There was a time when “fast food” meant someone old enough to drive jumped into the ‘51 Mercury or the ‘49 Dodge, and drove as quickly as the law allowed from Laceyville to Tunkhannock to order a pizza at Rocky’s, wait for it, and return at top speed to the humble abode at 310 East Main Street. Total time for fast food 65 years ago was in the neighborhood of 1½ to two hours...and then you had to pop the pizza in the oven for a few minutes to re-heat it. We always felt like it was a delicious treat.
Times have changed.
Four generations have been born since the mid-’50’s with three of them grown to adulthood, allowing 21 years for each, and all of them have reached maturity locked in the grip of drive through dining. At first it was an exciting novelty, then it became an obsession, and finally a worldwide plague.
I remember clearly encountering Kentucky Fried Chicken in Manchester, England when I spent a college semester studying British Mass Media there in 1973. There are stories I could tell you about that semester, and perhaps someday I will, but for now we’ll just focus on that much-appreciated “touch of home” that was a five minute walk from the small private hotel several of us from Penn State called our home away from home.
In a single phrase: it was God-awful. Colonel Sanders had apparently refused to clue the Brits in on his original recipe’s 21 secret herbs and spices. I took a picture one morning on the walk from the tiny hotel to the building downtown where classes were conducted...it features a display window of a butcher shop with several dead chickens hanging featherless from their ankles, heads still dangling from scrawny chicken necks. I have always suspected this paunchy butcher wiped clots of beef blood off of his ham-sized hands onto the filthy ancient once-upon-a-time-white apron covering his massive gut, stubbed out the remains of the cigar hanging from his lips on the cutting block, and flung crates of these unfortunate fowls into the back of a stake-bed truck and drove cross-town to KFC, where they were summarily dumped as-is into a vat of boiling grease for several hours.
We could only bring ourselves to frequent the Colonel’s British emporium one more time after the first slimy meat-like stuff slid unchewed across our deeply offended tastebuds.
But that was years ago and we all survived.
The list of fast food purveyors I have visited in the many decades since then is almost as long as it’s possible to create. The Roy Rogers Restaurant on College Ave in State College served me often…”Be you a-campin’ or a-hittin’ the trail?” That line alone was enough to bring me back...it certainly wasn’t for the food. Mostly I was a-campin’.
The decade before my college years only offered McDonalds or Burger King it seemed, until my brother David introduced me to a place where they sold roast beef sandwiches with cheddar cheese on them. I fell in love with Arby’s for a while. Right around that same time Dave Thomas named a burger chain for his daughter...and her burgers are square! As a side...have you noticed that the ruffled collar around Wendy’s neck spells Mom? A company spokesman says that was coincidental.
There have been Chicken Shacks and Popeye’s, and White Castles (“The First Fast Food Hamburger Chain in the World,”) where you could buy ‘em by the bag.
At one time or another, we’ve probably all come away from a fast food experience wondering why we bothered. Everybody has a bad day, you just hope they’re not having it when they’re serving up your sustenance. Let the guy behind you be the one to suffer…
I no longer do much fast food consuming, although one look at my physique screams right out loud that I’ve waited far too long to change my ways. Tonight was a night when I backslid. It didn’t end well. To begin with, two large soft drinks came to my eager hands through the drive up window, both of them filled only about 80 percent. I looked at these two less than full large plastic containers and thought to myself “How about you only charge me 80 percent of the cost of these things?” It really ticks me off that their fallback position is “It’s automatic and we can’t do anything about it.” I’ve asked. Politely.
Had I allowed myself to speak tonight, it would not have been polite...and these are mostly high schoolers just trying to earn a bit of change. Why be the Angry Old Man to these kids?
So I waited while my two meals were placed carefully in the lovely paper sack and handed through the Covid barrier to me, thanked them and drove home. The burger and all the bottom of the barrel refuse that was smashed down onto it under the cardboard burger bun top was ghastly. I quit pretending it was edible after the third bite. Have you ever chewed wet corrugated cardboard and swallowed only because there was no place to spit it out? The fries hadn’t been near heat for at least half a day...and had no doubt been returned by the unhappy customer who paid for them the first time around, eight or more hours earlier.
I find myself longing for that Manchester butcher’s hideous old chicken parts.
Contact Lloyd Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org