- Death to Fast Food
- by Susan Guillory
- Once I found myself
in one of those fake 1950s diners, seeking some solace in an era that I
sorely regret not being a part of. I’ve always been able to imagine
myself, complete with bouncing ponytail and poodle skirt, sharing a malted
with my beau in a place much like this—one with chrome spinning seats at
the counter, deep vinyl booths, and even a jukebox playing all the classic
rock–n-roll tunes. But this chain restaurant was lacking something. Maybe
it was the fact that the cook kept his apron impossibly clean from the
hamburger grease, or that mohawks and Nikes had no place in that long-gone
era. More likely, the place lacked the feeling that it was real. It didn’t
have the smells and feel of a genuine “mom-and-pop” hamburger joint. My
willing suspension of disbelief grew thinner because I knew this place had
been reproduced in cookie-cutter fashion all over the U.S. It’s difficult
to recreate something 50 years after its glory days.
- Amazingly, some of
the original “mom-and-pop” hamburger joints in the south have survived the
wage of McDonald’s warfare over the years, though they are a dying breed.
Arkansas still holds these pockets of the past in many cities and tiny
towns. Whenever my family took trips through Arkansas, I was always the
one who would spot some faded sign like “Joe’s Burger Shack” or
“What-A-Burger” and plead to stop there rather than the old standby,
McDonald’s. The advantages to eating at an independent burger joint
included a menu that could not be duplicated anywhere in the world, as
well as ambience. I was drawn to the cracked and faded seats, the wobbly
tables, and the static sound of oldies coming out of an old boom box. I
liked watching the cook/owner/waiter prepare my heaping order of French
fries. Heat lamps were a sin in places like these.
- Somewhere along the
way, people began to identify with the homogeny of chain fast food
restaurants. There became a certain satisfaction with knowing that
wherever you were, Burger King would look the same and taste the same. But
whenever I stepped into a Burger King, I stopped being able to remember
which city I was in. I find it disconcerting that food can be cloned in
some sort of formula, so that chicken sandwiches everywhere have the same
texture, taste, and feel.
- No two independent
burger joints look the same, but most of them look much the way they did
50 years ago. Many are still owned by the same families who opened them.
Rather than being run by a staff of apathetic teens, “mom-and-pop” places
are usually under control of one or two people who actually care if they
give the wrong order to the wrong customer, people who are never too busy
to stop and chat about the weather or the local sports team. They serve as
surrogate parents eager to fatten you. Because they devote their time to
perfecting each order, the food tastes better; it is delivered with love.
- Interest in these
vintage relics has faded with time, the same way drive-in movies have
petered out. The few restaurants that are left stand as a testimony of a
certain stubbornness to conform to the plastic, manufactured future. They
are kept alive by people like me, not necessarily people who lived through
the 1950s, but people who find a certain nostalgia in a place that still
cares about its customers, that does not mass-produce its food, and that
doesn’t strive to get it out in 30 seconds or the food is free. These
restaurants give us, the society always on the go, the opportunity to slow
down, look around, and enjoy a good meal.
- Susan Guillory was
born and raised in the South. She enjoys writing creative nonfiction about
her experiences growing up in Texas and Arkansas, as well as writing about
her travels around the world.
- © 2001
Susan Guillory, All Rights