Travel Classics home Travel Stories Library Travel Classics Writers Conferences Travel Classics Media Newsletter Contact Travel Classics

In Fast Food We Do Trust
by Fred Ferretti

The appetite Americans have for their fast foods — historical, regional, and ethnic — is intense and endless. We seek them out. We taste. We opine. We proselytize. You must stop, you will be advised, at this diner, or that, along that truck route in New Jersey because it surely serves the very best bacon and eggs and home fries. And the coffee is the finest in the East. Take your pick of cheese steaks (that peculiarity of Philadelphia), from either a counter shop close to the Italian Market or downtown in that fancy place with the black tiled walls. Rather not? Wade into the city's Reading Terminal Market for a hot Pennsylvania Dutch pretzel squirted with yellow mustard.

A fired soft-shelled crab on a roll in a small place, the name of which I do not recall, in Crisfield, Maryland. Bits of cured ham pressed into buttered biscuits out in Kentucky horse country and bowls of she-crab soup in Charleston. Cracked cold Dungeness crab sitting out in the sun near Half Moon Bay in California and a fast Cobb salad at The Grill in Beverly Hills. Soft ice cream slithering into a cone and hot dogs with sauerkraut, a two-minute lunch under a street umbrella. Tacos and burritos; falafel and gyro sandwiches; pita for everyone; and French fries, with all manner of condiments, in paper cones from behind the counter of Benita's Frites of long memory in the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica.

Never do we have enough.

Consider barbecue. Which is best: whole hog, half pig, or pork shoulder? Pork ribs or beef? "Pulled," shredded, or chopped meat? Cooked over an open pit or closed? "Wet" ribs cooked after marinating in a bath of sauce, or "dry" as they do them in Memphis, rubbed first with paprika and cayenne? Which sauce; the tomato and vinegar concoctions of Kansas City, the Midwest, and much of the South? Not for all. Some swear by the vinegar and pepper baths of eastern North Carolina, or the thickened sweet toppings of Georgia and Florida, or the mustard-based versions of South Carolina. Sauce on the meat or on the side? The wood: oak? Sure. Mesquite? Okay, but it burns too quickly for great barbecue, which, you'll be told, must be slowly cooked. Hickory? Now that is what barbecue is all about: slow-burning hickory, often moistened to create more smoke and, ultimately, more flavor.

I have eaten fine, tender, juice-running pork ribs covered with an orange goo of a sauce from the open pit of the Reverend Noble Harris's All Peoples Bar-B-Que in Fort Lauderdale; and one afternoon I shared with Dean Fearing — that cowboy cook at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, who is perhaps the finest chef in Texas — crusted beef brisket, chopped, mounded on soft rolls, and covered with a tart tomato and vinegar barbecue sauce, at Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse out on the road that runs to the Dallas airport.

Which brings me to Kansas City.

Everything, or just about everything, is up to date in Kansas City. Its monumental neoclassical gallery, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, houses not only an exquisite collection of exceedingly rare Chinese tomb and temple sculpture and ink on silk scrolls, but also a profusion of Thomas Hart Benton paintings. A few miles east of the city's resurgent downtown, in Independence, is the Harry S. Truman Library, a simple, unadorned outpost that seems to me to fit quite well the uncomplicated memory most of us have of Mr. Truman.

Kansas City has Hallmark Cards and the Hallmark-owned Crown Center complex of restaurants, malls, markets, shops, public galleries, and recreational facilities that together comprise a concept of America as the greeting cards would have it. But it has a marvelous, winding stretch of green suburbanity, Mission Hills, as well, the Country Club Plaza, an historic Spanish-style collection of downtown boutiques that Kansas City claims was America's first shopping center. It has the baseball Royals and the football Chiefs, and though the Kansas City stockyard stead no longer exists the city does bake fine, heavy, sticky sweet rolls called T. J. Cinnamons: "donuts" at Lamar's; and what may be the best apple pie extant at The Prospect of Westport. Mostly, however, Kansas City has barbecue, the piquant legacy of such pit tenders as Charlie Bryant, Otis Boyd, George Gates, and Sherman Thompson, about whom few outsiders are aware, something that bothers Kansas City not at all.

So I traveled to Kansas City recently to taste what is said to be the best, surely the equivalent of a curative shrine, the laminated tables and red leatherette of Arthur Bryant's Bar-B-Que.

We came in under the big red sign and stood in line, and as we came up to the window in the front of the barbecue pit I asked if we could have a tasting of the restaurant's menu. "No problem," said a fellow who asked that we hold on as he put one slice of white bread beneath and another atop what I guessed was about three quarters of a pound of barbecued beef, packed in about a pound of French fried potatoes, rolled it all in butcher's paper, and called, "Next! Help you?" Our tasting consisted of sweet sausages, beef ribs, slices of ham and barbecued beef, a small pot of baked beans in a sweet sauce with chunks of meat, and a hillock of fried potatoes.

Next stop was Gates & Son's Bar-B-Q which looks like one of those drive-in fast-food outlets but which is, I was assured, right up there with Bryant's. We tasted more beef ribs, thick slices of ham, sliced beef, beans, French fried potatoes, and ribs of mutton. "You still breathing?" asked my traveling companion, a fellow named Malachy, we had picked up along the way, a happenstance of barbecue.

And when I nodded yes off we sped to the Rosedale Barbecue, a flat, brick roadhouse, for big, heavy beef ribs, for sliced beef and ham, and for beans, coleslaw, and potato salad.

We rested.

There was later a visit to Hayward's Pit Bar-B-Que for smoky-tasting ribs and sausages, eaten under the restaurant's matched pair of mounted bull horns, and a stop in at Rich Davis's K. C. Masterpiece for beef and pork ribs smoked chicken, sausages, ham, baked beans, chili, "dirty rice," fried onions, and corn on the cob, coated with batter and fried.

"We only use pecan wood," says Rich.

"Okay," I said, not at all in the mood to argue the relative merits of hickory and pecan.

Which was better, best? You'll not hear that from me, for I wish to be asked back to KC sometime soon.

How to define the New York City deli, that unique Jewish gastronomic institution so dear to the collective heartburn of New Yorkers? Much effort has been expended in attempts to duplicate elsewhere in America the experience of the deli, but all have failed. Oh, they have tried mightily, from stop to stop across the land and in such alien outposts as Montreal and London's East End, but salt beef on a roll is pallid when compared to the real corned beef or pastrami, lean, on rye.

How can one communicate the aura of garlic that defines those small cucumbers cured as "new pickles;" the pleasure of a plate of that barley, mushroom, and pasta mix known as kasha varnishkas; or of a couple of latkes; or of cholent, that stew referred to aptly as "Lower East Side cassoulet" at one of New York's temples of heavy eating, the 2nd Ave. Deli. Nor can there be sandwiches to match the sandwiches in the city's Carnegie Deli, among them "Fifty Ways to Love Your Liver," "Nosh, Nosh, Nanette," and "Beef Encounter," sandwiches that seem not so much ingredients simply placed between slices of bread as constructions built with the help of a crane, so high do they rise.

These very sandwiches are what a half dozen Parisians came for, according to Irwin, who says he was told by his friend Herbie, a "known cholesterol addict," that he met the Frenchmen one afternoon while at the Carnegie Deli for his pastrami fix. Herbie, who travels often to Geneva and speaks passable French, was awaiting his sandwich when the French group came in and were hustled to his long table, seated, and given menus. This uncharted, for them, print included such mysterious entries as "Milton's Boiled Beef Flanken," and "Julienne Child" salad, and "Salmon Enchanted Evening."

They looked, Herbie said, puzzled, lost.

"Excusez-moi, pourrais-je vous aider?" he said, asking if he could help.

"Il nous a seulement donné les menus." Answered one of the group. He allowed how neither he nor any of his friends could understand the menu. "Nous ne comprenons pas."

Herbie smiled. "Je vais vous aider," he said. He offered his help in creating a tasting meal.

"Oui, s'il vous plait," the Frenchman said.

Herbie called over a waiter. He ordered four sandwiches for the six men — pastrami, corned beef, tongue, and chopped liver — with pickles, pickled tomatoes, coleslaw, and potato salad. "And cut the sandwiches into quarters."

"Quarters?" the waiter asked. "You kidding?"

"So they can pass them around and try everything."

Herbie explained to the group that he had ordered pastrami, boef bouilli, langue, and pâté de foie, which would be served with cornichons, tomates marinées, julienne de choux, and salade de pommes de terre, and washed down with boissons gazeuses la créme, cream sodas and boissons gazeuses de cerises noires, black cherry sodas.

The food was brought. "Merci," said Herbie to the waiter, who replied, "Mercy yourself."

The Frenchmen ate everything with enjoyment, then listened as Herbie ordered their sweets, blintzes with pot cheese, which he told them were crêpes farcies au fromage blanc.

"Bon?" asked Herbie.

"Oui, Bon," the man from Paris said. "Unique á New York?"

"Oui," said Herbie. "Definitely oui."

When will they permit us to preserve something, however small, a minor tradition perhaps, a custom that irks no one? Must everything change?

I pose these questions because day after day the purveyors of novelty whittle away at the familiar. This month, for example, in the midst of the baseball season, we learn not only that the simple hot dog on a bun has become as dear as pâté de foie gras with toasted slices of brioche but also that at ballpark stadia across the country, from Anaheim to Shea, they are vending tacos, tortilla chips, sushi, quiches, and burritos; sushi and pasta salads; yogurt and knishes, as well as triple-figure picnic baskets, along with those peanuts and Cracker Jacks I remember as afternoon treasures at Yankee Stadium.

Soda pop? Oh they have it, if you wish, but wouldn't you prefer Chardonnay by the glass, flavored sparkling mineral water, or even frozen Margaritas?

What's a fan to do?

Every day, it is estimated, Americans at home or on holiday, eat forty-seven million hot dogs, and, because my son accounts for a few of these, I thought I would ask him about two new developments in the hot dog universe. Very soon, I explained, he could have hot dogs at will because they would be irradiated, preserved and sterilized, rid of bacteria, and able to keep in the cupboard for years and years.

"How can they do that?" my son asked.

"They bombard them with gamma rays, electron beams, and X rays," I said.

"Hot dogs!?"

"And they'll be ready to eat whenever you want them."

"I'll bet they'll light up too," said my son, who is afflicted with the skepticism of the young.

Then I mentioned that a new one hundred-calorie hot dog, another of those foods of the moment, a low-salt, low-fat, no sugar item, developed after two years of intensive research and testing, would soon be on the market. The makers did not, however, test their product on my son, because he said he hadn't heard about the new one hundred-calorie hot dog.

"Will it taste like the good kind?" he asked.

"Which are the good kind?"

"The ones on the street, under the umbrellas. The boiled ones. Will they be as red?" he asked.

"I assume so," I replied. "They didn't say anything about less coloring or nitrites or things like that."

"Will they taste the same?"

"Maybe, but I expect not. They will have less fat and less salt."

"Then why are they making them?"

"They say they will be healthier for us."

"Weren't the other ones healthy?"

"I guess so, but these will be even healthier."

"I'll pass," said my son.


copyright 2000-2017; all rights reserved.
web development: Dia Misuraca