Some years ago, I interviewed a contestant on The Biggest Loser, who told me that fast food is an unavoidable part of American life. I didn’t argue that assertion, but later on I inventoried my own diet and realized that I’d somehow stayed off the rocks on this one, nobly resisting the siren call of the Big Mac, not to mention Taco Bell and Arby’s. How have I avoided those and the attendant deleterious bodily effects? The same way I’ve avoided getting trampled by yaks in Mongolia or dying in a hang-glider accident, I guess.
However, I recently began to wonder: Am I missing something? Is my lifetime avoidance of the Big Mac not a badge of pride but a sign of insularity? What if I try Taco Bell on my deathbed and realize that it’s the best thing ever? And what if I try Arby’s? I mean, somebody should. It’s time we learned what goes on in those buildings.
I feel lecherous and depraved as I pull into Arby’s, like I’m approaching a drive-through peep show in a retirement community. While I’m creeping toward the menu board, an ambulance arrives. I figure it must be here to cart off a victim, but get this—the EMTs actually head inside to get lunch. Those people really are brave.
A few minutes later, armed with a classic roast beef sandwich and packets of the mysterious Arby’s sauce, I head to McDonald’s and order a Big Mac. Long ago, when I’d mentioned to my editor, Michael, that I’d never had a Big Mac, he replied, “What are you, a Communist?” No, I merely require all components of a sandwich to be thoroughly identified. And the Big Mac, with its “special sauce,” fails that test. If it were really special, you’d tell me what it is.
Finally, I drive across the street to Taco Bell, my face a mask of shame and regret. In this case, I’d asked friends on social media what I should get. The answers included “Nine rolls of toilet paper,” “Pepto-Bismol” and “the hell out of there.” More earnest respondents recommended the simple beef taco and the outrageous Doritos Locos variation thereof. But I’m not even sure I can get those items individually, because Taco Bell doesn’t seem to want to sell you one of anything. The outdoor menu recalls a collage designed by an eighth-grade girl using two dozen issues of Tiger Beat. It’s just a riot of color and images and mutated bits of Spanish smashed together to create nonsense words. It almost seems like Taco Bell comes up with the names first and foods second—like someone at HQ doodles “Macho Banachos” on a whiteboard and two months later we’ve got banana-flavored tortilla chips served in a carton shaped like a mustache.
I go off-menu and order my two lone tacos, a move that is quietly accommodated for $2.97 (they must sense a pro out there, a man of discriminating tastes whose midday fiesta happens on his own terms). I then pull into the parking lot of a Dick’s Sporting Goods, because what am I going to do, go home and break out a white tablecloth? No. This is food to be consumed furtively in a parking lot while wondering where it all went wrong.
I start with Arby’s since I figure I should try that while I’m most hungry and still alive. Have you ever had Kelly’s Roast Beef? Imagine that, but it’s been floating in outer space for 2,000 years. The bun is OK, but the meat—dry yet somehow greasy—is like gnawing on the mummified remains of Jeremy Bentham. And Arby’s sauce is like ketchup that lives under a bridge and steals FedEx packages off people’s front steps. I choke down one bite. Now I’ve had Arby’s.
On to the Big Mac. It’s just like eating two cheeseburgers at once, with the exception of that sauce, which still makes me wary. The whole thing is balmy and soft, like chewing on a warm Nerf football that’s been left out in the rain. I eat half of it. Now I’ve had a Big Mac.
I save Taco Bell for last. I eat Mexican food all the time, so this is the one that I might actually find tempting, inasmuch as it casually resembles Mexican food. And the soft-shell beef taco: pretty good. It’s disconcerting, though, how the meat is warm but the shell and cheese are ice-cold. I eat the whole taco and move onto the Doritos variant, which is a little much. I can see the appeal, but this is not a dish consumed (or likely invented) sober. Maybe I’d have enjoyed it more if it wasn’t the final snack in Lucifer’s lunchbox. But Taco Bell might earn a repeat visit when I hit rock bottom.
On my way home, feeling like I swallowed a rotten coconut, I conclude that this experiment only reinforced my long-held beliefs. Which is to say, there’s a time and a place for fast food. And that time is breakfast, and that place is Dunkin’ Donuts. ♦