Fry Girl's Year of Eating Dangerously
"Well, we've got the results from your tests."
I'm in the examining room at my doctor's office. It's been three weeks that I've been out of the hospital, two weeks since I swallowed a camera to take thousands of pictures of my intestines — a Fantastic Voyage of all guts, no glory, and possible blockage — and a month of my stomach feeling nauseated or refusing me the rights to good posture.
The doctor riffles through pages in my file and fires off some phrases that could be medical terminology or a passage from Cicero's De Re Publica. I ask him to dumb it down.
Safe 'n' scrumptious
The Chuckbox Burgers: One of the few joints in the Valley that serves up its burgers from a mesquite charcoal grill. 'Nuff said. (202 E. University Dr., Tempe, 480-968-4712, thechuckbox.com)
Hana Dog and Lava Tots, from Maui Dog: Fresh, homemade toppings and a unique combination of spicy and sweet make Maui Dog a unique tropical treat. I think I just wrote their first jingle. (3538 E. Indian School Rd., 602-464-3063, mauidogrocks.com)
Green Chili Burro con Frijoles, from Rito's: Once you find this legendary joint, grab the napkins and hang on; this fiery burro's burstin' with flavor. (907 N. 14th St., 602-262-9842)
The Gyro Picado from George's Famous Gyros: Like a kick to the Greek groin, this spicy delight is pure gyro euphoria. (7620 E. McKellips Rd., Scottsdale, 480-874-1354, myspace.com/gfgyros)
The Jerk Chicken Sandwich, from Chaka Chaka: A huge hoagie jam-packed with flavorful ingredients including a fried banana slice and at six bucks, it's the best deal in town. (1009 S. 7th St., 602-561-3110, eatchakachaka.com)
Culver's Custard: Creamy, eggy, and made fresh daily, this better-than-ice cream treat out of Wisconsin makes a Wendy's Frosty taste like chilled chalk chunks. (culvers.com)
Hazardous to your health
KFC's Double Down: Please don't make me go back to that scary place. (kfc.com)
Chocolate-covered scorpion: You can douse it with chocolate sauce, but it's still a predatory arthropod someone found in a shoe, and the taste makes you wish you'd been stung instead. (azstatefair.com)
Taco Bell's Cantina Tacos: These street tacos should not be eaten, but placed on a street and run over repeatedly. (tacobell.com)
The Whataburger 5-3-1: A square salt lick disguised as a burger and a $5 price equals a numerical nightmare that adds up to zero. (whataburger.com)
Burger King's Fire-Grilled Ribs: The box said, "Straight From the Grill." I would have accepted "Straight from Hell" or "Left on the Grill." Dehydrated and DOA. (bk.com)
"It was one of two strains of a virus caused by bad food. One linked directly to chicken." He looks up from behind his glasses and asks, "Can you think where you might have picked it up from?"
What could I say? That for almost a year I've been eating fast food for a living? That I've willingly thrown my past good eating habits out the drive-thru window so that I can consume levels of fat, sodium, and cholesterol far beyond the recommended daily allowance even for a Kodiak bear? That I troll the Internet and cruise city streets looking for the next fast-food fix like some sort of junk food junkie? That I've developed relationships with local patty-pushers who seek my advice while being reviled by others who deem my greasy daily grind shameful, at best?
That I'm fucking Fry Girl?
At the hospital, I learned that VIP treatment comes with a disastrous diagnosis. In my case, they thought I had appendicitis. Some folks are just lucky, I guess.
It wasn't that, thankfully. It was just my yet-to-be-diagnosed stomach virus playing a painful game of make-believe. A pseudo-appendicitis. Kind of like a false pregnancy but without the ice cream and distended gut. It never occurred to me to blame my current eating habits — my daily consumption of greasy eats coming from a collection of kitchens, some of questionable cleanliness and food-safety protocol. I chalked it up to stress, bad genes, a Gypsy curse, Sex and the City 2 — anything but fast food.
I never thought I was in danger. I used my three-day hospital stay to catch up on some reading and bad TV. Save for my husband — whom I texted, "In the emergency room," when he sent me a message seeking my whereabouts — few people, including my family, were the wiser.
And on my last day at the hospital, after being on a strict liquid diet and needing to consume a full meal before the doc would spring me, what did I order? A cheeseburger and fries. And they were terrible.
Now, Fry Girl wasn't always Fry Girl. For two years prior to fast food, I was Princess Pescatarian. What's a pescatarian? No, it's not a Zodiac sign, a World of Warcraft creature, or someone who excels at being a pain in the ass (although many may agree with the latter); it's a person whose diet consists of fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts, grains, beans, eggs, and dairy. Good eatin' and for the most part, fast-food free. Yay, go me.
But before the band strikes up, know that my vegetable and fish fetish, although the most healthful, wasn't the first in a long line of food-related obsessions spanning my childhood and spilling over into my adult years. In no particular order they include:
• Six months of Faygo Red Pop, two to six glasses a day.
• Three years of canned whole smoked mussels, one to two times a week.
• Cinnamon Pop-Tarts once a day for eight months (this one has since resurfaced).
• Ketchup on white bread, one to three times a week (ongoing).
• Twenty bags of Cheetos in two weeks, so I could get Chester the Cheetah delivered to my doorstep in plushy perfection before the expiration date.
Crazy? Maybe. A little obsessive/compulsive? You bet. I blame my childhood, TV, and the Catholics.
As the elder of two kids being raised by a single mom, my jeans were Toughskins, home alone wasn't yet a movie, and the fast food we saw advertised on television manifested itself as a treat, not a dietary staple, which only made my sister and me crave it all the more — especially the holy grail of hamburgerdom, the McDonald's Birthday Party, where it was rumored there was a merry-go-round, you could eat all the cheeseburgers you wanted, and they roped off a special section of the restaurant so you could puke on the floor if you had to. Bliss.
It wasn't to be. Dollars were better spent on Hamburger Helper, Jolly Green Giant, and Shake 'n Bake, a product I thought was the basis for all cooking. And whenever my sister and I found a fast-food favorite, our Catholic upbringing made us feel guilty for coveting it, took it away for 40 days during Lent, or made us say grace to it. "Bless us O Lord, for these most heavenly McNuggets."
Sacrifice is a bitch, especially when you're an 8-year-old Catholic kid and there's a Fry Girl inside you who wants to ride the McDonald's merry-go-round.
I could blame my editor for my year of eating dangerously. After all, it was her idea. But let's face it, as a fledgling writer whose most recent contribution to the world of journalism was several blog posts about drinking during the day — a series that had been tagged as being too Bukowski-esque (minus the misogyny) — I needed the support and encouragement to try something new. Well, not that new. Writing about fast food at New Times had been done before by Dave Walker, a.k.a. Cap'n Dave, with much success. (If you've really been around this town a while, you might recall Cap'n Dave's run for governor in the '80s.)
Now it was my turn at the hamburger helm.
We came up with Fry Fatale, then Burger Broad, but Fry Girl seemed to click. I thought it was going to be easy. C'mon, fast food? Burgers and fries? How hard could it be?
My first attempt at a 400-word column sucked. It took a week, and my husband asked me whether I was writing a term paper. I may have thrown the cat at him for that. My second attempt went too far the other way, omitting connecting words and using short, staccato sentences, like in a James Ellroy novel. Gulp.
It got easier, but it also got weird. The restrictiveness of my youth coupled with my ongoing food obsessions and natural curiosity made the world of fast food mine to devour and conquer. I flooded my e-mail inbox with Google searches and welcome letters from every fast-food loyalty club I could sign up for. I trolled the Internet in search of sites where fast-foodies like me gabbed and gushed about the latest and greatest greasy grub. If I spied a fast-food commercial speeding by on my DVR, I stopped, rewound, and watched intently. During the day, I'd have three or four drive-thru bags playing co-pilot in my passenger seat. By night, I found myself cruising the streets in search of a new burger joint or greasy spoon. "Hey, man, you got any new McShwag?"
Then there's the continuous eating. With fried fare no longer a sometimes-treat, I now consumed it the way most people look at Facebook. A cavalcade of burgers, burritos, fries, nuggets, tacos, shakes, dogs, subs, sandwiches, and desserts, not to mention breakfast and, yes, carnival chow. Some I couldn't wait to try (new hot dogs), others I wasn't so sure about (anything from Taco Bell), and there were still others that scared the hell out of me (a chocolate-covered scorpion).
Initially, I approached every greasy meal with delighted anticipation, but like a plumber, when you've flushed enough shit through the pipes, sometimes you can barely take the smell. Like anything dangerous in life that's done willingly, there are consequences. A sweaty soda cup, fragments of fast food strewn across paper wrappings spotted with the same grease that coated my fingers, the knowledge of what I just willingly stuck down my gullet, feelings of denial, regret, and disgust — in some cases, writing the Fry Girl column felt like telling a bad morning-after story after a night with Ronald McDonald.
And, no, I'm not fat. No one's ever asked me that outright, but that doesn't mean they aren't wondering. I am not overweight. And, for the record, I'm also not anorexic, bulimic, a ghost, or a grizzly bear, nor do I have a hole in the back of my head. Fry Girl's fast food consumption followed two simple rules: 1) Don't eat it all, and 2) If you do have to eat everything (you know, when size is the selling point), make it the only meal of the day. Is it the greatest of guidelines? No. Have I done the "Honey, I'm just too full from fast food to join you for a home-cooked dinner. Can I fix you a Hot Pocket?" on many occasions? Yes. Would I rather say I burned everything off thanks to training for an iron man triathlon or that I am indeed a grizzly bear? Yes and hell yes. Grizzly bears are cool.
My dirty little secret about being Fry Girl? I wasn't just Fry Girl. I have another job, one that is completely the opposite. I push organic food. That's right, the good stuff. Natural and nutritious noshings that wouldn't be caught dead peeking out of a drive-thru window, served atop Styrofoam, or pimping themselves out on a value menu. So while Fry Girl was taking down the latest burger big shot, mild-mannered Organic Girl was singing the praises of fresh, local produce while munching on organic strawberries. Know thy enemy? In my case, that saying goes both ways. And while some may cry, "Foul!" understanding the two opposing sides of the food war has made me something of a dietary diplomat, 'cause let's face it, folks, few of us walk that straight a nutritional line. Every once in a while, the bad stuff tastes kinda good.
At least it does for most of us.
According to the Super Size Me website, one in four Americans visits a fast-food restaurant every day. In the year 2000, we spent over $110 billion dollars in them (that's up from a mere $3 billion in 1972). Fast food has been a part of American culture since White Castle started slingin' beef in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas. White Castle's white porcelain enamel and stainless-steel décor, along with the innovation of allowing customers to see their food being prepared, became a purposeful perception changer to what folks then thought of the meatpacking industry (thanks to Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel, The Jungle). Along with the automobile, high-volume, low-cost, and high-speed burgers and fries continue to rank high in the U.S. product popularity contest. Having it our way is the American way.
Even with the movement for organic food and farming gaining momentum, the fast food giants know that 40 percent of our meals are eaten outside the home, French fries are the most eaten vegetable in the United States, and, though the demands for healthier food may have changed the way they do business, most of us still crave a cheeseburger.
That's the response I got from a lot of folks when I told them what I did as Fry Girl. Zilch. Sometimes there was a polite smile or a laugh, as if I'd just told them a joke, a punch line akin to saying I was a shrimp blogger or a cake ninja. Some, like the woman I met at a Wendy's VIP breakfast event, felt the need to impart their negative views of fast food — "I don't eat it," "It's not good for you," "I once got busy in a Burger King bathroom" — successfully killing any chance of further conversation and moving along to more important topics, like anything else. One woman I introduced myself to at a hot dog joint simply glared at me and said through clenched teeth, "I know who you are and I know what you do."
I got a few e-mails, not as many as I would have liked. I could usually count on a few nasty-grams when I gave a joint a bad review, something I'm not fond of doing. I was called unfair, a snob, and an imbecile. I've been told that I ask idiotic questions, that I don't give new places a chance, that I'm cursed, that I reek of grease, and that I think I'm the Queen of Tempe. Passionate people, no doubt, who enjoy fast food. We're more alike than they may think.
Occasionally, I was lucky enough to receive an "Atta (Fry)Girl!" via e-mail or comment on a blog post. Some asked questions about who's got the best this or have I ever tried that. I enjoyed hearing what fellow fast food fans think is good in the Valley and of their own personal experiences with grab 'n' go grub. It's good company to keep. One time someone overheard me interviewing a restaurant owner and stopped to ask whether I was Fry Girl. After I hesitated before affirming my identity, he shook my hand — a brief moment of greasy glory.
"Do you think this would work on my menu?"
I was asked that question recently from a local fast-food owner and fry guy. We'd struck up a friendship after I'd been there a few times, something I've done with several of my local grub-hunting pursuits, almost all of them initially surprised to hear there's actually some sucker out there who wants to write about what they do. They're enthusiastic, dedicated, and usually scared shitless things won't work out for them. Some have been in the restaurant business since they were kids, others have moved their families across the country to take over a business, and still others have risked it all in the name of "screw the man, this is my goddamn dream."
Sure, Fry Girl was essentially a column about fast food, but it's the people behind the patties that make us feel more connected to our bites in a bag. Maybe, in a weird way, eating fast food is like experiencing music or art; we tend to enjoy it more when we know who its creator is. And let's face it, when you're talking about grub served up in less than five minutes, a little life story goes a long way.
Back in the examining room with my doctor, the question still hangs in the air — where did my food virus that ultimately landed me in the hospital for three days come from?
Here's what I know: In my year of eating fast food, of ceasing to follow my past good-eating habits, of consuming untold amounts of calories and crap from a gaggle of grease pits slinging everything from deep-fried butter to monster-size burgers to cheese covered in chicken, it's anyone's guess.
I look up at my doctor whose eyebrows are raised in anticipation and answer, "You know what, Doc?" and then. with a shrug, "Nothin' comes to mind."
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