True confessions! I love fast food. No, I am not a fast-food junkie or a fast foodie. I am not a foodie at all. I do love fast food. I don’t overdo it, but I’d rather eat fast food than prepare a meal for myself. I’d rather eat fast food than go out to a fancy restaurant. I prefer the ambience of a fast-food joint to the conversational rumble of a fine restaurant.
Where did my obsession with fast food begin? I don’t know. I remember long road trips with my parents and my sister. Dad didn’t like long stops and didn’t want to pay much for a meal. Our routine was to get up early before sunrise and travel 100 miles before breakfast. We’d find a mom-and-pop place that served bacon, eggs, and toast. At noon in days before interstate highways, we’d pull off the side of the road. Mother would prepare a quick tuna sandwich We’d gobble it down, and we’d be on our way. In the evening we would look for an inexpensive place to eat close to the motel. I remember once we got up and left after sitting down and drinking some water. The prices at that place were too high for Dad’s budget!
Then one day we began to see chain restaurants pop up along the roads. Some were drive-ins with car hops, but we preferred the ones where we could walk in, sit down and order our food. A&W restaurants featured papa burgers, mama burgers, and baby burgers. It was much later that we encountered McDonald’s or KFC. Dad’s idea of a treat was to hop in the car on a Sunday afternoon. We travelled east and then south to cross the southern border. Walhalla, ND, was the only location around that had a Dairy Queen! A soft-serve vanilla cone was as good as it got!
Fast forward to junior high. We settled in the South in a college town with no fast food. The fanciest restaurant in town was Dan’s. The walls featured photos of local star athletes. The only foods I ever ate there were greazy burgers and greazier fries. Delicious! It was a great place to take my date to before the football games. Eighteen miles away was the first McDonald’s burger I remember eating. No seating inside. There was a walkup window and a few round, metal picnic tables in front. It was one of dad’s favorite places to eat out.
It wasn’t until I started college that I learned about pizza. Now pizza isn’t a real fast food, but it became my favorite food. Well, that and steak. My favorite places to eat were chains. I did find a few independent places that served pizza or steak that were inexpensive and quick. My parents moved out of town halfway through my college career. A roommate introduced me to anchovy pizza. I never tasted anything so gross in my entire life! My first bite was my last one ever. I never developed a taste for Hawaiian pizza either. Pineapple does not belong on a pizza in my humble opinion! One summer I worked at RT French Company in Rochester, New York. Every weekday I had breakfast at an old-fashioned silver diner. The cook could see me coming from a block away. By the time I walked in the door, he had my standard order ready for me. I had no car and missed my fast food.
After school I went into Uncle Sam’s Navy. It wasn’t out of patriotic fervor. I was draft-motivated. My draft lottery number was 109 and the cutoff was 111. My future mother-in-law thought I should go back to Canada. By this time I was a US citizen, and I ‘volunteered’ for duty. As a college graduate I attended Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. Then I qualified for Supply Corps School in Athens, Georgia. They had the best food I ever ate in the cafeteria. One morning an instructor announced that McDonald’s served breakfast. Soon thereafter I enjoyed my first Egg McMuffin!
I reported for duty aboard a destroyer escort as the Disbursing and Sales Officer. We went on cruises to the Gulf of Tonkin, Guantanamo Bay, and the Mediterranean. I tasted exotic food from around the world. When I returned to our home base in Charleston, I had two goals in mind. First was to reunite with my wonderful wife. Next was to get a real American fast-food burger. We were fortunate that there was a Burger King right outside the base gate!
I did my MS research at the University of Florida. I came to love Arby’s roast-beef sandwiches and their Jamocha shakes. I didn’t have as much access to fast food at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. It was the same situation in Rockport where I did my research at the UMASS Marine Station. When we got away from these towns, we often stopped for some enticing fast food.
I graduated with a PhD at age 32 to start my professional career at the University of Georgia. Most days I ate lunch at my desk. I enjoyed lunches with colleagues at least two or three times a month. Wendy’s was the go-to place in Griffin where I worked as a research scientist. My wife worked late on Thursday nights. I treated myself to breakfast at the Chick-Fil-A Dwarf House most Thursday mornings. I travelled to meetings in Europe and Asia. I enjoyed the exposure to different cultures and foods. It was still great to get back to USA and authentic fast food. I tried fast food in foreign lands, but it was not the same.
My wife and I spent five months in Australia on study leave. What a fantastic experience. I arranged to attend a horticulture conference in Hawaii on the way over. There happened to be a Burger King across the street from our hotel in Honolulu. We ate there two or three times. I noticed that the trash receptacles had MAHALO on the swinging, wooden door. I thought MAHALO meant trash. Turns out that it is Hawaiian for THANK YOU! We were not impressed with fast food in Australia. McDonald’s down under wasn’t as good as we had in USA. Hungry Jack’s sported the same logo as Burger King was also disappointing. Pizza over there was not enticing. We fell in love with their fish and chips—as fast as anything stateside and delicious. The burger from the Cosmic Café on campus sported a slice of beetroot and was great!
I moved over to the main campus to teach. It was my true calling. I never had a better or more satisfying job. Athens has food for every food fancy. I taught courses in Chocolate Science, Coffee Technology, and Chocolate Chemistry. I ate at places like The Last Resort and Wilson’s Soul Food. My favorite eating places were at chains like Loco’s Deli, Mellow Mushroom, and Schlotzsky’s. One of my jobs was to recruit students into the program. I would take a current student and prospective student out to lunch at a local restaurant. Then I would present the recruit with a Food Science Club tee-shirt. I started out with 18 students in the major. It grew to over 100 by the time I retired. I won’t take all the credit. I had great help, but free meals and tee-shirts work wonders. Special thanks go to Karen, Caryn, and Katherine.
One summer I mentored a group of incoming Freshmen to prepare them for academic life. I arranged to take them to a showing of Supersize Me. It was a tricky situation as the place was a combination theatre/bar. All the students were under age and not permitted in the facility. I gained a special exemption for my students. We sat in the balcony. I watched them as much as I watched the movie. The next evening on my way home I stopped at Mickey Ds. They asked me if I wanted to supersize my order. I told them NO. I only wanted a Big Mac, small fries, and a diet Coke. My retirement dinner after 17 wonderful years in Food Science? A pizza party! The pizzas were from Mellow Mushroom!
I retired to southwest Florida after 31.5 years at the UGA. I did not lose my love of fast food. I volunteer every Monday at the local food pantry. On pre-pandemic Mondays I ate a meal at a restaurant before going to the pantry. Most of these eating establishments were chains. The Crispers, Fuddruckers, and Sweet Tomatoes locations didn’t make it through the pandemic. I went into self-isolation during most of 2020 and the first few months of 2021. I missed the camaraderie of my friends at the food pantry. I also missed my fast-food fix each week. Towards the end of my hibernation, my wife and I sneaked out to the drive-thru at Arby’s and Culver’s. Our process and my schedule changed at the pantry post-pandemic. I no longer have the opportunity most weeks to enjoy my fast-food indulgences on Mondays.
No, I will not defend the healthiness of fast food. Such a habit can lead to overindulgence and chronic disease. I am not sure if this obsession contributed to my borderline diabetes, IBS, and trips over 25 on the BMI. I do think that fast food can be part of a balanced diet if not indulged in too large portions too often. For years many fancy restaurants offer little choice in size of entrée. Many chains that are not really fast food were the same. It is a healthy step that portion sizes are possible at many restaurants now. Most fast-food places have offered different sizes of menu items since the beginning. They also offer ways to mix and match the available items. Fast food doesn’t need to be as bad as we think.
PS–not a happy meal. I was on the road yesterday afternoon before working at the food pantry. I swung into a McDonald’s to get a bite to eat. I ordered a quarter-pounder with cheese without the sesame-seed bun and a medium fries. I brought my own drink. It was not a fulfilling experience. It was not fast (15 minute wait with few customers ahead of me)! It was not good (my slice of cheese was cold, not melted)! It was not cheap($8.50)! I was not happy (OK, the fries were hot and as good as I remember!). Maybe I am just getting old and crotchety. Maybe they are short-staffed. Maybe the McDonald’s experience is not what it used to be. Maybe I should have gone through the drive-thru. It will be a long time before I visit the Golden Arches again.
Next week: Technology and world hunger