In Defense of Fast Food

You can tell that you eat a lot of fast food when you know exactly what your total will be, with tax, before the scratchy drive-through speaker announces it. I'm what they call in the industry a "heavy user"—that's actually a real term for repeat customers—and it's not because I'm fat. To me, the words "Do you want a combo?" mean "Good morning." But please, don't judge me. I have three really good reasons for my devotion to the "food" at restaurants with signs 40 feet in the air: it's cheap, it's filling, and it tastes good.

But one bestseller after another warns us that if we keep eating all of this plentiful, delicious, cheap food, something really bad is going to happen. Really bad. Recent documentaries like Food, Inc.make all those patriotic farmers who provide us with this bounty look like Bernie Madoff in overalls.

Fast food has become the whipping boy of politicians—and editorial writers, too—on a par with cigarettes and lawyers as a menace to society. It turns out that some of that state-imposed nannying might not be having its desired effect. A study of fast-food consumers in low-income neighborhoods in New York City showed that they actually ate slightly more calories after it became mandatory for restaurants to post nutritional information. Maybe the postings reminded the customers of a tasty item they'd forgotten about, or maybe they just didn't care. Maybe they were relieved to find that the food actually had fewer calories than they imagined, so they ordered even more.

Well, rest easy, fellow heavies. You won't find any of that scolding here. I come to praise Ronald, not to bury him. In fact, I think it would be great if some brilliant entrepreneur would open a single fast-food restaurant that brought in the best items from all of my national-chain favorites so I wouldn't have to drive around so much. I would even volunteer to design the menu and share it free with the world in exchange for a lifetime of supersize-me privileges.

My menu's guaranteed to make your mouth water and your blood slow to a thick, rich, McFlurry-like consistency. If I were on death row I'd ask for this as my last meal, and all of my fellow death-row buddies would be so jealous when the smell wafted down the cell block that they would order the same thing, too. It's that good.

Our feast begins with the soup du jour, an innocent amuse-bouche served steaming in a big yellow paper cup. Of course, I'm talking about Wendy's chili with cheese. We'll pair that with a Biggie Coke. No ice, please; it leaves less room for Coke. Yes, I know Wendy's got all PC a few years ago and dropped the "Biggie" name, but that doesn't mean I have to. I like writing it and I like saying it: Biggie. Biggie. Biggie. No matter what they call it, they sure didn't shrink their cups when they dropped the name. In fact, the current large now weighs in at 40 ounces and is capable of giving you a rotator-cuff injury when you lift it to put the straw into your mouth. The cup holds nearly three and a half cans of soda … including the cans.

I've paired these two hors d'oeuvres because one must gradually prepare one's palate for the larger sugar-salt showdown to come. Some experimentalists might couple a clear soda—say, Sprite—with chili, but I'm not a philistine. For me, red meat always calls for brown soda. Make sure you get six crackers, at least, to sop up the delicate frothy layer of grease sitting atop all that ground-beef-and-bean goodness. Unfasten your seat belts: we're at 891 calories, and we haven't even started our entree yet. (Nitpickers, note: all the calorie counts are calculated using figures from the restaurants' own Web sites.)

My ideal main course consists of three dishes: large McDonald's fries (of course) enjoyed with a Burger King Whopper with cheese, and a tub of KFC mashed potatoes. Gourmands might tsk that I've paired two starches, and both potatoes, no less, with the Whopper. But what is life if one is not open to new culinary experiences? If there's one thing I've learned in my years of dining close to off-ramps, it's that we must be willing to stretch our imaginations and experience all that life has to offer. McDonald's fries are, were, and will forever be the best, especially when they've been sitting for a while, not fresh out of the deep fryer. They go a bit limp and the grease coagulates just enough to coat your tongue with that carnauba waxiness. Mmmm: America.

My next selection is sure to be controversial among the people who argue about perfect fast-food meals online (there are surprisingly more of them than you’d think), but I'm just going to come out and say it: Burger King has easily the best burgers of any of the major chains. If you're really hungry, and especially if you're really hungry and drunk, the flame-broiled Whopper with cheese is close to a religious experience, especially if you're not religious. I am not damning this meat masterpiece with faint praise. It's even good if you're not that hungry or drunk. It's big, it's full of meat and cheese and probably some vegetables before you scrape those off. An hour later your mouth tastes like an oniony ashtray and you get really sleepy and kind of sad and nauseated, but that's a small price to pay for those three minutes of unbridled joy. The only flaw with the Whopper is it's hard to eat when you're driving and talking on your cell phone.

The rest are also-rans. The Big Mac is a pale shadow of its former self, with its seemingly ever-shrinking Necco-wafer-size meat pucks fresh out of the steamer and slathered in Thousand Island dressing and lettuce confetti. And how hard is it to get those things in the center of the bun? Wendy's tries to counter the King's superiority by desperately making its patties sort of square, which is just weird and possibly un-American. News flash: the bun is round.

Did you know that according to the film Food, Inc., the typical fast-food burger can consist of bits of a thousand different cows? That gave me pause the other day when I was driving up to the McDonald's drive-through. I stopped the car and stared at the glowing menu and thought to myself, "This is going to taste a thousand times more delicious than the burgers my mom used to make from just one cow."

Speaking of tasting great, let's spend a moment dwelling on the magnificent KFC mashed potatoes, which are definitely not made with a single potato, or even perhaps potatoes. Don't you love it when you open up that little KFC container and see that slightly hardening gravy puddle on top? You lick the plastic lid, and then take strategic bites with your spork so you have just enough gravy to go with each gluey bite. It's the little things, people … the little things. At my best-of-the-best restaurant, you'd be able to dip your McDonald's fries in that gravy, too, as long as it's not more than 10 minutes old. Be honest with yourself: when my restaurant opens, you're going, at least once.

We're at 2,331 total calories now—as Jim Gaffigan might say, “My back hurts!”—and you haven't even experienced the piéce de rèsistance: dessert. I really just contrived this whole column as an excuse to write about it. It's called the Caramel Apple Empanada, and if you haven't had one, please stop reading and drive immediately to Taco Bell. I will wait for you here, and you can bring me back one. Since the first McDonald's started us all down this glorious road in 1940, there has never been a more delicious item for sale in a fast-food establishment. Or a slow-food one, for that matter. I usually get two. McDonald's pies haven't been the same since they started baking them instead of dropping them in the deep fryer where they belong. No wonder they have to sell them two for a dollar. Given a choice, who would buy a baked pie instead of a fried one? When I do cave, I usually throw the second one out in disgust. I miss those little grease flavor bubbles on the old Mickey D's pies.

But the Caramel Apple Empanada knows what it is: simple, not pretentious, yet succulent. It has a good nose; it first teases you with its fruity apple bouquet, and then the caramel aroma marches up to the front and takes its rightful place. You take that first warm bit into your mouth, and bite through the hot fried crust, and the warm, gooey caramel mixes with the soft, hot apples. I never thought something like this would happen to me.

On that sublime note, we end our meal. Congratulations, you've just consumed 2,951 calories and 122 grams of fat. I hope you enjoyed it. Who am I kidding? I know you enjoyed it. In a couple of hours, a state trooper will find you blacked out by the side of the interstate. Make sure there's at least one empanada left in the bag. It will get you out of the ticket.