food

My Mustard Problem

McDonald's cheeseburgerI don’t really eat fast food, but a few weeks ago, I found myself having very little choice.  I was in a hotel in Williamsburg, Virginia and since I was attending a conference by day and doing a lot of work and a lot of writing at night, I stayed close to the hotel and wound up eating a lovely combination of Wendy’s, Subway, and McDonald’s for dinner.

The McDonald’s was a really new-looking building, but I am 100% sure that it is the same McDonald’s my family at at 30 years ago when we took our first trip to Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens.  It was in a location that I remember clearly–way out on the highway near Busch Gardens, and one of the few places we could find where everyone was willing to eat something.  It was also where I first encountered mustard on a hamburger.

I don’t know how many people reading this will believe me, but I grew up without mustard being put on a hamburger.  Mustard, in my mind, was for hot dogs, and ketchup was for hamburgers.  So whatever my parents would take us to McDonald’s or Burger King, I’d get a hamburger and it would just have ketchup on it.  But whenever we went to a McDonald’s outside the tri-state area, there would be this weird yellow crap on the bun that made the burger taste weird and I hated it–so much that I am usre my sister and I didn’t want to eat the burgers, and then we discovered that we could mask the taste of mustard by putting a metric ton of extra ketchup on top of the mustard.

This would be the case of years afterward, and my wife found it incredibly odd that we would do this.  Looking back, it seems that when it comes to fast food, you actually have variation among condiments int he various regions of the country and even between different restaurants (I believe that some places put mayonnaise on their burgers), which is odd because I would think that the purpose of a fast food place would be to give you the same cheap culinary experience no matter where you go.

My relationship with fast food would wax and wane over the years–I sore off of it in 2002 or so after reading Fast Food Nation.  In the 15 years since, I’ve gone to McDonald’s literally three times, on occasions where I really have few to no other option.  It just honestly doesn’t seem worth it since I have gotten much better at cooking and have found better sources for quickly made food.

I still don’t put mustard on my hamburgers, though.

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Origin Story Episode 27

Origin Story Episode 27 Website CoverKraven meets his end in the penultimate chapter of Kraven’s Last Hunt as I take a look at “Thunder” from The Amazing Spider-Man #294. Plus, I spend 15 minutes talking about ice cream.

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

 

Amazing_Spider-Man_Vol_1_294

Oh, and as a bonus, here’s the Carvel commercial from the second half of the episode:

Modern Diner

1:43 a.m.
(Conversation on a Diner Napkin)

Rain falls to the sidewalk
beside a lonely crowded roadside diner,
where I’m wondering what it was about her
that could have stopped the world for so long.

The exact handwriting, shape of numbers–
lines a paper napkin
with her phone number
in faded gray pencil and that smudge
always a backdrop for conversation.

And smiling.

I remember smiling
and she did the same
even though the music stopped
and the words were erased
by the rain ticking off my umbrella
into the night.

I wrote that poem for a creative writing class. in the fall of 1997.  It’s not a particularly great poem, nor is it based on anything that actually happened or anyone I know.  I am pretty sure that the inspiration was more along the lines of an imaginary idea, a fictional story where two people enter a diner and one leaves heartbroken, the only thing left to show for it is something scribbled on a napkin–notes, a phone number, maybe something much deeper.  It didn’t matter.

But the geographical inspiration was very real.  Sitting on Main Street not too far from the intersection with Greene Avenue, the Sayville Modern Diner was just about everything you would expect from a restaurant with the word “diner” in its name–a greasy spoon filled with vinyl-covered booths, the sounds of silverware clanking on thick earthenware dishes, and the smells of a grill that had seen countless omelets and cheeseburgers.  It was not haute cuisine by any means and even though the menu was pretty extensive, any time I was in there, I ordered one of two things:  some sort of omelet with a toasted bagel, orange juice, and coffee; or a cheeseburger deluxe.  Well, that’s not 100% accurate because there were those times when I was feeling extra fancy and got a hot open turkey sandwich, but really it was those two items, which are diner standards.

The Sayville Modern Diner circa 1996.  Taken from a 1997 calendar.  Photo by Pat Link.

The Sayville Modern Diner circa 1996. Taken from a 1997 calendar. Photo by Pat Link.

While breakfast after midnight is something you can get in quite a number of places outside Long Island (I have a number of memories involving late-night runs to Denny’s outside of Baltimore), I have to say that there are few if any places without the word “diner” in their name that really know what a cheeseburger deluxe is.  And yes, there are better hamburgers out there, burgers with higher quality ingredients and all sorts of creative sauces.  I love those places, don’t get me wrong, but there is something about the simple perfection of a single patty on a bun served with fries, onion rings, and a pickle (with the option of topping it with lettuce, tomato, and onions).  You don’t need anything else.

Of course, the food at a place like the Modern Diner is not the reason you go to a place like the Modern Diner.  I’ve noticed that diner culture has been fetishized over the last few years because of the culinary hate crime that is Guy Fieri, but turn away from his shtick and walk into a diner and you find something incredibly genuine that cannot be mass-produced.  Oh, it’s been tried–I’m sure there are still a few Silver Diner restaurants left at local shopping malls, but that place felt more like bad theme park kitsch as opposed to an actual diner.

That’s because a real diner feels worn in.  It’s the type of place where you can go in, get a booth, and aside from getting food and refills, you can be ignored.  You can allow yourself to disappear into that booth as long as possible.  The Modern Diner, when I was a kid, had this brown and gold decor that clearly came from the 1970s and at some point in the Eighties, they remodeled with the same dull magenta color you’d find in your average doctor’s office waiting room.  I’m trying to remember if they remodeled one more time and for some reason keep picturing a seafoam green motif, but I’m not sure.  Decor aside, if I was with my friends, those booths were the entire world for an hour or two.

Sometimes, the conversations were memorable; most of the time they were complete mundane.  Looking back, I feel that time spent there was our part of a ritual that had existed since time immemorial.  You’d make plans to go out and no matter what you did that night, you’d wind up at the diner.  Billy Joel put Brenda and Eddie there.  Garry Marshall had The Fonz set up shop in the bathroom.  George Lucas had Steve Bolander drown his sorrows in a vinyl-cushioned booth.  Barry Levinson wrote an entire movie called Diner that remains one of the all-time great friendship films.  Even when I (badly) wrote teenage characters, I’d have them hang out at the greasy spoon, giving them a moment of pause in a hectic plot or providing a place where moments of truth were had.  They are moments of importance, or in the case of the poem above, moments that are fleeting.  It’s something that is easy to recognize yet tough to capture in exactly the right way.

The Monday before this post went live, the Sayville Modern Diner served its last meal.  The owner, a former classmate of mine, apparently decided to sell, leaving the diner to be turned into a sushi/Asian fusion restaurant.  While I hadn’t been there in nearly a decade, I can definitely say I will miss it, even though there are other diners in town and other diners on Long Island, meaning that the idea of the diner will continue even though this one has closed its doors.

Memories Can be Wafer-Thin

Necco Wafers

Image from Old Time Candy.

As I have gotten older, I have found that there are some things in my past that are actually better left there.  The quality of certain movies or television shows are the best examples of this, but it can apply to things like food.

From the time I was ten until I was sixteen, I spent a week every summer on Kezar Lake in the extremely small town of North Sutton, New Hampshire.  While it’s not too far away from the larger area of Lake Sunapee, North Sutton is basically comprised of the lake, a bed and breakfast, several homes, and a general store named the Vernondale Store.  When we weren’t swimming, riding our bikes around the lake, or being dragged to a glass factory by our parents, my sister and I as well as our friends would journey up to Vernondale with a couple of dollars to buy baseball cards, Mad Magazine, and candy.

Vernondale stocked a wide variety of candy, but one of our favorites was Necco Wafers.  Wrapped up like a roll of quarters, Necco Wafers are manufactured by the New England Candy Company, or Necco, and have been made sine 1847.  So it’s no wonder they were in such abundance in New Hampshire (another food item, Hires root beer, will definitely get its own post at some point as well).  I’d seen them outside of New Hampshire, but rarely south of the Mason-Dixon line.  There are eight flavors in a roll of Necco Wafers:  lemon (yellow), lime (green), orange (orange), clove (purple), cinnamon (white), wintergreen (pink), licorice (black), and chocolate (brown).

So I was recently at a convenience store and as I made my way from the soda cases to the front counter, I spotted Necco Wafers in the candy rack.  Usually, I would ignore such things, but I felt nostalgic and picked up a pack, then proceeded to write down my reaction to eating each of the eight flavors for the first time in twenty years.

Pink: Well, now I know why I’m able to tolerate the taste of Pepto Bismol.

White: Is this cinnamon?  I’m tasting a little heat here, and it kind of reminds me of when I was a kid and used to suck on cinnamon Certs until I torched the hell out of my tongue.

Black (which  looks more like dark blue): This is obviously licorice and I guess Necco was trying to get me ready for Jager shots later on in life.  It certainly has an aftertaste, so I was prepared for that effect of Jager.

Yellow: This was like alternately sucking on a wafer coated in lemon Pledge and like those old Archway lemon cookies that my dad used to buy in Waldbaum’s every weekend.

Green:  I’ve never eaten a fresh scent Clorox wipe, but I’m pretty sure this is what it tates like.

Brown:  This is obviously chocolate–in fact, they sell entire rolls of chocolate Necco Wafers–but at first it tastes like very little and the actual taste of chocolate sneaks up on you.

Orange: They did a good job here of replicating the flavor of a creamsicle.  In fact, this is probably the way creamsicles are eaten on The Jetsons.

Purple:  Did I just swallow potpourri?

They are, I guess, an acquired taste, and are truly made for a kid’s palate.  Still, my disgust at the flavor gauntlet I ran doesn’t take away from what are some fond memories of vacations gone by.

Pop Culture Affidavit, Episode 31 — The 1994 Grab Bag!

man reaching into grab bagWhat do Beverly Hills, 90210, the 1994 Baseball Strike, and Zima all have in common?  They’re all covered in the latest episode of Pop Culture Affidavit!  As part of my series of posts and episodes called 1994: The Most Important Year of the Nineties, I take a look at ten completely random things from 1994.  It’s movies, television, music, and current events all in one convenient episode!

You can download it via iTunes or listen here:  Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 31

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Bowling, Burgers, and Birthdays

Sayville Bowl, the bowling alley where I spent many a childhood birthday party.

I went to a kid’s birthday party a few weeks ago.  Normally, these are held at one of those huge playland places that have ball pits, inflatables, kiddie habitrails, and that have names like Bounce and Play or Adventure Central.  This party, however, was at the local bowling alley, and as I watched my son bowl (well, more like drop the ball in the lane and rush back to the chair so he could see the computer animation), I couldn’t help but think of the number of bowling birthday parties I attended as a kid.

My birthday parties–and most of my friends’ birthday parties–were pretty standard back in the 1980s.  We’d go to the birthday kid’s house, play a few games, eat pizza or hamburgers and hot dogs, drink way too much soda, and finish off with Carvel cake.  Then everyone would go home with goody bags that matched the decorations–cups, plates, paper tablecloths, etc–for Star Wars, He-Man, or whatever the party’s theme was.  Sometimes, the party would be a sleepover and we would put the parents through hell because hours of fun and hours of soda and candy equals no actual sleeping at the sleepover.  The parties were straightforward and always fun.

But bowling parties were a reality and we considered them some of the most memorable at the time, even if they don’t measure up to the standards of today’s epic theme parties and play apparatus.  Bowling at a birthday party in the early 1980s was some of the most fun you could have as a kid for a few hours, and Sayville Bowl was the typical AMF bowling center whose decor would remain so unchanged for years that when I was in high school and college it seemed like 1979-1983 were being preserved for posterity.  I don’t remember being a particularly good bowler–it was a lot of gutterballs and not enough Superman III–but I remember having an enormous amount of fun anyway.

Sigh … it’s never Superman III. (more…)