Food for Thought

Posts Tagged ‘Wendy

As someone who cares about food, who has at one time made her own bread, her own bagels, and her own tortillas, I used to feel a certain level of guilt about my occasional longing for a McDonald’s egg and cheese biscuit.  Should someone who kneads bread by hand instead of using the Kitchenaid dough hook feel strange emotional ties to a Taco Bell Cheesy Gordita Crunch?  Should someone who believes in the importance of knowing how to cook feel a certain nostalgia for food being mass produced in factories?  For lunches that some people look at and ask, is it even food?  I know I do.  I just had to figure out why.

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I was trying to win a contest and get lots of free Taco Bell, the food I ate growing up, every single Saturday following religious instruction. I did not win, but retained a few embarrassing photographs.

When I had a strange fascination with trying Tokyo McDonald’s on a trip to Japan, a voice in my head wanted me to feel guilty about trying the MegaMuffin and the Shrimp-Fillet-O.  Why should I waste a single meal on this?  The friends I have that have longed for their whole lives to see Japan had the right to punch me in the face.  Punch me in the face and say, “Really, who goes to Japan to eat at a McDonald’s?”

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Yes, I really ate this. It’s honestly even more filling than it looks like it is, which is already pretty filling. I don’t recommend eating this and trying to walk around a city afterwards.

I had to really think about it.  Why did my conscience tell me yes while my husband was mildly horrified?  Why was eating this MegaMuffin the stay-true-to-you thing to do?

It boils down to this: to me, there’s a certain magic to food that always tastes the same, food that transcends time, place, and who your grandma happens to be.  Eating a Good Humor Strawberry Shortcake ice cream bar, for example.

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Nostalgia bar.

As a teacher walking through the lunch room, so much has changed since I was a middle schooler, but there’s always that ice cream bar and it is always the same.  Oh, except now an accordion-like robot arm sucks the ice cream up out of an electronically operated freezer door when you put money into the machine.  It’s awesome.  The Strawberry Shortcake bar is something that ties me to those kids.  It bridges the gap between their childhoods and mine.  There may be a lot more cellphones hanging out of back pockets, and kids discreetly rolling by on sneakers that turn into roller skates, but at least there’s that ice cream.  I see that robot arm suck up that shortcake bar and I’m transported back in time to look up at Olga, the lunch-lady who would hand us our own shortcake bars when we stood on lines in the converted gymnasium, lunch money in hand.

True, there’s another deeper type of magic to your grandma’s tomato sauce, which you can’t even call a recipe, because you can never quite replicate it on your own.  That’s another story, but what I found was this: it doesn’t make my love for the Happy Meal go away.

The one magic ties you to your friends and your family through your shared experiences, the other ties you to the people you haven’t even met yet.  It ties you to the cousins who live on the other side of the country. It ties you to your worst enemy.  It ties you to the love of your life, ten years before you will ever meet, who always remembered looking forward to Halloween Oreos, just like you did.  And when your paths finally cross, you have no shared memories to discuss, and they haven’t tried your grandma’s sauce, although you tell them they must. So you find yourself reminiscing about those summertime ice cream bars with the gumball eyes that did not have any physical properties of gum, but were somehow irresistible.  Did they get the Tweety Bird bar?  Did they get the Spiderman bar just because it had more cherry flavor, or maybe the Ninja Turtle?  By my younger brother’s generation, it was Sponge Bob.  I’m the cheapest person on earth and I’ll still pay three dollars for one of those things.  It’s the worst gum ever and I love it.

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The ghost of childhood past stares at you through gumball eyes!

When I moved away for college up to Albany, I didn’t know a single other kid going to my school.  I was away from everyone and everywhere I knew.  Everywhere except Friendly’s.  I always remember that my family and I went to the mall and ate at a Friendly’s when we first visited UAlbany and again when they dropped me off at school, right before they left.  That’s a big moment.  Everyone who goes away to school remembers those hours right before your family leaves.  This is when you know everything is about to change.  I think that’s another thing I love about these mass produced foods.  Everything in your life changes so much, but you always have these foods and these places.

Even the insides of these places are the same.  Being away from home for the first time, I felt a comfort in passing a Wendy’s.  In knowing that behind that same cream colored counter, they served the same exact spicy chicken sandwich I would get with my friends in 12th grade when we could finally leave campus.  They had bins full of the same honey mustard packets we would pour on everything.  Sitting inside an Albany Wendy’s, in those identical booths but surrounded by ten people I had just met, I felt at ease. I felt like myself.   I felt like the impossibly large distance between there and the house I grew up in was really not so far at all.

When a bunch of Friendly’s in my neighborhood started to close, I felt a sadness that doesn’t make sense for someone who almost never goes to one anymore.  I realized I wasn’t in love with Friendly’s itself. I was in love with the nostalgic idea of Friendly’s, with the idea that even though I now live in Albany, Friendly’s will always be there for me when I need it to be.  It will always be able to bridge the gap between the places I call home.

Looking back on it, three hours away was an impossible distance in those first few months I moved away from home.  I felt as though I could imagine every step of the way, every unfamiliar inch of space.  Everything changes and Friendly’s is the cure.  Or Wendy’s.  Or walking by an aisle of Little Debbie Swiss Roll cakes in the grocery store, a snack my college roommate had as a kid every day when she came home from school.  These foods are a little piece of home that’s there for you.  It’s a connection that you share with those you love and those you hardly know and those you will never meet.

So yes, I had a lot of amazing food in Japan.  The McDonald’s MegaMuffin is not on the list of meals I’ll remember for all time, but I don’t feel guilty about it anymore. I know it’s on someone’s list and not because it’s the tastiest thing to ever be produced in a food lab at McDonald’s HQ.  I know that there are kids in Japan that sit in the booth with their grandmas who have taken them out for their favorite Shrimp Fillet-O.  I know that the adults remember the time they dared their best friend to eat that colossal breakfast sandwich I tried. I guess I just wanted a taste of that.  A taste of the mass produced, shared culture of growing up in Japan.  And yes,now I will go cook some real food, but I’ll still be dreaming about all of this.  It’s just a different kind of magic.

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After a few of the Friendly’s in my area closed, I tried to make my own Friendly’s Conehead Sundae. I forgot the whipped cream collar!