I hated turnpike rest stops, but then I found Popeye's.
“Let’s eat at the next rest stop,” says my husband. “I could really go for a Nathan’s hot dog or an Arby’s roast beef sandwich or maybe a Whopper with Cheese.”
His reference to these items reflects his familiarity with the culinary landscape of the New Jersey Turnpike. Depending on the rest stop, a traveler can choose from among one of two unholy trinities: Nathan’s, Burger King, and Sbarro pizza, or KFC, McDonald’s, and Arby’s. These franchises have, I presume, engaged in some high level fast food negotiation so as to divide the Turnpike turf between them. My husband’s palate happens to have a chameleon-like versatility. If we were in Paris, he would go for moules frites or sole meuniere, but given that we’re heading toward the George Washington Bridge, it’s Nathan’s, Arby’s, or Burger King.
Not me. Fast food offends me in every possible way. Shall I review the clichéd litany? It is unhealthy, calorific, and overseasoned; the profusion of paper and plastic is bad for the environment; and the spaces it inhabits, esthetically repellent — vast trough-like arenas where humanity at its most ungainly congregates in order to stuff itself in record time.
I used to argue for a detour off the highway to seek out a diner, a luncheonette, a roadside restaurant — some place where the food would be prepared rather than mass-produced. But my husband (who does the driving and is therefore “the decider”) would have none of it. He maintains that such places reflect the great service feature of American democracy: the ability to deliver a hearty, relatively inexpensive, not unpalatable, and speedy dining experience. These franchises are also, he notes, a decided improvement over what was available to highway travelers in his youth. Just the name of the establishment associated with those childhood journeys is enough to set him going.
Howard Johnson’s. He recalls vividly the headache-inducing orange and teal décor, the plastic-upholstered booths, the interminable wait to catch the attention of the disturbingly cheerful waitress, the even longer wait for the meal itself — a depressing affair involving dry veal cutlets, overdone string beans, rubbery mac and cheese and, for dessert, crystallized chocolate ice cream. Those were the days, he reminds me, when having a meal required that all the food groups be represented — meat, a green vegetable, a starch, and a carb for dessert — even if each of these elements had been cooked to resemble sodden cardboard and even if you were delayed three hours on your trip to see Aunt Leona, said to be on the brink of death in Hackensack Hospital. During the protracted period of waiting for said meal, my husband recalls that his father fought with his mother about why they were visiting her Aunt Leona to begin with (neither of them liked her), while his younger sister, plied with chocolate milk to hold her until the delivery of her mac and cheese, spent an hour in the ladies room due to undiagnosed lactose intolerance. For some reason, in those days, no one made the logical deduction that a child who got a belly\ache after she drank a glass of milk might be suffering from something other than a stomach bug.
All this is by way of explaining my husband’s affection for rest stops where a good Nathan’s hot dog or Whopper with Cheese can be ordered, paid for, and wolfed down in less than three minutes. Being an understanding wife, I have tried to be game about the whole thing and order one of those McDonald’s salads (that look like they’ve been stored in a vacuum “to assure freshness” for two years) and keep comments like, “Did you know that a Whopper with Cheese has 39 grams of fat and 770 calories?” to a minimum.
But our most recent Turnpike venture brought a surprise. When we pulled into the Vince Lombardi Service Area near the George Washington Bridge for lunch, there, in place of that old workhorse Sbarro, with its overdone paninis and droopy pizza slices, was another franchise: Popeye’s. I had heard tell of Popeye’s from travelers to the southern and western reaches of our great land. Excellent southern style chicken, I was told by one acquaintance. Fast food at its best, said another.
The appearance of the unforeseen and the promise of possible quality lifted my spirits. I felt like I used to feel in airplanes right before they began the “dinner service” — a euphemism they don’t even pretend to resort to any longer, where meals have been eliminated entirely except on trips of 12 hours or more.
Excited by the prospect of sampling the famed Popeye’s, I immediately got at the end of a line of like-minded enthusiasts. My husband, not one to deviate from an established idea, went over to Nathan’s, where he was soon delivered two hot dogs and a small Coke (which is to say, a Coke appropriate for a small giant). He began to eat, while I stood in the Popeye’s line. I was behind a man from Chicago, who now lived in New Hampshire and said Popeye’s was what he missed most since moving to the Northeast. This whet my appetite further.
But there appeared to be problems with the Popeye’s staff. The two women behind the counter were moving with preternatural slowness. One was fiddling lackadaisically with the cash register where the receipt spool was jammed. Those of us in line waited while she fiddled unsuccessfully until, finally, a jolly looking manager appeared, poked around a bit, unjammed the receipt spool, and disappeared, only to have it jam again with the next customer. Meanwhile, the second young woman appeared to be moving underwater. She told the man from New Hampshire that the biscuits would be ready in three minutes, then began to brush a tray of biscuits with yellow batter very, very slowly. He waited. After all, he’d traveled all the way from New Hampshire. Finally, the jolly manager unjammed the cash register for the other server, and I ordered the Deluxe Chicken Sandwich Combo. Unfortunately, the chicken filets for the Deluxe Chicken Sandwich Combo were still cooking. They would, the woman said, take three minutes to be ready. Three minutes appeared to be the temporal coinage of Popeye’s, and could mean many things, though never three minutes. Soon, everyone was waiting three minutes for something. My husband has finished his two Nathan’s hot dogs and was eyeing me with annoyance.
Finally, the chicken filets for my sandwich were brought out and dumped in a wire rack. My server slowly drew on a pair of de rigeur plastic gloves and draped my filet onto its toasted bun. I was given my side dish (red beans and rice in a little plastic container, so hot I could barely touch it) and my small (i.e., for a small giant) Diet Pepsi. I paid my $7 and change and proceeded to the table. My husband had a look on his face that I imagine he used to have in Howard Johnson’s.
“This better be good,” he said.
I sampled the Deluxe Chicken Sandwich and give him a bite. And I am pleased to report that it was good. For fast food, albeit fast food you have to wait half an hour for, it was damned good. I would have liked to try the biscuits, but we had to get going and the guy from New Hampshire was still waiting his three minutes when we left the Vince Lombardi Service Area. • 5 August 2008
Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is author of the bestselling novels Jane Austen in Boca, Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan, and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale Review, The American Scholar, The Hudson Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Photo by Sabine01 via Flickr (Creative Commons)