse is that when the triumvirate comes up with some pseudo-healthy food to try to keep them fat and happy underneath their togas, the people hate it! It isn’t McDonald’s food if it isn’t a health disaster wrapped in wax paper.
It isn’t McDonald’s food if it tastes good, either. I use the word “good” here carefully. McDonald’s has dedicated a jaw-droppingly huge amount of resources to insuring that each and every time a human being orders food at its counters, he or she will leave feeling satisfied with the transaction. But it has not dedicated any time or effort to making its food taste more than okay.
Sure, ask one of the anonymous engineer-chefs employed by McDonald’s R&D and they’d tell you that theirs is an impossible task. Try coming up with a sandwich that all Americans — moms running late to Tae Bo class; half-stoned, all-crazy teenagers; drunken Creoles with $20 to their name — will love universally. But food and writing and love and all other forms of art are not about giving people what they want. It’s about giving them what you want — and then tricking them into thinking that that’s what they had wanted all along.
McDonald’s doesn’t try to have an identity beyond the mantle of the generic. They offer a hamburger, a cheeseburger, a larger cheeseburger, a hamburger with two patties and Thousand Island dressing, a hamburger with chicken instead, a hamburger with fish instead …
The only item they have for sale that I remember enjoying is their vanilla milkshake.
I was once a younger, less aerodynamic homesick alien working as the features editor of The Elm, my liberal arts college newspaper. My average Tuesday night sitting in front of what I will later figure out is a crappy old Mac, editing some bland, unremarkable copy in Word 5.1 (possibly the last word processor I actually enjoyed using).
Into the Elm office walks my first love. We were in some weird proto-relationship stage then; I had a tremendous crush on her but was convinced she was way too beautiful to get mixed up with a homesick alien like me, and she … I’m not really sure how she felt about me back then. What was it, America Shaftoe, that you saw in me? What is it about me that is so marvelously invisible almost all of the time? Would you make me a T-shirt I could wear so that women would see me as I was meant to be seen?
But to the point: she’s going to swing by McDonald’s, she is saying. Can she pick me up something?
“Forget McDonald’s,” I say. “Let’s go up to your dorm room and fuck like dolphins.”
Ah, the things we ought to have done in our youth. If I had any brains back then, you’d be reading The Definitive Guide to Extremely Cool Sexual Positions for the Homesick Alien right now.
Instead I was caught off-guard — nobody came to visit me on production night, especially people I cared about, especially when I was sick and tired of the English language and its mentally retarded grammar and wanted nothing but to lose myself in a warm, shared silence.
I said, “Get me something you think I’d like,” because it seemed like a cool thing to say, and she returned in 20 minutes with a vanilla milkshake.
I was flabbergasted, gobsmacked, amazed beyond hope of repair: somehow she knew. Somehow she knew that the only thing I really loved about McDonald’s was their vanilla milkshakes. Not even just a milkshake. The strawberry ones taste like they’re made in car factories, and the chocolate ones remind me of cold nights. It’s only the vanilla ones I love.
I asked her how she knew.
You just seem like a vanilla kind of guy, she explains.
It isn’t an insult. It’s true.
But who cares about pseudo-romantic quasi-nostalgic stories! I am a homesick alien and will soon be declared obsolete and undate-able, unromance-able. Please call (800) 244-6227 and ask McDonald’s national customer support how to make arrangements to return me for a working version, and while you’ve got them on the horn, ask them if they wouldn’t consider bringing the old milkshakes back, because the new ones are a travesty.
… does not serve food. Take a look at their kitchen while you wait for your gorditas to be constructed, or peel open one of the tacos they throw in when you order a value meal. There are individual components — to wit: lettuce, tomato, meat, sour cream affixed to the top with a tool remarkably similar to a caulk gun — but there is no irrevocable process applied to the entire thing.
Physics has a concept called time reversal symmetry, which means that the same rules apply at the atomic level whether you happen to be watching something go forward in time or in reverse. From a practical point of view, time reversal symmetry is bullshit. You can’t take an omelet and restore it to a pair of eggs and some ham and cheese. You can’t eradicate a crease from a piece of paper once you’ve folded it. You can’t re-do a single moment of your life. Every lie. Every kiss. Every problem you did wrong on every math test.
That’s what makes cooking so interesting. If you could just revert the rice you overcooked a little back a few minutes, you might as well have a robot do it for you. And if there is one essential trait for homesick aliens, it’s self-sufficiency.
Taco Bell workers don’t cook food. They just assemble it, and as such, the franchise is totally worthless from a homesick alien’s point of view save for one thing. Steal as many hot sauce packets from the self-serve counter as you can without attracting undue attention from the old folks waiting beside you for their pseudo-Mexican bowl of crap.
When you start going into your post-lunch catatonia, open a packet with your teeth (careful now … you can make sure you are unobserved without turning around by carefully observing your reflection in a monitor) and slurp the contents … slowly. You don’t want to overdo it and have to go running all over to retrieve some ice water. The objective is not to clear out the sinuses, although I bet two packets of fire sauce would do the trick. You just want to shock your body a little bit.
Thank you, Taco Bell. Your green salsa may have the consistency of the byproducts of a bad cold, but it keeps me awake and alive.
Subway is a den of self-deception. It’s got the reputation of being the healthiest fast food place around, thanks to some guy named Jared who managed to lose 245 pounds by going on a bizarre diet consisting of two meals a day purchased at Subway. The promise in the ads Subway put together featuring him is that if you donate $11 to them every day, a miracle will happen to you.
No longer will you be an office worker. No longer will you have to wear a name tag. No longer will you look down at your body after a shower and tell yourself the situation isn’t so bad. No longer will you wonder when — or maybe “if” is the operative question, what with how old you’re getting and how few new friends you make these days — you’ll get married.
You will be beautiful. You will be able to show pictures of yourself in the past and be able to conclude, “I’m not that messed up anymore.” You will feel as though you’re so trim, you could take off from the ground any minute now.
This belief, this demi-religion built up through glib articles in supermarket women’s magazines and commercials for Special K cereal, is what draws people in to pay $5 for a sandwich that they could make themselves. If only they could collect themselves for five minutes each night and toast two slices of bread and slide some meat and cheese between them. If only they knew that Jared lost half his weight by eating only a thousand calories a day — 600 fewer than what Ancel Keys, the man who invented K-rations, fed daily to conscientious objectors during World War II to discover how starvation affects human beings.
If only they knew that changing yourself has almost nothing to do with what you eat.
Nothing to remember beyond the fact that the burgers are square, not amorphous blobs of ground beef, and that its founder Dave Thomas somehow managed to trick us all into thinking he was a father beckoning us in for a home-made meal, that the minimum-wage employees taking our money and giving back the change indicated by the machine were our brothers and sisters. Maybe not a trick. Maybe a lesson taught.
Nothing to remember except one time my mom took me the one near the library (not Wendy’s anymore — now KFC, the restaurant where Dave first learned the fast food trade in earnest) and there were flies inside and we never finished our food. Nothing to remember except Dave Thomas named it after his youngest daughter, eight years old at the time. Only her name was Melinda Lou. Wendy was a nickname given by her two older sisters. Nothing to remember now at all.
I admire them for plugging on ahead even though America will never accept a roast beef sandwich as its first love, even though their logo is a cowboy hat and the mythology of cowboys was thrown away a long time ago. There is something to be said for being able to accept that you won’t be rich, won’t rule the world, will maybe never be captured in the newspaper save for the coupons you print for your quick-service establishment (Dave liked this term better, according to his biography, and disagreed with the Colonel’s belief that workers must be disciplined, not supported) that entitle their bearers to 25 percent off a mediocre sandwich.
Extra points for the little pun on the name, but in the end, it’s just one more roadside memory to be collected into a dustpan and put into the dark valleys of your memory. Nothing to remember except the beach, the cool feeling of sand beneath your feet at sunset, the wish that there was someone beside you matching your footsteps, talking quietly, reaching a hand toward your arm as people decide to call it a night and begin to reel in their kites. In the end, you too decide to turn around, head back to the lights of your motel, not speaking, not sleeping. Wish it could have been different this year. Wish summers didn’t have to go the way they do. Two out of five thumbs up.
“Are you done?” Alice asks.
We’re sitting on the roof of a Roy Rogers, three o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, a cloudless sky and just the tiniest bit too warm. A holiday — no business to conduct today in Chestertown.
“Almost,” I reply. “What do you think of it so far?”
“I think you’re just pissed off at yourself,” she says. “And this is just an easy way to let off some steam.”
“Maybe. I’ve done a lot of stupid things lately.”
Alice glances at me quickly. “And what’s worse is it’s been a long time since you did anything really right.”
“Have you ever noticed that all my good stories start off, ‘Back when I was in college’?” I say. “That I talk about first loves, but never second ones? First dates, but not second ones?”
Roy Rogers barely exists at all nowadays. It was bought out by Hardee’s in 1993; they tried to build up their brand name by setting Roy Rogers’ ablaze. It didn’t work, and Hardee’s ended up selling almost all of them back again to whoever would buy them. If you’re lucky, you can find one: maybe owned by someone independent, maybe owned by someone forgotten by corporate headquarters. This one we’re sitting on was closed when I first saw it, and it became a combination Taco Bell/KFC by the time I left town. But then none of this is real, anyway. This conversation never happened and Alice is a literary device I invented while I was driving once. This is the kind of desperate state I’ve been driven to.
“It’s all a magician’s trick,” I say. “Bluster about what you hate, what doesn’t really count in the end. Hide yourself in a critique of the gordita, conceal a secret plan in a dissection of the BMT. Arrange words carefully so that no one can figure out anything. Don’t talk about your failures until they’re in the comfortable past. Give good advice but don’t discuss what you want until you have it. Play it smart. Never lose at a game of ‘Never Have I Ever.’ People will fill in things for you. People will build a less imperfect life for you in their minds.”
“Does it work that way in real life, too?” Alice asks.
“I used to think so,” I say.
The afternoon breeze finally arrives. Soda cups long forgotten by their owners stir from a three-year nap; pebbles skip along the asphalt.
“I think you’re too hard on yourself,” she says. “You aren’t a homesick alien. You’re just a boy who gets a little too wrapped up in his own head sometimes.”
Alice leans over and takes the spiral notebook from my hands. (I’ve been scribbling in it for a week straight now.) And as she sets it down beside her for safekeeping, the breeze catches a page and a soft flutter — just one, not noise, just sound — flies through the air. Who knows how far a sound so nearly inaudible can travel?
“There,” she says. “Now let go.”