“Do you want to go visit the king, the queen, or the kingdom?”
That’s how we used to ask each other, my middle-school self and friends, if we wanted Burger King, Dairy Queen, or McDonald’s. It was treat, a special trip after soccer practice or a morning spent working on our first research papers at the library. You can only look at microfiche for so long before you work up an appetite.
Want to know the trick to eating a chocolate-dipped cone without the ice cream oozing out over your knuckles? Bite a dime-sized hole in the top of the chocolate shell and suck that ice cream out like a milkshake. Bonus points to anyone who can get it down to the cone without toppling the shell. It’s like playing Jenga, but with food.
Fast food has always been an uncommon pleasure, an exception from the standard fare. In our family, we ate enough spaghetti and casseroles and vegetable soups to last me a lifetime. Pyrex dishes were mom’s best friend. But every now and then, I’d score big with a flame-broiled burger and fries. I might have overdone it in the heyday of McDonald’s Monopoly fest. Did you know that you won either a free small fry or drink with every hash brown? It wasn’t like the burgers where you might just peel off your 10th Park Place sticker. The hash brown was ready money.
While these visits to all our fast food haunts were usually rare, like four-leaf clovers and wishbones breaking in your favor, visits from my grandparents ensured a steady stream of fatty goodness. When they came for a week or two in the summer, it usually meant my parents were going out of town. Glorious freedom.
I would wait on the front steps and watch for their old gold Chevy pickup with the canopy top to roll down the driveway. They’d step out, Grandpa in his faded jeans and plaid shirt tucked in and held tight by a tarnished belt buckle. Grandma always wore her pastel pants which were either intentional capris or an accidental slip in hemming. I was at the truck before the engine stopped ticking.
With the parents out of the way, my grandma and I hit up Burger King every night. No shame. And we always got the same thing — a Whopper for her and chicken tenders with sweet and sour sauce for me. We split the fries. We’d slip in to our plastic booth and unwrap our winnings. I have to think these food escapades were an anomaly for her too.
This was a woman who had a cellar back in Oklahoma lined with jars of okra and tomatoes and beans from her garden. She dredged the catfish my grandpa caught in her own secret mix of flour and cornmeal and seasonings. She kneaded biscuits and wasn’t afraid of lard. Most things in her kitchen came from her hands, not a radiated conveyor belt.
And yet, we’d sit in our booth happily slurping Cokes and eating food that would survive the apocalypse. It was over these dinners that I’d tell her about school and the girls who were nice during recess and the ones who weren’t. I’d tell her about trying to fish in the creek near our house and how it wasn’t the same as it was on the lake near her house. I told her about the nightmares I would occasionally have of someone breaking into our house and stealing me. I shared all the odd and out-of-place things I couldn’t tell my parents. And she’d nod and munch and hold my hand on the way back out to the truck even though I was too old for that.
Maybe it was because she’d been through the Depression and had learned the value of a good deal, that’s why she took me for these meals when she couldn’t be in her own kitchen to cook. Maybe she didn’t want to navigate the big and unfamiliar grocery store down the street. But maybe she needed a little escape too. That’s what these fast food ventures were for us, a break from routine living. We didn’t care about the saturated fats or the sodium or that I might still be digesting this very chicken tender 30 years later. We just ate and talked and went on our way.
I know the importance of healthy eating. We do it more often than not in our house. But my twins ate their first hot dog at a Sonic drive-in with the van doors open and the summer breeze blowing in. You should have seen their faces when the carhop rolled up on her skates. And my oldest son who has special needs learned to chew his first French fry at McDonald’s. I’m all for farmers’ market meals and home cooking, but there’s value in the deep-fried goodness too.