2,000 Years Of Fast Food

Pompeii — the Roman town that was buried by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. — continues to tell us some interesting stuff about the everyday lives of the ancient Romans. Excavations have uncovered apparent brothels, bars, homes — and now, a fast food stand, pictured above, that was operating on a busy street corner.

The fast food stand evidently was closed in a hurry as the volcano spewed the ash that buried the town. Archaeologists found the remains of that fateful day’s offerings in some of the pots embedded in the brightly colored food stand. The menu when the volcano blew included duck, pig, goat, snails, fish, fava beans, and a paella-like combo dish. And from that chicken that is painted on the front of the stand, I’m guessing that everybody’s favorite poultry was in one of those pots from time to time, too.

The excavation also uncovered a scenario that might be familiar to modern fast-food stand operators. The remains of a person who was lifting the lid on one of the pots of food were also uncovered — leading archaeologists to speculate that somebody fleeing the eruption couldn’t resist stopping to grab some free food when they should have kept running.

The ancient Romans seem like they were a lot like us, suggesting that the basic motivations of people — and the key concepts of point of purchase advertising that attracts them — haven’t changed that much over thousands of years. The brilliantly decorated food stand, obviously calculated to catch the eye of passersby, with the no doubt delectable smell of simmering food, looks like a modern food truck or an open-air food stand on the street of New York City. The pork, chicken, and fish that was served would be at home in any modern fast-food outlet, too. The only thing that appears to be missing from the Roman stand is a dirty water hot dog.


We’ve been good — really, we have — about complying with shelter in place requirements and staying indoors. But after a while you get tired of your own cooking, and the urges for a hot bacon cheeseburger, some fries, and a Butterfinger Blizzard just become too strong to resist. And boy — after weeks of no fast food, being DQ’d never tasted so good!

Moving up the cravings list are a bucket of KFC original recipe chicken, with mashed potatoes, gravy, macaroni and cheese, and biscuits, and a Skyline Chili three-way with two loaded cheese coneys.

Walking Past The Drive-Thru Line

I’m on the road again, staying in one of those generic hotels that is located in a busy commercial area, right next to a Chick-Fil-A and a Carl’s Jr. restaurant.  It’s one of those places where you walk out of the front door directly into a parking lot for a bunch of other businesses in a strip shopping area.

Let’s just say it’s not exactly a bucolic hotel setting.

But, the hotel location does have the advantage of requiring me to walk past the drive-thru lines of those two fast food emporiums on my way to and from meetings.  It always brings a smile to my face, because hearing the interactions between the customer in the car and the employee working the intercom as I walk by is pretty hilarious.  It makes me think that fast food drive-thru lanes are probably the worst communications systems known to man.  In fact, you could argue that they are consciously designed to avoid effective communication, rather than promote it.

Start with the generic message that you get, asking if you want to get the new menu item the place is featuring, which causes the customer to wonder whether they are talking to a real person or hearing a recording.  Then there’s a long pause, while the customer wonders whether they’re supposed to go ahead with their order or wait.  When the employee finally says go ahead, the flustered customer proceeds with the order, and there’s inevitably one or two questions from the employee that the customer doesn’t understand.

Squawk — “Do you want to Super-size that?”

Squawk — “What?”


Squawk — “No.”

Squawk — “Would you like to make that a meal?”

Sqauwk — “What?  No.”

And then there’s the awkward pause at the end, where the customer wonders whether the employee is done firing questions and the conversation is finally over and they can just drive ahead and get their food.

We’ve grown accustomed to this kind of stuff in the drive-thru line, but hearing it from a distance makes me wonder whether it wouldn’t be better to just stop, park, and talk directly to a real person when ordering food.


Our Own Urban (Fast) Food Desert

Yesterday we were having lunch at Pat & Gracie’s, a good spot just a few blocks east of the firm on Gay Street, talking about places to eat downtown, when we realized with a start that there are no longer any of the traditional fast food restaurants in the core downtown Columbus area.

fast-food-signsOnce, this was not the case.  There are was Arby’s just a block or so away, a White Castle, a Skyline Chili, and three Wendy’s.  Now, they’re all gone.  Unless I’m forgetting one, the only traditional fast food place even remotely in the downtown footprint is a McDonald’s located at the corner of Grant & Main, just south of Grant Hospital and the Main branch of the library, on the far fringes of the core downtown area.  The closest we’ve got to traditional fast food are a few Subway shops, including one that is across the street from the firm.  If you really want traditional fast food options in Columbus, Ohio, you need to head away from downtown and head to the ‘burbs and the highways.

Why have the fast food outlets moved out of the central downtown area?  The Red Sox Fan hypothesizes that, in the modern world, fast food restaurants have to have drive-thru service to be economically feasible, and the buildings and spaces in downtown Columbus just aren’t suited for that kind of design.  There’s no doubt, too, that rents in downtown Columbus are rising — that’s purportedly the reason for the lamentable closure of the Skyline Chili once located close to Broad and High, which did a bustling lunch trade — and high rents and fast food really don’t mix.  And it could be, too, that the downtown restaurant clientele, consisting of thousands of office workers like us and people staying at the downtown hotels, just don’t want to get typical fast food for their sit-down lunch and have found really terrific alternatives to traditional fast food throughout the downtown area.  Even if I need to eat at my desk to meet a deadline, there are lots of non-fast food options nearby where I can get something tasty and interesting on a carry-out basis.

It might be a chicken and egg scenario — which came first, the departure of the fast food outlets or the opening of lots of good, unique downtown eateries like those found on Gay Street? — but these days downtown Columbus, Ohio could be called an urban fast food desert.  I kind of like it that way.

Calorie-Counting At The Fast Food Shack

In Ohio, many fast food outlets post the calories of the items they offer.  As you roll up to the drive-through lane, you learn that the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder has X calories or the Dairy Queen bacon grillburger has Y calories.

The theory behind posting the calorie counts is to arm the consumer with information that will allow him or her to make good — or at least knowledgeable — decisions when it comes to ordering their food.  Yet you wonder:  do many fast food customers really make productive use of that information to change their eating habits?

burger-and-friesA recent study indicates that the calorie postings really don’t matter that much.  The study occurred in Philadelphia — which requires fast-food outlets to post the calorie, sodium, and fat content of their menu items — and it concluded that only 8 percent of fast food consumers use the information to make healthier eating choices.

Why?  Many of the people surveyed in the study claimed they didn’t see the nutritional information, and others had no context in which to assess the calorie counts, because they didn’t know what a healthy daily calorie intake would be.  Without knowing the context, they’re unaware whether that 760 calories for the cheeseburger of their choice is reasonable.  And, study authors note, the people ordering the food have to be “motivated to eat healthy.”

I think the last point is the only operative one.  I try to avoid fast food at all costs, due to taste, salt content, and calorie count concerns.  When I’ve been forced to order it, because I’m on the road rushing to get somewhere and don’t have the time to eat a normal meal, I try to order the most low-calorie, low-sodium offering that is available and that is readily consumed while driving a car.  The posted notices are perfectly adequate for that purpose, and you don’t need to know the USDA recommended daily calorie intake for your gender and age to know that lower calorie and sodium numbers are better.

The reality, however, is that most people who frequent fast-food restaurants don’t care about the calories.  They don’t go there to seek healthy eating options, they go because it’s quick and convenient and they crave the Big Mac, fries, and chocolate shake.  Survey recipients who say they don’t notice the signs are engaging in self-deception; they’re blaming others for their own choices.  Why bother forcing fast-food restaurants to post larger and more detailed signs, when the real culprits in the bad decisions category are the consumers themselves?

Garbage In

What are the costs of eating fast food?  Of course, one cost is the simple consumption of an unsatisfying, typically over-salted meal in either a car seat or a sticky and garish fast-food environment, rather than sitting down to a leisurely meal with family or friends.  That’s a given.  Then there’s the weight gain that tends to result from slamming down high-calorie processed foods.  But now research is indicating there’s even more to it.

chemicals-in-fast-food-wrappers-show-up-in-human-bloodThe Washington Post recently published an article about the curious association between fast-food consumption and phthalates.  (Yes, “phthalate” is a real word, and no, I have no idea how it is pronounced.)  The study tracked fast-food intake by 9,000 research subjects — fast-food was defined as any food served at a restaurant without waiters or waitresses — and took urine samples from them.  Analysis of the urine samples showed that people who had eaten any fast food in the last 24 hours had higher phthalate levels than people who had not eaten any fast food during that same period, and the larger your fast food intake, the higher your phthalate levels tended to be.

The results are troubling because phthalates are industrial chemicals used to soften plastic and vinyl and make it more flexible, and the Post reports that they have been associated with a number of adverse health effects.  Male infertility is one of them, and another is diabetes.  Why do people who consume fast food have higher phthalate levels?  Researchers don’t know for sure, but they suspect it is because the processed nature of fast food means that the food tends to touch a lot more machines, conveyor belts, plastic wrapping, other packaging materials, and other potential sources of phthalates before it gets onto your plate — I mean, your cheap cardboard box, paper bag or foam container.

But here’s the most troubling part of the Post story from my standpoint: the research revealed, and other government studies confirm, that one-third of the participants eat some form of fast food every day.  That includes one-third of kids and adolescents.

A diet that includes fast food every day.  Just the thought of it makes my mouth feel dry and briny from anticipation of the salt intake.  It’s no wonder that we’ve got some serious health and obesity problems in the U.S. of A.  We’ve got to start taking better care of ourselves, and it starts with eating better food.

Olden Arches

One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2016 is:  do not go to McDonald’s even once, for any reason.  I almost made that goal in 2015, but when I was on the road and had missed dinner and was driving at about 8 p.m. one night and McDonald’s was the only option, I gave in.  It was, of course, a mistake.

large_072309-mcdMcDonald’s was once one of the strongest brands in America — but then, so were Blockbuster and TWA.  I remember going to get McDonald’s cheeseburgers, fries, and a shake when I was a kid, 50 years ago, and it was good food.  Those days are long gone, however.  Now McDonald’s food is, in my opinion, virtually inedible.  My last visit, which sealed my resolve to remain happily McDonald’s-free, involved getting a cheeseburger that tasted like it had been sunning itself under the heat lamps for approximately a decade or so.  It was hard and looked and tasted like shoe leather, and the “melted” cheese had hardened to a sharp-edged, rubber-like consistency.  It was so disgusting I couldn’t eat it, and I was starving.

What happened to McDonald’s?  Who knows for sure, but at some point someone must have decided to cut corners, save a few bucks here and there, think that more salt equates to better flavor, and count on old habits and screaming kids insisting on Happy Meals to get the customers to keep visiting the Golden Arches.  But Americans are no more committed to McDonald’s than we are to, say, making calls on land line phones.  We are interested in looking for the next best thing and getting value — and right now we aren’t getting it from McD’s.

I’m not alone in this.  McDonald’s sales have been falling for years, and its new management keeps promising changes that will resurrect the brand. I don’t think they can do it, because McDonald’s operators aren’t innovators or great competitors, they’re used to succeeding just by virtue of being the big dog with a stop on every corner.  Former 800-pound gorillas don’t do well as suddenly underfed chimps.

Speaking of underfed, did I mention that I’m resolved to never eat at McDonald’s in 2016?

Not In Kansas Anymore

 After arriving in Denver and enduring the Avis experience yesterday, I stopped at a Wendy’s for a quick burger — and there, across the road next to the fast food, was a “recreational marijuana” shop called Euflora.  It’s the first one we’ve seen on our trip, so I had to snap a picture as we drove by.

I imagine Colorado’s fast food outlets aren’t exactly unhappy to have one of their restaurants located next to a place where customers know they will soon have the munchies.  I wonder if this Wendy’s store’s sales have increased since Euflora opened next door?

Euflora had the same bright signage and clean outward appearance of other commercial establishments in the suburban sprawl.  At first we thought the shop had three drive-thru windows, which made us laugh — but then we realized the building was obviously a converted bank branch.
From a bank to a legal pot shop.  The world is changing before our eyes.

I Solemnly Swear Never To Go To McDonald’s For Food Again

Today I made a colossal blunder — one of those extraordinary, life-altering misjudgments that can affect the course of human events for generations.

I was driving from work to visit my mother.  It was about 12:30, and I hadn’t eaten anything all day.  The route to Mom’s place takes me past a McDonald’s.  So, even though I normally don’t eat at McDs, I thought I would go through the drive-thru, get a sandwich, and continue on my way.

IMG_3850That was the first mistake.

At the drive-thru, they were advertising the new Quarter Pounder “flavors.”  I decide to take a shot at the Quarter Pounder with bacon and cheese.  I carefully instructed the order taker that I did not want pickles.  Then I drove on. That was the second mistake.

I paid the pleasant young lady at the money-taking window, then pulled up to get my order.  The pleasant young lady at the food delivery window regretfully advised me that my sandwich wouldn’t be ready right away, so I should pull up into a waiting spot to get out of the lane of traffic while my sandwich was prepared.  I did so, reasoning that this meant that my sandwich was more likely to be served piping hot and properly cooked.  That was the third mistake.

I think I waited in the special parking space for about five minutes.  I can’t say for sure, because your sense of time becomes horribly warped as you wait in a special parking spot for “fast food.”  It could just as easily have been a century.  I think I had to clip my fingernails twice as I waited, to prevent them from growing into claws.  Finally a pleasant young lady came out and handed me a bag with a cheery smile, and I drove off.

As I looked in the bag, I saw that they gave me french fries, which I didn’t order.  In addition, the bacon cheese Quarter Pounder included pickles, even though the order slip taped to the box said, explicitly, “no pickles.”  I shrugged, removed the pickles, and bit into the sandwich.  That was the final mistake.

The cold cheese that had once been melted and now was welded to the inside bottom of the box which should have been a clue.  The sandwich was, at best, lukewarm.  It clearly had been sitting for some time before it was brought to my car.  The beef — well, let’s call it animal product to be on the safe side — had been cooked to the consistency of shoe leather and was absolutely, completely tasteless.  The “bacon” could not be cut by human teeth.  It was, without question, the worst sandwich I’ve ever tried to eat.  I was hungry, but I just couldn’t finish it.  I ended up kicking myself for going to McDonald’s in the first place.  What did I expect?  The food there just sucks, and its only commendable quality is that it is fast.  If you have to wait for it, as I did, it has no redeeming characteristics whatsoever.

It’s taken me 56 years, but after today I think I’ve learned my lesson.  I hereby solemnly swear that I will never go to a McDonald’s for food again.  Golden Arches, you’ve had your chance, and you’ve blown it.  Never again!

Studying The Obvious

Every week we see reports on academic studies of some topic or another.  Often the study seems like a pointless exercise in which the eggheads have “studied” something that is glaringly obvious as a matter of common experience and then produced a report explaining that what everybody already knows is, in fact, true.

So it is with a recently announced study by a team from the University of North Carolina that concluded that “super size” portions and increased snacking have contributed to the growing obesity epidemic in the United States.  The study concludes that efforts to reduce obesity should focus on the number of snacks and meals that people consume and the size of their portions. 

Huh!  So increased eating has contributed to increased obesity, eh?  The study therefore conclusively refutes the commonly accepted alternative hypotheses that increased obesity was caused by evil spells cast by invisible wizards or by changes in the composition of the air!  Who knows how much the study cost — or whether it was funded with some kind of federal grant — but we can all conclude that it was money well spent.

Next, teams of academics will conduct detailed studies of the following topics:  (1)  Whether the presence of shrieking children on an airplane increases the stress levels found in other passengers; (2) whether there is any causal relationship between bean consumption and gas production in the lower gastro-intestinal tract; (3) whether ongoing infidelity by spouses has any impact on the durability of marriages; and (4) whether political contributions by special-interest groups have any apparent effect on the voting patterns of politicians receiving those contributions.

The Right Way To Eat Skyline Chili

Today I had a tremendous hankering for Skyline Chili.  I drove over to the nearest Skyline and got a regular three-way, two cheese coneys with everything, a large water, and extra crackers.  As I prepared to dig in I realized that not everyone may understand that there is one, and only one, correct way to eat Skyline Chili.  As a public service, I offer a how-to manual on this essential life lesson.

For those who don’t live in the footprint of Skyline Chili, I pity you.  In any event, please understand that a “three-way” is a plate with three ingredients — spaghetti, a sweet, dark sauce, and a heaping mound of thinly grated, brightly colored cheddar cheese.  (A four-way would add either onions or beans, and a five-way would add both.)

The first step in the consumption process is proper preparation of the chili plate.  Begin by adding a liberal amount of the hot sauce that is kept in a squeeze bottle on every table in every Skyline restaurants.  You should apply strips of the hot sauce, both vertically and horizontally, on top of the grated cheese, so that you end up with a kind of checkerboard pattern that will result in uniform hot sauce distribution.

Then, take the the oyster crackers and carefully place them on the top of the grated cheese, creating an oyster cracker blanket.  This timeless technique ensures that the lightly salted oyster crackers are properly spread across the chili.

Now you are ready to dig in — and this is where many novices fail miserably.  Recalling their days eating Chef Boyardee, they try to twirl the spaghetti, chili, and cheese on their fork.  This is a pathetic blunder that is deeply embarrassing to every experienced Skyline patron in the restaurant.  They realize that the only correct way to eat Skyline chili is by using the edge of the fork to cut down vertically through the cracker-cheese-chili-spaghetti mass, so that every bite is a small yet perfectly proportioned combination of spaghetti, sauce, cheese, and a cracker or two.  This is why proper pre-consumption cracker placement is crucial.

I prefer to eat my Skyline chili right to left, perhaps because I am right-handed.  I suppose you also could eat a plate moving left to right.  However, the key point is that you start at one end of the oval-shaped plate and move from side to side.  This approach maintains the structural integrity of the food mass.  If you begin in the middle of the plate, the risk is far greater that you will experience the dreaded cheese-cracker cave-in, and once that occurs you can never fully recover the initial flawless proportioning.

As you consume this tasty concoction, be alert to the need for cracker conservation, and also to the hazards of cheese hogging.  At some point, the cheese and sauce will have melded into a kind of melted cheesy shield that will skid over the top of the pasta.  If you facilitate the skidding process, you may end up at the edge of the plate with no cheese — which is another appalling faux pas.  Similarly, you want to have a cracker or two at the end of the plate to soak up those last few drops of cheesy/saucy goodness.  Don’t be caught shorthanded!

As you eat your three-way, you also should consume your coneys.  Any cheese drop-off from the coney — and there inevitably will be some — should be added to the remaining cheese pile on your three-way plate.  This necessarily means that you will consume the last of your cheese coneys before you finish your last bite of the three-way.

After you have savored your last swallow of three-way and gone up to the cash register to pay for your fare, remember that the meal is not yet over.  A crisp, refreshing mini York Peppermint Patty is as indispensable to the meal — and I do mean indispensable — as the extra bowl of crackers.

Correctly prepared and consumed, a three-way meal at Skyline Chili ranks among the finest fast food options the nation’s heartland has to offer.  But, as with everything else, there is a right way to do it and countless wrong ways.  Let’s get it right, America!

Fish Fillet Sandwiches At Wendy’s

Lately I’ve been seeing TV commercials for fish fillet sandwiches at Wendy’s.  I checked the menu selections at Wendy’s corporate website and, sure enough, select Wendy’s locations are now selling a “premium fish fillet sandwich” of “hand-cut fillets of North Pacific cod in a crisp Panko crumb breading.”  I don’t know what “Panko” is, but I’ve never liked fillet o’ fish sandwiches, and I’m not about to start now — Panko crumb coating or no.  To me, what is notable about this fishy development is that it shows just how far Wendy’s has strayed from its original business model.

The original Wendy’s had a simple premise and simple menu.  (I became very familiar with it because my high school girlfriend worked at one of the first few Wendy’s restaurants, on King Avenue in Grandview, and I often went to pick her up from work.)  In those days, it was advertised as “Wendy’s Old-Fashioned Hambergers” and featured old-fashioned lettering and tables covered in turn of the century ads.  It sold tasty, fresh, square-shaped burgers — “singles,” “doubles,” and “triples,” depending on how many patties you wanted on your burger — chili, fries, soft drinks, and a dessert concoction called a “Frosty.”   The business model, as I understand it, was that the unused burger meat from one day was put into the chili the next day.

With the introduction of the fish fillet sandwich and the rest of Wendy’s now extensive menu, the business has come very far from its early days, or even the early ’80s, when Clara Peller famously asked “Where’s the beef?” in Wendy’s TV ads.  It just shows how fast food places seem to move, relentlessly and inexorably, to the yellow stripe in the middle of the road, offering the same products and the same kinds of food.  Pretty much every fast-food place now sells meat on a bun or in “wraps.”  Is there really much difference any more between the menus at Wendy’s and McDonald’s, or for that matter the menus at Taco Bell and KFC?