White Castle has a significant place in the history of American popular food, and its influence has spread up the food chain to influence many fancier places that now feel obliged to offer "sliders" of Kobe and foie gras.
Recently, I was talking to my oldest daughter, Abigail, and I mentioned that I couldn't see how anyone could actually "crave" White Castle products.
"When's the last time you had one," she asked, with challenge in her voice.
I couldn't remember the last time I'd had a White Castle hamburger.
So walking along Cermak in Chicago a few days later, I stopped in at a WC (an acronym that now seems presciently accurate).
During the 1980s, I did a lot of consulting work with McDonald's, and although I rarely eat at McDonald's, I do admire the Henry Ford-like efficiency of their assembly-line food delivery system (with many innovations thanks to Oak Parker Ray Kroc, who revolutionized the industry, allowing for truly "fast" food).
At WC, I had ordered two sliders and a small fries – I didn't time it, but I'd estimate it took more than five minutes to get my order together; there were people at the drive-through, but only one other person in line; at various points in my short visit, two different WC employees people came to get my order and take my money; there seemed no obvious organization to what they were doing.
What I received was two double cheeseburgers and a medium onion rings, but I'd already opened the package, so I just accepted my fate. I didn't want to wait another five minutes. Unfortunately, I was hungry so I ate one of the double cheeseburgers, though I could only eat one and one-half onion rings.
To say it was bad would not begin to describe this eating experience, and I realize this is not exactly a bulletin to the world, but I had no idea that the sliders were so thoroughly abhorrent.
The meat was grey, and the texture was such that it wasn't clear if the meat was actually cooked or just tinted: it was very, very soft. So soft and thin, in fact, you could actually bend the patty over without breaking it.
The onion rings were astoundingly free of flavor. I don't even know how you could drain an onion of taste to the degree that these onion rings were tasteless. They came with "zinger sauce," which I believe was a type of cheese food product.
People say WC sliders are greasy, but I would have appreciated a little actual animal grease in this food; it might have added some flavor.
I do not believe I'm an abstemious eater, but eating at WC made me feel unclean.
According to the WC website, "White Castle is more than a company. It's an experience that transcends time, space and sometimes, rational thought." To that list of things transcended, I'd add "taste."
I try not to be judgmental (really, I do), but there is something very wrong if you crave food like this.
Now, while I was there, a woman came in with a small child and bought a slider for each of them. I found that kind of touching, as it was clear this lady probably didn't have money for much more. More's the pity, and I understand, appreciate and weep for people who are left with so few choices about dinner.
But if you have options, and you eat at White Castle, and you're not falling down drunk or so chemically altered as to be irresponsible for your actions, and if you believe that you crave this crap, seek help.
As for me, well, I'm glad I tried it. I consider eating stuff like this part of a continuing education about food. And as Bruce Willis said in the rather odd movie version of Fast Food Nation, "We all have to eat a little shit from time to time."