White Castle Made Me A Foodie
If I can think back far enough I think the first culinary experience was at a White Castle in North Bergen, New Jersey. It was sometime in the late 1970s, and unknown to me, it had been around nearly 100 years now. White Castle was the first (even before McDonald’s) who made the first fast food burger, or even the burger itself. There will be many that argue the history of the hamburger, but the best evidence points to the fact that if they were not the original creator, they were certainly one of the pioneers.
I know it would seem odd. But growing up Italian great food was “normal” to me. I saw my father eat pigs knuckles, tripe, and saw my mother cook eel and clean squid whole in the kitchen sink. We rarely ate fast food, maybe once a year. In fact, the only time we had it was when we went to the Jersey Shore. My parents would buy Gino’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken because it would keep well on the 1.5 hour drive “down the shore”. Why didn’t we buy food there? Because food was triple the price on the boardwalk, and in the 1970s you would never find a fast food restaurant on the boardwalk, unlike today.
One day my father took me with him to work. At that time, he was a salesman on the road, going from factory to factory selling 55-gallon drums of cleaners and detergents. The fact is, he was making twice as a salesman than as an engineer in a major corporation. But even more interesting was that he was in an out of all New Jersey’s largest cities. Where there are factories, there are immigrant workers. And where there are immigrants, there is a lot of great places to eat that are economical. One day it was finally lunch time. I was about 9 at the time, and I was waiting in the car listening to Danny Stiles who only played music from the 1940s. My father got into the car and was all excited to tell me we were going to White Castle. I asked what that was, and then his face was all lit up and said the best burger in the world. This was completely surreal to me, but I remember it as clear as day, especially since it was probably the first time my father and I ever ate out alone together.
Back then, you only got White Castles one way, and I, like my mother, at that time, was completely unadventurous. I barely liked ketchup, let alone something steamed in and with onions with ketchup and pickles. I was very cautious. I was even more in awe that my father ordered 4 of them. Four I wondered in shock? I guess he was going to eat 3 and the 4th one for me. But then he asked how many I wanted. I just said I would have one. “ONE?” he said, no, you have to order at least two. “I don’t think I can eat two”, not knowing how small and thin they were. I remember sitting in the passenger side, and found it odd that they put it in just cardboard when even McDonalds put it in wax paper first. I slowly pulled it from the box and my father was already asking what I thought as he was on his second one. I looked at him and lifted the bun, and saw all the diced onions and scrapped them off. I hesitantly took a bite, but the steamed onions really added a new left of flavor, it wasn’t like anything I ever tasted. I rarely eat fast food unless forced to or nearly starving and need something in a hurry. However, White Castle remain my favorite fast food to this day. Even still, if I have them once a year, its a lot. Mostly because of their locations, none are really close or convenient to me, and once I get my fix, once a year is about enough. What I do like is the way they strongly hold on to their history featuring in all their locations old photos and artwork since their early days of when the burgers were .5 cents and the old ads, etc.
So now they have sweet potato waffle fries. So I broke tradition to try them, and the Ranch Chipotle is spicy and delicious, they almost upstage the burgers, which, over time, have not held up the way I remember them.
After having seen a documentary on fast food on The History Channel, today I was feeling nostalgic and happened to be in the area where there was a White Castle. As with everything, I can’t help but believe in my heart that the quality of food I was eating 30 years ago was vastly different than the food any fast food place is serving today. I wonder if it was because I was too young to know better, but somehow I think so much more pride was taken to serve this food, whereas today its just a production line where the food is carelessly and sloppily put together.
This was not the first food my father got me hooked on. Soon came real pastrami from a Jewish Deli, then Steamers from the Jersey Shore, and even Chinese and Polynesian food. Since my mother never cared for such “exotic things” I was his new partner in crime. Again, growing up Italian and only eating Italian food and pasta for the first 10 years of my life, once I knew there was other cultures and food out there, I was starting to become a foodie before the ripe old age of 9.
As with anything, when you try to revisit something from your past or childhood and its not quite the same, you wonder if the quality has deteriorated, or your memory, or both. I think its both, I think they are using less/cheaper ingredients and something that seemed fantastic back 25, 30 or even 40 years ago, perhaps was, but our tastes evolve over time.
Today I got my fill of White Castle hamburgers. I had only 4, but it was enough. Sometimes you just can’t go back in time, but in another year or two I will try again hoping to recreate the magic the first time I ever experienced one of these pieces of Americana.
No ratings here… if you never tried one, you should, even if just to form an opinion.
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