This article was published in the New Zealand Herald travel section.
In which I argue that America’s fast food is as culturally and historically significant as any other global cuisine you can think of. Hear me out.
It's close to 1am on a weeknight and I am being refused service at a White Castle burger restaurant somewhere in St. Louis.
The reason I'm being refused service is that, according to the vexingly polite window attendant, I need to be in a vee-hick-all to use the drive-through, and I'm just standing there. The clue is in the name, she says. There is at least one car waiting behind me.
I explain to the attendant that I have travelled all the way from Australia with the express intention of sampling a White Castle burger. This is a lie. I have indeed travelled all the way from Australia, but not specifically for White Castle. That would be daft. I also inform her that I am a victim of the sterling beer menu at the Broadway Oyster Bar just across the street, and that refusing to feed a drunk tourist is morally reprehensible.
The troublingly kind attendant doesn't agree with me on this, but she is impressed that I have travelled all this way and eventually agrees to give me a burger, despite me lacking the essential vee-hick-all.
I first fell in love with the idea of White Castle (which is very different from falling in love with White Castle itself) – a fast-food burger chain in the US – when Harold and Kumar got the munchies in the 2004 stoner-comedy hit Harold & Kumar Get the Munchies.
The plot of this spellbinding piece of dramatic fiction goes thus: two guys get high, then decide to get burgers from White Castle. Of course, things don't quite go to plan, and a devilishly captivating adventure ensues.
This White Castle in St Louis is the first I've seen in real life and so, inspired by Harold and Kumar's great big adventure, I feel compelled to sample the food.
In fact, the story has been much the same for my prior visits to the US.
I arrive excited to see and sample the big sights, sounds and seasonings, but usually wind up most overwhelmed by all the little things that have been burned into my brain from years spent watching American films and TV shows – not least the myriad fast-food outlets.
From Arby's to Jimmy John's, Cinnabon to Sonic, In-N-Out Burger to McDonalds – this is where fast food was born, grew up, aged disgracefully, and refused to die.
As it happens, White Castle – with their first store built in Wichita, Kansas, in 1916 – is credited with being the first fast-food chain in the US. It’s not too much of a stretch to argue that to not dine at America's fast food restaurants is to deny yourself an essential part of this country's history.
Ever the history buff, a week before my first White Castle experience I was in Kansas City, where I eagerly demolished both a mid-afternoon Chick-Fil-A meal and a very late-night Taco Bell chicken nugget quesadilla (I know) with some local friends.
The novelty of taking the tourist to these very run-of-the-mill food establishments was not lost on them. In fact, I believe they even took pride in it. And don't get me wrong, I'm not food-illiterate or aggressively unhealthy – I love "good" food as much as the next traveller. Just last week, I was at the Anthony Bourdain-approved Joe's BBQ, neck-deep in some of the best burnt ends and smoked beef brisket Kansas City has to offer. And earlier today, I fell hopelessly in love with "the best ribs in America" at Pappy's Smokehouse on the other side of town. I also like salad.
My burger from White Castle, like my chicken nugget quesadilla from Taco Bell, was exactly what I expected: divinely average. But the fact that it isn’t really very good, or good for you, is besides the point. It’s a cultural touchstone, one that takes you straight to the heart of mainstream America. Perhaps that's why, according to reports, America's consumption of commercial fast food hasn't slowed in more than 15 years and a whopping 44 per cent of the country still eats it at least once a week.
These stats in mind, there's a case to be made that sampling America's famous fast food is akin to chowing down on street side tamales in Mexico City, fresh croissants in Paris, or hot pho in Hanoi. You can't turn your nose up at it just because it might not be to your tastes – it's the food of the people. At the very least, it's the food of 44 per cent of the people, once a week.