When I’m at Taco Bell, I call my friend to see what I should order. This is not due to my friend’s especially thoughtful taco choices, but rather my vastly insufficient relationship with fast-food.
My friend tells me to order a Crunchwrap Supreme and some food whose name I didn’t catch. It involved steak. I call another friend immediately after. She tells me to go with a Cheesy Gordita Crunch, but make sure to replace the regular tortilla with a Dorito’s Locos Taco shell. The friend I’m with at Taco Bell chooses Nacho Fries and some sort of potato taco. I stare at the menu. The cashier is confused as to why this is taking so long. The line behind me is looming, surely whispering about my inadequacy in the fast-food department. I panic and order everything.
I, unlike most of America’s youth, did not grow up with fast food. I lack the reference points of Happy Meals, Frosties, and McNuggets; I am a McAnomaly. My parents were big believers in not only saving every dime with steady, home-cooked meals, but were also fans of speeding past fast-food joints on road trips while my brother and I pressed our faces to the window crying in longing. My mother would have packed a Tupperware of fruit, a bag of loose cheese sticks, last night’s spanakopita, and some ham sandwiches. If the cooler emptied or our cheese sticks melted overnight, my parents would either lean into that accelerator to get us home for a from-scratch meal or reluctantly stop for Subway sandwiches. With 6-inch subs cradled in our arms, my brother and I would savor the bites of turkey slices, limp tomatoes, and cuts of cheddar cheese. Those small half-foot cubes of slightly hardened bread were our little pieces of heaven. “Subway! Subway!” we’d chant from the backseat. Yet, we’d have to wait for the next road trip for this adrenaline rush, hoping our cheese sticks melted or I’d left the spanakopita in a cousin’s fridge.
On the school playground, other children found it strange that I didn’t know what a McGriddle was. “It’s very good,” they would explain. Sometimes they would clarify further: “It comes wrapped in a yellow crinkle paper and they put it in a very big white and red bag.” “Sometimes,” the other children would say, “there is a toy.” This was incredible.
Yet, it wasn’t just the food I craved. It was less substance and more a badge of honor, to be worn with pride like McDonald’s toys lining your bookshelf or a cardboard crown from Burger King. A connection between a child and their bag of goods. I felt I lacked all the necessary honors and had ultimately been left out of this greasy conversation. When my brother was scratched by a cat in Mexico, he was allowed fast food in exchange for getting in the car to drive for rabies shots. I was jealous. I stood in my backyard and waited for a squirrel to attack me. Please, I would whisper, the other kids are beginning to realize I don’t know what Wendy’s is.
I do not remember the exact moment I had fast food for the first time, but due to the rarity of these occasions, every time felt like the first time. Fast food was a winding and complicated journey, and I would not get to that Taco Bell line in my 20s so easily.
It was a road trip and we ran out of spanakopita. There were no Subways for miles so my horrified parents begrudgingly took us to a McDonald’s and I received a double cheeseburger. It was more than I knew I wanted. I held my bag high over my head. Look, world! But what had been my peak soon became my downfall. The double burger soaked through the paper, filling my mouth with fatty burger oils and dripping ketchup. The buns caught in my throat and sluggishly went down. The fries sank to the bottom of the bag, untouched. I didn’t understand why something so beautiful was causing me so much pain. I couldn’t finish it and left it balled up on the other side of the car. My dad gave me a look like “You see?” Betrayed, I mourned the fantasy of toys, friends, and Happy Meals. Was this what it was? What was this sickness? My parents had been right. This was no good. This was disgusting. I decided right then to never eat another fast food meal again, and that was the end of it.
It wasn’t (how did I get to that Taco Bell line?). Infrequently, I ate some fast food through high school. In college I ate more fast food, until after college it wasn’t so strange anymore. My friends ate it, so I did too. It was hard to believe that this was the conversation I craved most of my life. I felt slightly more enlightened for it, though. I could tell someone what I planned on ordering at McDonald’s before consulting the menu, and maybe that’s what it was all about.
During my first night living in a new city, my friend and I sat in the McDonald’s parking lot and smashed our cheeseburgers together in a congratulatory “toast.” Our apartment didn’t have any functioning utilities. We had no money. One of us didn’t have a job. But there was a certain feeling to it. It was not just I’ll feel this burger in the morning or Wow I’m eating this so fast I can’t even taste it (we’ve all said this) or specifically for my friend and I: When we get our money right, we won’t be in McDonald’s parking lots.
It was the feeling of driving down a country highway with your friends, screaming over everyone else’s voices and listening to music that is both old and new. Or riding the city train throwing fries at each other. Or picking up fast food with your family on a road trip. I don’t know if I like the food, but I like the feeling.
I do not believe for one minute I missed anything extraordinary in the absence of fast food as a child. It probably goes without saying that I am very grateful to my parents and the healthy conscious they had. I was a healthy kid, and I love a good home-cooked meal now. I still haven’t been to most drive-thrus nor am I an expert on any particular menu. I can’t jump into a fast-food debate or determine which burger is better. All those popular online lists about best burgers and such? They all fly over my head. I don’t think that is anything to cry about.
Yet, fast-food is big part of the American identity, of our childhood nostalgia. Overall, the food is not good. It is actually pretty bad. It isn’t about the quality though (can you believe it?), but the experience and that time you went to that fast food place with your friends. The comforting moment when you open a Happy Meal and find exactly what you wanted. This is the conversation I still, impossibly, get excited about when I stand in line at Taco Bell and decide my fate. I didn’t have it when I was young, but I kind of get it now, and—sorry mom and dad—it feels good.