Eating Hamburgers in a World Without Answers
A lot of the time when we buy something, our motive is to recapture a certain feeling. An expensive dress to feel beautiful, a fancy computer to feel exciting and new, or even a snuggly comforter to feel protected and loved. Food in particular is good at invoking memories. A Frenchman once wrote a 4,211 -page book about memories found in the taste of madeleine cake. I’ll be more reasonable and limit myself to a couple of pages. Rewind to this weekend.
“One burger, cheese and ketchup only,” I ordered from the nonchalantly pouting Wendy’s employee. “Why don’t you get lettuce, onion, tomato?” my friend asked me, as we settled into a table. “They taste good, and they don’t cost any extra money.”
I chuckled. “That would be missing the point,” I explained. “I want Wendy’s hamburgers to taste exactly the way they did when I was a kid. Back then, I didn’t want the vegetables.”
“You liked being a child that much?” my friend asked skeptically.
I laughed. “On the whole, I prefer being an adult. So many things are better now. But there are certain parts of childhood I like to remember. When I was little, Wendy’s was the only restaurant we could reach without crossing busy roads. So it was the only place Mom let me walk by myself. I would save up my allowance and treat myself to lunch there.”
“What, you didn’t like the food in the house?”
“I liked the food in the house. It was just, um, for the variety or something.”
“Variety? But you just said you ordered the same burger every time you went!”
“I guess you’re right, but listen.….. when you’re a kid, your parents do everything for you, right? They drive you everywhere, buy you everything. I liked being able to do something for myself. I liked being able to walk someplace and buy food I had earned with my own money. It gave me this really satisfying feeling of independence.”
“So your favorite memory from childhood is…. being an adult?”
I laughed, rumpled my hands through my hair. “Okay, point. But it was…. different back then. I didn’t HAVE to do anything for myself. When I acted independently, it was by choice. Now I HAVE to take care of everything by myself. I don’t have a choice.” I found my voice unexpectedly wavering on the verge of tears. My friend reached across the table and took my hand in a firm grip. I stared into a dark distance, seeing a long vista of job applications stretching out into the foreseeable future. I had a year’s security with Americorps, and then it was back into the abyss.
It wasn’t just the applications, either. Rent. Bills. Food stamps. Driver’s license. Car insurance. Student loans. Grad school. Mortgages. A complex array of grown-up problems, and I could still call Mom, but she didn’t have the answers anymore. She started running out of answers around the time I went to college.
When I was a kid, I always thought there were special people out there who had the answers to everything. Now I’m a Teen Mentor, and I’m supposed to be the lady with the answers. What a fraud I am. But all adults are frauds, aren’t they, with their pretense of knowing best. The people with the “answers” are making it up as they go along. The way things are is not a sacred artifact of ancient, wiser, times. The way things are is mostly done by accident.
What did I really taste in that Wendy’s hamburger? I tasted a world that was reassuring and safe. It made me remember a time when all adventures were small. I could go out and have an adventure, but when I went home there were always people to take care of me.
Isn’t that still true, in a way? My parents haven’t stopped loving me. But the things I want now are much more complicated than a Wendy’s hamburger. The things I want now can’t be bought in any store. I want to live a life of honor. To be worthy of respect. To achieve great things. Nobody can do it for me.
That’s why I like to eat foods that remind me of a time when life was simple. Even if the books I keep in my bookshelf now, do say fast food is destroying the planet. Even if I know life will never be simple again.