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
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.
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
"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,
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.
"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.
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