When I was fourteen I got my first real job, working at a Taco Bell as a fryer. It was a mixed blessing, because the reason I could work there without violating child labor laws was because it was my family’s restaurant and because the District Manager resented the fact that he had no choice but to give me the job. At the time, fast food was a very specific set of places to eat, and you always knew what you were going to get, because they generally only had a few items. McDonald’s and Burger King had burgers and a fish sandwich for Catholics on Friday, Taco Bell had a tame American version of Mexican Food, and Kentucky Fried Chicken had chicken and side dishes (including mashed potatoes and gravy that I swear they must have put heroin in, because it haunts my dreams to this day if I go too long without it.)
Fast food restaurants had a bit of a mixed reputation for quality at the time, but this was also the time when it seemed like a good idea to many people to eat tiny amounts of frozen food heated in aluminum trays. People were always eating at home, unless they went to a steakhouse or Italian or Chinese restaurant on the odd first weekend of the month or birthday celebration. There were no celebrity chefs or food shows besides Julia Child. The thing about fast food was that it was not made by mom. So it was suspect, but I can tell you from having worked there, at that time at least, Taco Bell food was made from fresh ingredients that were locally delivered at least three times a week, and assembled immediately. Some of the others were made centrally and distributed frozen, but I spent at least a year frying up hundreds of taco shells per day from fresh tortillas.
At the time, if you were more than about nineteen, you were usually the manager or assistant manager of the restaurant. It was a low-paying business, because the food was very cheap. There was no super-sizing things, the sodas were not the size of office trash bins, and the concept of a kid’s meal was a new thing that McDonald’s had just invented.
Since then, many changes have come to the fast food industry. There has been an expansion into healthier choices, with nearly all of the major chains offering healthy options, vegetarian items, and vastly expanded menus. There are many more and much varied options for the genre, and there has also been a blurring of the lines between fast food joints and restaurants. The advent of the gourmet food truck, with their bare bones menus and nearly instant service of fresh ingredients, is one new direction for fast food that nobody saw coming. The thing about fast food is there is something comforting about it. Everyone seems to have their own favorite addictive “guilty pleasure” that they admit to with some unnecessary sense of shame, as if there is some weird nutrition police that is about to pull me over on the way home for ordering the periodic Filet O’ Fish that I require to keep myself sane. But when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense.
Everyone deserves a guilty pleasure, even though the price they pay for it is this unnecessary baggage of feeling that they are being judged for their choice. In the first place, if they were, then we would need a massive bench of judges, because there is usually a massive line at the drive through. Especially at In-N-Out burger. Also Shake Shack. What I would say is that there is really no need to feel this way, because we are grown-ass adults, and unless we are eating it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it is not a big problem. Sure, there are folks who will look down their nose at us about it, but those people are up in your business, and they do not belong there. They are also probably just about to tell you how they lost a bunch of weight or gained the ability to see into the future because they are a vegan or on the paleo diet or whatever. It is best to nod and smile and back out of the room slowly.
When our first child was being born, there were no places open anywhere near the hospital except for Jack In the Box, and so I added another milestone to my life with the help of fast food. I had been awake already for about ten hours, and it ended up taking another twenty or so for the boy to be born. My dad went out and got us a bag of I don’t know how many tacos—you know the kind with the filling that is not really identifiable as a specific meat product because of its odd creaminess. We used to say it was an imitation beef product made in a laboratory somewhere under the brand name Peef™, because marketing had told them that was the name that tested best in the focus group. In any case, that became the traditional food for observing our children being born. If it still exists, maybe I will buy some for when we have grandchildren.
In any case, feel free to have a Big Mac, or Whopper, or Burrito Supreme, or Double-Double Animal Style, or White Castle, or KFC bucket, or Carl’s SuperStar, or Shack Burger, or Cherry Limeade, or $5 Footlong, or Whataburger, or Cajun Fries, or Panda Orange Chicken, or Blizzard, or even your JJ’s BLT. Because in general, they are still food, fast or not, and can also bring a comfort food feeling, a full belly, and a respite from trying to figure out what to cook that night.
Now I have to go get some tacos.