Like many others I would assume, I consider myself something of a fast food connoisseur. Having worked for several fast food chains in my youth and short stints of my adult life, I feel as though I’ve had a reasonable sampling of the various menus. If not my time spent working in such places, surely the number of times I’ve frequented the fast food businesses should give me reasonable qualifications.
The cheeseburger and the french fry are two of the most recognizable utensil-free foods in all of North America. Many feel hamburgers, hot dogs, and fries are as American and as essential to our culture as red, white, and blue. Burgers and fries easily fit into almost any lunch or dinner menu, but breakfast is quite another matter to me.
Now, let’s be clear up front, opinions are like exhaust pipes, everybody has at least one, and the nuanced difference in taste from one person to another can be narrow or vast. So, what follows is my little take on the realm of fast food, especially the ubiquitous potato in its many prepared forms. You can get them baked, mashed, roasted, and fried while the end result can range from wonderful to befuddling.
As I said before, I question the fast food breakfast as a whole. While there is the occasional burrito or biscuit that seems appealing, the final delivered product never fails to raise questions. The pre-shaped and cooked egg always forces me to wonder about its origins and level of process, and the bacon is never crispy, leaving it to look more like limp salted fat back rather than a nicely marbled slice of pork.
I’ll admit I was probably spoiled as a child by the breakfast my mother often prepared. No matter if it was scrambled eggs with cheese, crisp bacon, or pancakes, nothing was ever served on a bun or muffin. She never really cooked what you would call hash browns, but sliced potatoes pan fried with onions, and to me they were delightful. Now I’ll admit you can’t compare true home cooking with fast food, or even the likes of Cracker Barrel or IHOP, but some of the spirit should remain.
My father was never a huge fan of fast food either, but he did love a good dive or truck stop. Anything that stayed open around-the-clock seemed to draw him in, and from a young age I was indoctrinated with one of his favorite haunts, the Waffle House.
Waffle House to this day remains a thriving 24 hour breakfast machine, even to the point of comedy where their stores have been used as a gauge for the severity of natural disaster. If Waffle House is open, there is hope, and I’m sure my father would agree, especially if there is coffee being served.
I will have to admit I’ve visited a Waffle House or two that felt seedy, but hands down there is not a better waffle put on a plate anywhere for my money. Other places may doctor them up with whipped cream and other fruit toppings, but when the waffle itself is as crunchy as corn flakes, no amount of culinary decoration can save it. Over the years, I’ve come to cringe anytime I see the words “Belgian Waffle” on a breakfast menu, which to me equates to a good stiff potholder covered in syrup. If this is truly the texture and style of waffles in Belgium, I tip my hat to a hearty and sturdy people with outstanding dental health.
Another menu item that Waffle House serves is hash browns, and from my seat at the bar, they are the standard by which all others are judged, particularly in the “scattered and smothered” variety in which their signature metal ring is discarded and onions are generously mixed in on the grill. I’ve had very good home fries at other places, and Cracker Barrel’s hash brown casserole is a wonderfully tasty item, but for simple hash brown goodness, Waffle House stands alone.
Although it tells my age, I was actually working at McDonald’s when the breakfast menu was introduced, so I got firsthand knowledge in all the classic items and their preparation. Many of you may have heard of McDonald’s Hamburger University, and I can tell you with staunch conviction that it’s no joke. The Golden Arches employs a team of master chefs that research, test, prepare, and standardize every single item on the company’s menu. They and the people they train enact rigorous procedures in the effort to ensure that an Egg McMuffin purchased in California will be the exact same quality as one purchased in Maine. They seek a world-wide standard, and I have to give them credit for succeeding on a large scale. For my wife and I, McDonald’s has become the oasis outpost for our vacation travels, even on the most barren stretches of interstate highways across the country, The Golden Arches can be counted on for clean bathrooms, refreshing drinks, a decent place to sit and rest, and more recently, free wi-fi access.
Unfortunately, for all the attributes I enjoy about McDonald’s there is one fast food standard they seem to have set that is a complete dud in my world, the breakfast hash brown. I feel quite confident that the team of McDonald’s chefs researched long and hard to find the magic combination of a potato cake that could be eaten directly from its wrapper with no utensils and not fall apart in your lap. Mission accomplished, but to me a potato cake is not hash browns, and something cooked to such a rigid texture loses the goodness of the potato itself. A brown, crusty outer shell that encases precious little potato inside gets my taste buds going about as much as a slice of roofing shingle. Even worse is the fact that virtually every other fast food chain that serves breakfast has followed suit and the only variety is the shape of the shingle that falls into your bag.
I recently tried Taco Bell’s new breakfast menu, and I ordered hash browns with high hopes of different results, but sadly I was given a perfectly rectangular crunchy brown shingle with only the most scant portion of potato hidden inside. One bite was more than enough to tell me there was no point in going any further, and as I looked at the sturdy side dish in my fingers, I was forced to wonder if I could actually roof a small shed or birdhouse with a collection of these things. I have so often heard the claims that fast food items are so laden with preservatives that they will never rot, and if that’s the case then hash brown shingles should be quite durable.
I find it strange that these potato patties are so universally cooked to such a crispy consistency, especially when the very same fast food chain wouldn’t dare serve a french fry in such a crunchy state for fear of a lobby revolt spearheaded by a line of irate customers pressed against the counter ready to hurl said potatoes like angry projectiles. I have on occasion been tempted to fling one of these crispy shingles against the wall or window of the restaurant in question just to witness the bounce factor. I have no quarrel with the employees of these places since I know they are only following the procedures they have been taught, so a window might not be the best choice on the off chance the rigid potato facsimile actually broke the glass.
I sometimes wonder about the people out there who actually enjoy these semi-burnt potato shingles. Is this what years of black coffee in the morning hardens you up to? Maybe those who have been on safari to wilderness locations and have been munching on bamboo or cracking coconuts with their teeth? Possibly anyone who has been stranded in the high desert or the Australian Outback for weeks? Could it be one of the Golden Arches chef consultants is a former astronaut and thus well versed in food that comes in quasi-pellet form?
All of the aforementioned questions are pointless in the grand scheme of things since I only need look at the sheer number of people streaming around any given McDonald’s drive-thru on any morning of the week to realize my opinion of the fast food hash brown represents a tiny minority. I suppose I need to allot myself time to visit Waffle House more often, where the only shingles on the menu are purposely near-burnt toast.
– T. August Green