Poet Joe Wenderoth wrote: “Some days . . . only a Biggie will do. You wake up and you know; today I will get a Biggie and I will put it inside me and I will feel better.” It’s so true. But for years the experts and the self-righteous elite have conned us into shunning the very cuisine we find most fulfilling. Last month the American Medical Association published the results of a $415 million study on the health effects of a low-fat diet. There were no effects. This is our emancipation proclamation: Our long national nightmare of low-fat malarkey is over.
Relieved, exhilarated, vindicated, I visited three of America’s most maligned institutions: McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s, to sample the most classic meal possible — the combination that would unlock the pleasures too long imprisoned by shame and recrimination. Usually that combination was #1.
McDonald’s offers two equally classic burgers with wildly different personalities, the Big Mac and the Quarter Pounder. It was strange to peer down at them. As a child I imagined any burger with its own name to be gargantuan and decadent. But tucked in their cardboard boxes they looked modest and petite. Were these really the little sandwiches that had started this big war?
The Quarter Pounder is admirably straightforward — all meat, cheese, mustard, and onion. The pickles have little effect on the experience. The key to this burger is the semi-diced onions, somewhere between sautéed and raw. The meat is gray, and a little mushy. But it could have been worse, and carried a realistically beefy flavor. The Big Mac, by contrast, is really all bread. The two small, incredibly thin burgers get lost amid the buns, the watery lettuce, and sweet pinkish sauce. The fries were a little clammy and cool, but still evidenced the pleasant sag that shows they were cooked just to the point where the potato surrenders its dignity to the greasy heat, like when a nice girl falls for the cheap charms of a handsome frat-boy jerk. The soda was a bit syrupy.
At McDonald’s comfortable booths lined the back wall, with seats of faux leather and the sort of fabric that often appears on luggage, with an abstract pattern a cross between Miró and Picasso. It was lovely, as was the almost text-less, photo-dominated menu behind the counter.
Wendy’s was brighter and cleaner, and the staff seemed more professional and middle-aged, if a little less interesting. It is so nice to see the corners of burger stick out from the bun of the Classic Single With Cheese. The color seems just right — a sort of blackish brown — and having bitten into it I swear I saw a streak of pink in the middle. This beef was good enough that you could hazard a double. Big, crisp slices of onion make eating a little messy, but are not so sharp that they overwhelm. A tomato slice of the perfect thickness lends some sweetness to accompany the mustard and mayonnaise, which had been calibrated perfectly. The fries are thicker than at McD’s, and in offering too much potato they seemed to have strayed from their primary mission of delivering grease and salt. The soda, again, was too syrupy.