Learning From White Castle
From August 13 to 16, 2010, I ate at White Castle #100034 on 781 Metropolitan Avenue in East Williamsburg 11 times. I live around the corner from the restaurant and use it to guide friends to my apartment all the time (“pass the White Castle, make a right”), but have never actually eaten there prior to this undertaking. Let’s make it clear right now that this is not some Super Size Me–inspired stunt. I am not the leader of some angry crusade against the American hamburger industry or an enemy of the White Castle company. I do happen to be a vegetarian, nine years and counting, and like most fast food establishments in this country White Castle doesn’t really cater to diners like me. I am not bitter about this. WC and I have happily coexisted on opposite blocks for over two years. But as part of a recent effort to explore neighborhood businesses I know nothing about, I decided to spend a few days recording and analyzing life in my local chain restaurant. Here are some observations.
1:31 p.m. 8/13/10. How White Castle Explains Capitalism.
Trip One. As expected, there isn’t much for the non-carnivorous to eat here. French fries and a “small” soft drink (21 ounces!) cost me a reasonable $3.46 with tax, and, according to the city-sanctioned calorie counts next to the prices, will provide 630 kcal (fries are 390; Coke, 240). Drink refills are free.
Perusing the menu more carefully brings up some puzzling facts. The restaurant offers seven “Saver Sack” meal options, which get you two or three tiny White Castle burgers, depending on the fixings, plus fries and a soft drink for $2.99 ($3.26 with tax). Solid mathematical deduction thereby shows that it is cheaper to buy three hamburgers, fries, and a drink than just fries and a drink. Now I’m well aware that in a market economy, prices don’t have much to do with the actual costs of the goods and are set by subjective value judgment. Pre-arranged deals attract customers and increase overall sales even when sold at a discount. But I’ve already bought my fries and drink. I feel cheated. Isn’t WC discouraging à la carte selection here (individuality; the power to choose; uh, freedom) in favor of imposed order? Isn’t it punishing vegetarians by forcing them to order meat if they want to be economical? Or is WC just the consumer-friendly governing body that subsidizes value packages—and I’m just the clueless newbie?
I walk up to the young woman who took my order, Employee #4366, and ask her about the price difference. She straightens the visor on her mustard-brown cornrows. It’s a limited-time offer, I am told. She used to point out the Saver Sacks when customers tried to order side items separately, but more often than not they got snippy with her or didn’t care. “People don’t like people telling them what to do,” Ms. 4366 says. “The deals are there if you want. If you don’t, you have to pay.”
7:12 p.m. 8/13/10. How White Castle Explains Aesthetics.
Be advised that the interior of White Castle #100034 feels a little cramped, with its low ceilings, back-to-back booths, and the giant, floor-to-ceiling island where customers crowd to fill their soft drinks and squirt-pump their ketchup. It is not a welcoming dining space. The kitchen and staff areas are encased in bulletproof glass. Fluorescent lights hum above you, uniform and pallid and wearying on the eye. You sit on benches made of lacquered plywood and consume your onion rings ($1.72, 340 kcal) on melamine tables the color of muggy summer skies, tables that are pretty much always covered with other people’s ketchup or little archipelagos of chopped onion. It is meat-locker cold in here. The bathrooms are also cordoned off by bulletproof glass and you have to gesture (through more glass) at someone in the kitchen to buzz you in, except the men’s is occupied by someone who must be trying to pass a cement block or something, and the women’s, predictably, has a line. None of these gripes is a deal-breaker but White Castle turns out not to be the kind of place where you’d want to hang out more than thirteen minutes, the average time Americans spend in casual restaurants, and no chipper in-store ads or nostalgic diner tiles are going to change that. But this is the point: nobody wants you to stick around. Out of the eleven occasions I ate at WC, only once was I asked “to stay or to go?” and given a meal tray; every other time my food came in a paper or plastic sack.
The word “crave” is everywhere—customers are called Cravers, the menu subdivisions are Sandwich Cravings, Drink Cravings, etc.—and cravings are immediate, short-lived. You satisfy them and then they’re gone. Everything about the restaurant, from the in-one-way-out-the-other floor plan to the nonstop beeping from various kitchen appliances to the quick-assembly burger casings, suggests temporality, a system that functions on expedition and disposal. This is not a bad thing. Haters might argue that WC hurries customers so that they don’t sit and think about what their food actually tastes like, or so they’ll get out and make room for more diners. But I see the Don’t Dawdle protocol as a kind of candidness. You are not being lied to here. The food is made quickly, consumed quickly, and no one is telling you otherwise. In a city full of businesses that disguise no-star food with three-star presentation and prices, where servers tell you to “take your time” and then drop the check in your lap before you’ve finished eating, where wait times are way disproportionate to quality, it’s refreshing to be in a place where the aura of the food—fast food—more or less matches the space in which it’s meant to be consumed. Buy, eat, get on with your life.
9:34 p.m. 8/13/10. How White Castle Explains Pedagogy.
Did you know that on the bottom of every White Castle casing (which is used for a number of food items, not just burgers) is a fun factoid or clever quip? Some are just dry bits of trivia: “White Castle patented its unique five-hole Slyder® in 1954.” Others resemble Buddhist koans: “White Castle is open after dark. But why is it called after dark when it’s really after light?” There are also useful bits of advice: “A bed of onions is perfect for cooking White Castle burgers, but we don’t recommend sleeping on them.” Collect them all!
9:40 p.m. 8/13/10. How White Castle Explains Charisma.
This evening, three men are conspiring in a booth. One of them, whom I’ll call Purple Hat, is hoping to get the phone number of one of the WC workers. His heavyset friend, White Shirt, is coaching him. The Third Man mostly just laughs and says nothing.
White Shirt: I’m about to Akon ya ass. Imma beat ya ass till you start screaming like you recording a new album. Go up there and talk to her.
Purple Hat: I’m eating.
White Shirt: [Loudly; the girl can hear him.] She right there! Go!
Purple Hat: Aight.
Purple Hat stands up and walks over to the registers. White Shirt and Third Man cheer him on and then White Shirt guffaws.
White Shirt: Get that burger outcha hand! Are you still chewing?
Purple Hat: [To Girl.] Excuse me? Excuse me?
White Shirt: I’m sorry, miss. He don’t mean no disrespect. Yo, put the burger down!
Purple Hat: Where you stay at?
Purple Hat: Oh for real?
Girl: Why, where you live?
Purple Hat: Uh, Prospect.
White Shirt: You live in Forest Hills, Queens!
Purple Hat: I mean Forest Hills—where you going?
Girl: You don’t even know where you live at.
Purple Hat: [Stammering] I meant my work. I work on Prospect Avenue.
Girl: How old are you?
Purple Hat: Twenty-one.
Girl: You not twenty-one.
Purple Hat: Swear on my moms.
White Shirt: Yeah, show her some ID.
Purple Hat pulls out his wallet and flips through it.
White Shirt: Dude, I’m playing, don’t—oh my God. This nigga really showing her his ID.
Girl: Go back to your friends.
Purple Hat: Lemme getcha digits?
Girl: My digits?
Unintelligible yelling from kitchen. Girl vanishes. Purple Hat retreats, smiling but a little furious with himself. White Shirt and Third Man are slumped over in the booth, hands over their mouths.
White Shirt: You get her digits? [Can’t hold his laughter.] What you want, her pin number?
Third Man: Lower ya voice, man. People looking at you funny.
White Shirt: That’s cause I’m a funny dude. When you get famous, you get fans.
Purple Hat: You get a fat ass and a big mouth too.
White Shirt: [To counter] Hey, miss? I apologize! My friend here is kinda retarded—
Purple Hat: Can you shut the fuck up, please?
White Shirt: But he’s genuine! He a genuine ass motherfucker. And that’s all you really need in a man.
2:49 p.m. 8/14/10. Discursion.
In a second-floor gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art hangs a large oil painting called “The Harvesters” by Pieter Breugel the Elder (c. 1565). One of six panels commissioned to portray the seasons of the year, “The Harvesters” depicts farm laborers in early fall, some eating their midday meal under a pear tree while others reap wheat in the fields nearby. Buttery ochres and rich, inky greens abound. The landscape rolls downward for miles, vanishing into a sunny bay and the misty skies beyond. The painting isn’t so much about the harvesters themselves, who are dwarfed by the vast space around them, but the world providing them the harvest—the shoulder-high wheat stalks, an inlet full of fishing boats, trees that give shade and abundant fruit. Art historians consider this 16th century work a milestone of Western art because Bruegel treats the landscape as his principal subject, not just a backdrop to mythic or religious iconography. No martyred saints are being remembered here, just some cheerful-looking peasants enjoying the fruits of their labor in the golden countryside.
Viewing this painting with an order of White Castle French Toast Sticks and a small black coffee ($3.11, 460 kcal) in your system will make you a little jealous of these men and women. You’ve eaten a quick-service meal, experienced the total separation of food from its sources, and patronized a place where food preparation has been cleaved from tradition and natural processes. Compare this to the world of the painting, where everything the peasants are eating—the porridge, loaves of fresh bread, ripe pears—have come directly from the land that surrounds them. Production and consumption coexist here in a golden equilibrium. The workers look so damn pleased with themselves, blessed with that inimitable satisfaction of eating something you grew yourself. And for a moment, before you consider how much of a pain in the ass it would be to be a field worker in 16th century Europe and have to eat only what you picked, before you shuffle off to the Met rooftop café and purchase an Italian red pepper and tapenade sandwich with a fresh Cuban mojito for 21 bucks, you envy their way of life.
5:50 p.m. 8/14/10. How White Castle Explains Illusion.
On the bottom of my box of French fries: “If a regular White Castle burger has four sides, shouldn’t a Double Hamburger have eight sides? Yet it doesn’t.”
11:08 p.m. 8/14/10. How White Castle Explains Authenticity.
It would be irresponsible to report on White Castle without sampling its trademarked claim to fame, the infamous square Slyder®. Or at least without getting someone else to do it. Tonight I take a volunteer to the restaurant to eat several non-vegetarian sandwiches at my expense and describe them to me in detail. My friend, whom I’ll call Discerning Eater, orders a classic White Castle burger, pulled pork sandwich, bacon cheeseburger, and a small drink, and I order onion rings again ($6.48 total, 1090 kcal).
We inspect the innards of each sandwich before she eats it. The White Castle burger patty has five holes punched through it in a dice pattern to help it cook evenly. It is the color of damp concrete and tastes, Discerning Eater says, like nothing, only texture.
“Most of the flavor comes from the pickle,” she says. “It’s vinegary and salty and kind of sweet. You don’t actually taste the meat.”
She describes the burger turning almost instantly into a soft mash after she bites into it. Part of the Slyder®’s appeal may come from the eater’s association of it with baby food and the good old pre-mastication days, when nom-noms looked pretty much the same going out as they did going in. There is something fibrous about it, though, and the meat’s gray color suggests to Discerning Eater that there must be some kind of pulpy additive.
“Fine, fine,” I say. “But is it good?”
Discerning Eater chews, reflects.
I flip the burger casing over—one down. Printed on the bottom is this headscratcher: “‘Double Hamburger’ is one of those English words that are plural in form yet treated as singular, like ‘pants’ or ‘scissors.’” Discerning Eater and I are the kind of grammar dorks who get all twitchy-faced when confronted with statements like these, but there’s no one to talk to about how “double” is actually a modifier and “hamburger” is its indisputably singular subject. We chuckle about it like elitist assholes and move on.
Discerning Eater seems pleasantly surprised with the other two sandwiches. The bacon in the bacon cheeseburger “tastes the way I would want it to taste—like diner bacon,” and the pulled pork sandwich is sweet, richly sauced, and reminiscent of a Chinese pork bun. She keeps making self-evident pronouncements like “it tastes like a bacon cheeseburger” and “the pork tastes like pork” and this is not because Discerning Eater, who leads literature discussions and hosts her own radio show, lacks the vocabulary to sufficiently describe complex tastes. Implicit in her descriptions is the popular notion that fast food isn’t actually food, that it’s consumable simulacra—food product that barely resembles the “real” but is mass-produced until it outperforms the original. Even staunch chain-restaurant fans will concede that real burgers aren’t what you get at White Castle, that no matter how pervasive fast food becomes they will still occasionally want the real thing, even if only for nostalgia’s sake. This is classic postmodern theory and I’m not going to beat you to death with it, but what Discerning Eater is commenting on is the fact that the White Castle bacon cheeseburger and pulled pork sandwich taste surprisingly like her ideas of “real” bacon cheeseburgers and pulled pork sandwiches. They don’t betray their reproducibility as readily as fast food items in other restaurants do. This is both pleasantly surprising and worrying. Pleasant because maybe WC has managed to capture the essence of “real” and generously bring it to the public at quick-service prices. Maybe they’re actually paying attention to quality, to our discriminating tastebuds and preferences. But we also worry that maybe it’s our tastes that have changed and the “real” sandwiches in “real” restaurants are now modeling themselves on those in chain franchises. Maybe fast food’s influence has been so strong that we’ve lost our ability to distinguish between a sandwich and a McSandwich. We fall silent and think about all this. The air conditioning is brisk and severe.
“Which one was your favorite?” I ask, after she washes the sandwiches down with Coca-Cola.
“The regular White Castle burger.”
“What? You just said how tasty the other two were.”
“I can get a pulled pork sandwich or bacon cheeseburger anywhere. The White Castle burger’s an original.”
“But it’s not even good.”
“Yeah,” she says, draining her Coke. “But you can’t get it anywhere else.”
11:23 p.m. 8/14/10. How White Castle Explains Boundaries.
“Everything has its limits. While noted for adding its own special flavor to White Castle burgers, a slice of cheese does not make a very good coaster for a cup of hot coffee.”
12:54 a.m. 8/15/10. How White Castle Explains Legacy
The liveliest time to visit White Castle #100034 is after midnight, when the runoff from two nearby bars, Legion and Harefield Road, come staggering in for drunk food. Discerning Eater and I get boilermakers at Legion, local watering hole of the bassist–barista set, and I return to WC alone for some cheese sticks ($1.79, 440 kcal). The late-night clientele are nothing like the baggy-jeans-and-chains crowd one sees at dinner or the small families and traffic cops who drop by at lunchtime. At 1 a.m. they are tattooed twentysomethings in cutoffs and Ray-Bans, discussing music video shoots and illicit lovers and Adrien Brody sightings. One man orders a cardboard suitcase filled with thirty cheeseburgers, or a “Craver Case with cheese,” and rechristens it “The Bolaño” because the price works out to be $26.66. Another brags about pawning his wedding ring after marrying a “gay Warren Buffett” in Toronto. There’s a lot of clever banter and random singing going on and if you ignore the constant nasal drone of the ice machine and the beeping of the fryolator it would almost sound like the inside of whichever bar everyone’s coming from. It’s actually a lot of fun.
Then I see the four killers in the last booth, all ladies who have to be at least seventy. They sport knit sweaters and polyester pants and wear their hair in finespun bouffants. The oldest has on a black wig that’s not fooling anyone. From their accents I can tell they’re the real locals, the descendants of Italians and Eastern Europeans who’ve lived in this part of Williamsburg since World War I and still get their groceries from people called butchers and fishmongers. The women eat their miniature apple turnovers ($0.85, 340 kcal) and watch the action with amused awe.
“What are these kids doing here so late?” one of them asks, and I’m tempted to pose the same question to them. We’re pissing away our youth in bars and burger joints, ladies. What are you doing here?
Except White Castle has been around since 1921 and these women have probably been eating WC sliders since before we were born, and those of us who believe the popularity of the brand is only as old as the Beastie Boys or Harold and Kumar are completely misinformed. There’s a photo print mounted on the wall next to the women, four beautiful twentysomethings in a Studebaker at a New York White Castle, circa 1941. Decades later, here they are again (plausibly), and here we “kids” are, all of us enjoying or re-enjoying late-night life, stealing looks at one another between bites. This is the scene at my White Castle: mutual fascination, generational osmosis, a strange and cautious harmony—plus two girls belting out Shakira by the soda machine.
I’m not sure what it means that the site where every species of Brooklynite, skinny-jeaned and baggy-jeaned and Norma-Jeaned, comes to feed is this sterile chain restaurant that serves two-and-a-half-inch hamburgers through bulletproof glass. It is at once the least welcoming and least exclusive place of business on my block, open, by virtue of its corporate uniformity and long lifespan, to all. What draws us here? Maybe this is simply the world where we’re most comfortable, where we readily recognize the value of sentiment, of counterintuitive commerce, of speed and efficiency, of a disconnect from origins, of simulated realities. Maybe it’s what we’ve all grown used to and feel compelled to experience regularly. Anyway, they’ve got decent cheese sticks. And they’re open 24/7.