Saturday, 21 July 2012

A Centennial of Junk: Collecting Calories

Let us now praise infamous goodies. By a rare conjunction of the stars in our junk-food galaxy, we find ourselves co-celebrating the centennial of Coke and the diamond jubilee of the Oreo cookie.

Breathes there an American so puritanized that he cannot recall an Oreo cookie binge, a helpless surrender to the wiles of those succulent brown wafers whose role in life is to guard the sweetness of the crème that holds them apart?

And lives there a good-food fanatic so pure that he has never succumbed in the heat of August to a self-administered gusher of Coke? Alas, I have never been a healthy eater; I might not even remember under stress the four basic food types that allegedly promise longevity. No matter—life would be poorer without the options of Coke and Oreo to tide us over the rough spots.

I think my major epiphany on this matter of how trash non-foods can make the bleak seem tolerable took place in Algiers, on a blisteringly hot day. To keep my hanging-out tongue from creating a public nuisance, I fell by an open-air hangout near the main train station and started to administer crisis-level infusions of the ambrosia from Atlanta.

For every raised degree of Fahrenheit, I countered with a dose of Coke. I was soon joined by an earnest young Algerian who began to harangue me with taunts of Coca Colonialism. At first I match him, cliché for cliché, out of the then-hip bible of third-worldism, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.

I tried to assure him that the plethora of belches for which I was responsible was not contempt for his harassment but simply animal spirits unleashed by the magical elixir from semi-tropical Georgia.

“Why do you rot the teeth of Third World children with that junk?” he pressed me contentiously. “Because,” punctuating my parry with the most humungous burp of a quite gaseous life, “they need pauses that refresh.”

There’s no way of countering such a psychological terrorist—except by temporarily neutralizing his mouth with infusions of Coke. I noted, with fiscal rue, that he swilled at will when invited. Anyone who thinks too hard on a hot day when he could be tossing off a glass of the miracle potion is hopeless by any civilized standards.

Remembering my Pyrrhic victory in Algiers, I’m ready to overgeneralize on the gut issue of healthy nutrition versus closet cholesterolaphilia. America is taking a bum rap on the junk-food development.

On a recent flight around the world, I began to “study” non-American variants of junk food. There is no quicker, cheaper way to quell the not-at-home lonelies than to shift without premeditation from savoring local gourmetry to sloshing around in indigenous junk.

Up in Trondheim, Norway, I was intrigued by what looked like a new shop selling Hagarburgers. My two words of Norski (“Oslo” and “Bergen”) proving inadequate to the task of grilling the local teeners manning the grill, I sat idly by, munching an inferior Wendy clone, until an Anglophone whirlwind breezed in with the answer.

“Why it’s from the American comic strip,” he said amiably, going on to explain that he had followed a Norwegian nurse home from her studies in his home town of Bournemouth and, having prepped at a Big Mac-ery in Oslo, was now fielding his own brand of fast food.

And soaking up rays in front of the Centre Pompidou in Paris a few weeks later, my eye caught a sign, FRANQUETTES, blinking from a local eatery. Its tricolor imagery made me suspect I was about to encounter some francofied Americana.

Almost. The suffix came from the very French bread mini-loafs called baguettes: the prefix, from the land of hate-anything-but-haute-cuisine. You choose your own filling—tuna, cheese, beef. The loaves were delectable; the fillings savory.

I chatted up the proprietor to listen to his story. For 20 years, a Swiss food technologist had fretted and frittered in his lab to find a way to keep the fillings from going bad. Until he mastered that, no FRANQUETTES would grace the open-air tables of the metropolis.

But he did it, par Dieu, he did it. Now his franchise operation was slowly reaching out benign tentacles to cover first France, and who knows when, the world. And a neat thing about this fast-foodery was its sale of wine and beer to complement the food.

Everywhere I went were local equivalents of American fast food. England. Belgium. Germany. Italy. Spain. Greece. Turkey. India. Taiwan. The Philippines. Japan. And what I brought back from such global heartburn was the incontrovertible first axiom of world junk: Americans do it better.

Don’t ask me why. A Big Mac in Tokyo doesn’t cut the mustard. Maybe they use the cooking oil too long. Maybe the meat is unbeefier to begin with. Whatever the reason, circumnavigational gnoshing makes you realize good junk food is no accident.

Mind you, I’m not even going to get into Japanese contributions like the Loveburger. I’m talking about the way locals botch American junk. This is no Kroc, no culinary jingoism. We know how to make junk food good. The Mr. Donut chain ought to be ashamed of itself for what it passes off to the gullible Japanese gullet as real American doughnuts.

And that brings me to axiom two. Properly prepared, American junk food is dependable. What you’re used to is what you get. In the tourist high-volume traps of Europe, especially, unless you go Michelin three to four star all the way, you never know at what altitude your high cuisine is going to land. I’ve never had a bad hot dog at the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, but I’ve had marginal haute cuisine at several first-class hotels adjacent to it.

So, in the aura of two great anniversaries—Coke’s 100th and Oreo’s 75th—let’s momentarily stop the self-flagellation over America as the worst eatin’ civilization in the history of cook stoves. Bless the druggist in Atlanta who has made a hundred summers passable. And bless those anonymous Nabisco chefs who went for our collective sweet tooth with an intuition that defies the nutritionists’ solemn philosophies.

I know our teenagers are slobbing themselves into early graves. I know the booming fast-food fueling station is a symptom of a disintegrating American hearth. I know some of our brightest and best are becoming anorexic wrecks because of their temporary incapacity to deal maturely with calories.

When pushup comes to shoveling it in, I’ll even grant that we ought to eat properly. But frankly, I’m sick of staying up late at night worrying about nitrites. So we don’t eat as healthily as our caveperson ancestors—but then we’re rarely grizzly bear food either these days.

For each era, the anguish that accrues to it. I refuse to swear off the occasional Oreo binge because it could clog up my aorta faster than necessary. And if “cavity emptor” means I have to stop guzzling Coke when my temperature rises, well then, dentistry has mercifully become less and less painful.

At least once every hundred years, let us toast those brilliant benefactors who have made pauses that refresh while they reflesh.

Freelancer Patrick Hazard lives hedonistically in Holmesburg.

From Welcomat: After Dark, September 3, 1986

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