I was sitting at an inn with Kelly Susan, my ten-year-old niece, when she was handed the children’s menu. It was printed in gay pastels on construction paper and gave her a choice of a Ferdinand Burger, a Freddie the Fish Stick, or a Porky Pig Sandwich. Like most children’s menus, it first anthropomorphized the ingredients and then killed them off. As Kelly read it her eyes grew large, and in them I could see gentle Ferdinand being led away to the stockyard, Freddie gasping at the end of a hook, Porky stuttering his entreaties as the ax descended. Kelly Susan, alone in her family, is a resolute vegetarian and has already faced up to the dread that whispers to us as we slice our steaks. She wound up ordering a cheese sandwich, but the children’s menu had ruined her appetite, and she spent the meal picking at her food.
Restaurants have always treated children badly. When I was small, my family used to travel a lot, and waitresses were forever calling me “Butch” and pinching my cheeks and making me wear paper bibs with slogans on them. Restaurants still treat children badly; the difference is that restaurants have lately taken to treating us all as if we were children. We are obliged to order an Egg McMuffin when we want breakfast, a Fishamajig when we want a fish sandwich, a Fribble when we want a milkshake, a Whopper when we want a hamburger with all the fixings. Some of these names serve a certain purpose. By calling a milkshake a Fribble, for instance, the management need make no promise that it contains milk, or even that it was shaken.
But the primary purpose is to convert an essentially bleak industry, massmarketed fast foods, into something festive. The burger used to be a culinary last resort; now resorts are being built around it. The patrons in the commercials for burger franchises are all bug-eyed and goofy, be they priests or grandmothers or crane operators, and behave as if it were their patriotic duty, their God-given right, to consume waxy buns, translucent patties, chewy fries, and industrial strength CocaCola.
Happily, the patrons who actually slump into these places are an entirely different matter. I remember with fond admiration a tidy little man at the local Burger King whom I overheard order a ham and cheese sandwich.
“A wha’?” the eruptive girl at the counter asked, pencil poised over her computer card.
“I wish to order a ham and cheese sandwich,” the man repeated.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the girl said, “but we don’t carry ham and cheese. All we got is what’s on the board up there.”
“Yes, I know,” the man politely persisted, “but I believe it is up there. See? The ham and cheese?”
The girl gaped at the menu board behind her. “Oh,” she finally exclaimed. “You mean a Yumbo. You want a Yumbo.”
“The ham and cheese. Yes.”
“It’s called a Yumbo, sir,” the girl said. “Now, do you want a Yumbo or not?”
The man stiffened, “Yes, thank you,” he said through his teeth, “the ham and cheese.”
“Look,” the girl shouted, “I’ve got to have an order here. You’re holding up the line. You want a Yumbo, don’t you? You want a Yumbo!”
But the tidy man was not going to say it, and thus were they locked for a few more moments, until at last he stood very straight, put on his hat, and departed intact.