American fried chicken, done right, is a glorious thing.
It is, like most things we claim, a mongrel, a collision of the cuisine of Scottish immigrants who settled in the Carolinas and Virginia and brought their methods of deep-frying chicken — bird, flour, oil — and African slaves who seasoned and spiced it. They added a jazz aesthetic, improving it in the same way Black people improved baseball and rock 'n' roll.
Like most Southerners, my mother made her own version — lightly battered, pan-fried and until quite recently my personal standard. It took a pandemic to get me to try Popeyes' spicy chicken sandwich. Now, I am a convert. It is an object worth revering, even if we might wonder about the chickens that grow these succulent breasts. I have had a couple now, and every time I see a Popeyes sign I am tempted.
Fast food is not something I'm interested in because I'm not 12 years old. I drink bourbon, not Coca-Cola. My wife, Karen, stir-fries vegetables and sometimes makes gnocchi from scratch. We don't completely eschew fast food — (everything in moderation, even moderation) — but we aren't habitual users.
Or at least we weren't until covid-19 struck.
Now, we have a handful of items we seek out on a regular basis — the "Wholotta Box" at Taco Bueno, which you can get for $10 on Wednesdays and will make 2 ½ meals for the two of us; Burger King's 99-cent pancakes, which are nearly the equal of a certain famous pancake house's; just about everything we've ordered from the venerable Egg Roll Express in Levy.
All these thrills are qualified — they're good for the price but expectations should be tempered. It's still fast food, generically flavored for the lowest common denominator. A cynic might say it's food for people who don't really care about what they eat.
But, oh, that chicken sandwich. Spicy, juicy, hot and crunchy. And somehow, authentically messy in a way that feels antithetical to the American notion of highly processed, deeply democratic calories to go.
SO IT BEGINS
It was an hour over North Carolina farm roads from our house outside Goldsboro to the Hardee's in Greenville. That seems a long way to drive for a 15-cent hamburger, but if we'd been good and our parents had no more pressing business, we'd sometimes make it on Saturday afternoons.
This was in 1964, the year of The Beatles. Goldsboro had a McDonald's but — despite their admittedly excellent fries — my father wouldn't go there because it hadn't closed for JFK's funeral. And convenience wasn't the point; in those days going for long drives in the country counted as recreation.
I learned recently that it was the original Hardee's burger stand we frequented.
It was a direct ripoff of McDonald's, which opened its first North Carolina franchise in Greensboro, about 160 miles from Greenville in north-central North Carolina in 1960.
Wilber Hardee, the 42-year-old owner and operator of Greenville sit-down restaurant the Silo, heard about the McDonald's chain. He drove over one Sunday to watch it in action. In 1984, he told Jerry Bledsoe, a columnist for the News & Record in Greensboro, that he saw them take in $168 over the lunch hour.
"That was big money then ... on 15-cent hamburgers," Hardee told Bledsoe.
Working from photographs taken by Hardee, a developer built a slightly smaller version of the McDonald's building, using the same white and red ceramic tiles as McDonald's, near the East Carolina University campus. It had no dining room, just two service windows, one to take orders and one to pick up. An upward angled flat roof projected off the front of the stand, held up on each end by a metal H.
It opened Sept. 3, 1960. And it boomed. In his self-published autobiography "Founder of Hardee's: The Life and Times of Wilber Hardee," he recalled it as "one of the proudest days of my business career."
By the time of our Saturday afternoon drives, Hardee's had already sold its millionth burger, and Hardee had already been bought out by his partners — there's a story that holds he lost his share in a poker game, but Hardee denied it and claimed he was swindled by his partners who took advantage of his drunkenness — and moved on to start what he imagined would be an even bigger chain, one that would eventually put his old one, and probably McDonald's too out of business. He called it Little Mint. Then there was Burger Castle, Little Rocket, Space House and Biscuitown USA.
Hardee's was the only one of Wilber's restaurants to bear his name, but it didn't necessarily command his heart. He'd started five restaurants before he'd co-opted the McDonald's model, and he'd stay in the business until he died in 2008. (But Hardee wasn't the Wilber behind the iconic Wilber's Barbecue, which is still around today after a brief hiatus for nonpayment of taxes back in 2018. That was Wilber Shirley.)
Even today, the scent of diced onions can trigger a Proustian recall of the Hardee's menu: The plain hamburgers, the 15-centers, came hot and striped from being "charco-broiled" on a grill, an aesthetic and flavorful improvement over most griddle-cooked burgers.
Along with onions they were dressed with mechanical splats of ketchup and mustard and a quarter-size slice of pickle between soft bland buns running to sweet. The fries were sliced into laces; the chocolate milkshakes were thick and headache-inducing cold. If you got an apple pie — which I believed they called a turnover — you had to break it open and blow on it, and even then you risked burning the roof of your mouth.
THE NEED FOR SPEED
If you begin to investigate the evolution of fast food in America, you will invariably run into White Castle, which got its start in Wichita, Kan., in 1921. It established a model where food was prepared quickly in a mechanized, systematic way that sought to eliminate wasted motion and standardize the product.
Every inch of a White Castle grill was dedicated to either the small square slider patties or toasted buns. The idea was to perfect the process, then make it infinitely repeatable.
McDonald's "speedee" system of choreographed behind-the-counter work also applied the principles of Henry Ford's assembly line to the mass production of sandwiches. Col. Harlan Sanders touted the 11 herbs and spices in his secret recipe, but his real innovation was using a pressure cooker so he could fry his chicken quicker than everyone else.
Sanders was like a lot of the founders of fast-food franchises; he came from hardscrabble poverty and failed at just about everything before he finally hit it big late in life. (No, he didn't kill a man in a shootout, but he was in a shootout where a man died. Sanders picked up the dead man's gun and returned fire. See Josh Ozersky's 2012 book "Colonel Sanders and the American Dream.") In a simpler time, these capitalists could hold themselves out as heroes.
Fast food boomed in the '50s and '60s as the American lifestyle became more dependent on the automobile. We re-arranged our cities, we were going to the moon, we cherished modernity in much the same way as some of us now cherish the hand-built and antique. In those days, fast food cut across demographic quadrants, it wasn't stigmatized as food for the poor and/or lazy. It was fun to go to Hardee's.
A backlash started in the '70s when Americans started becoming more health-conscious, and over the years we've seen some feints in the direction of portion control and mandated calorie information. But most people who eat a lot of fast food probably like it well enough and don't really want it to be healthier or more nutritious. They want it to be reliable, to satisfy hunger, to give them a little jolt of sugar. There's nothing inherently sad or shameful about it; it's just that some people like to feel superior.
Hipsters will shame you for drinking Bud Light too; while I'd prefer something with a little more heft, one's choice in pilsners doesn't have a moral component. Fast food has never been strictly about the food anyway.
Later, when I was in high school in the '70s, the fast-food places were rendezvous and reconnoitering sites, our version of the '50s drive-ins we saw in the movies (and were not yet extinct everywhere).
I had my share of fast food in the '80s; my job kept me on the road and I hadn't yet developed the confidence necessary to eat alone in a restaurant. I especially liked Whataburger — the Texas-based chain, not Feltner's Whatta-Burger in Russellville, whose "custom-made" burgers outclass any fast food varietal.
It was only in the '90s that I weened myself off the occasional drive-through burger or milkshake, when my metabolism became as slow as a watch in church and I began to understand that there was another kind of price to pay for consuming grease and calories. It wasn't really shame or snobbery that curtailed my fast food intake; I married a highly disciplined woman who loves to cook and explore restaurants.
That's not to say we didn't enjoy the very occasional trip to Sonic or McDonald's (where the ice cream machine seemed perpetually out of order) but we'd probably make those trips less than once a month. More often, we'd get coffee.
The pandemic has caused us to rethink our approach to eating out.
We used to eat out a lot more than we do — there were years when both Karen and I were writing regularly about restaurants (I suppose it is now safe to confess that in the days when our Weekend section was a tabloid, I wrote under the bylines Jack Butler Eats and William Butler Eats: "What rough feast is this, its hour come around at last? This eggish plate, this hash?") and even after that gig ended, we probably averaged 1.5 meals a week outside the house.
We might return to restaurants soon, now that the evenings have cooled and so many of them have made arrangements for al fresco dining. But even before the pandemic, we'd discovered the pleasures of getting takeout. If it's just us, if we aren't meeting anyone, we have better wine, and it's fun to load up the dogs for a road trip. They like Sonic's corn dogs and soft-serve ice cream.
They serve those breakfast burritos all day. Their cheeseburger is passable, and a lot bigger than the ones I used to get at Hardee's back in the day.
And it's probably better too, though they can't compete with a memory.