Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Vanishing Fast Food Joints

Everything I have read recently tells me that the majority of Americans are still not eating nourishing foods. Baseline: we eat too much junk food, including fast food. Before I go any further, I shall confess that I am one of those fast food junkies. I’ll not go into detail, but given the choice between (1) fried fish and broiled fish, I’ll take the former; (2) a pizza or a salad, again I’ll select the former. Need I go on? I think you have a snapshot of my preferred eating habits.

Still, in the last few weeks I have noticed a phenomenon taking place not too far from where I live. I first became aware of it a few days ago when I was on my way home from an appointment at the VA hospital and decided it was much too hot in my house to cook. (Good excuse, huh?) I’ll admit that I was also influenced by those Arby’s TV commercials that offer “5 for $5.95” and my mind swirled with possible combinations of roast beef sandwiches, curly fries, milk shakes, and apple (& cherry) turnovers.

Therefore, I turned left rather than right onto Shelbyville Road and drove to the Arby’s where my Uncle Otto and Aunt Lill and I had eaten so many times. Can you understand the jolt I felt when I arrived at the spot where that Arby’s had sat for more than forty years and found a vacant lot? What surprised me most was that I had been by that corner only a few days before and the Arby’s had been there, with folks inside it purchasing beef sandwiches, curly fries, milk shakes, and apple (& cherry) turnovers. What happened?

Even before that Arby’s had been torn down, the second oldest White Castle (a few blocks away on the same thoroughfare) had been demolished. The oldest had been torn down a decade or so before. Now, the loss of an Arby’s is one thing, but the loss of those two White Castles removed from the landscape two landmarks of gastronomic memories.

The oldest White Castle in Louisville had been located at the corner of Eastern Parkway and Bardstown Road. It was the first “hamburger joint” (as my father called them) that my taste buds had ever, uh, experienced.

When I was a very young kid, my parents, little sister, and I would pile into out 1950 Ford “woody” station wagon and trek across town to that White Castle. My father would leave us in the car (there was no “eat in dining” at White Castle in those days), go into the white building, and return with a bag filled with five cent hamburgers. The four of us would devour those small, onion drenched burgers (I’d have my mom remove the pickles from mine) in the car while we sat in the parking lot.

Even as a social worker in the 1970s, if my itinerary brought me close to that White Castle at lunch time, that’s where I’d “dine.” When I returned to Louisville in 1997 and found this first hamburger joint of my childhood had disappeared in favor of a small strip mall, I was devastated.

The other now defunct White Castle was located near where I now live:

The White Caste at Shelbyville Road & Breckinridge Lane (posted in memoriam on a local Louisville website)

That White Castle, too, has special memories for me. During the summers when I was a teenager, I “worked” for my Uncle Otto in his sheet metal business. Actually, I don’t know how much “work” I actually did: it was more as if I was Otto’s sidekick. His employees did most of the work.

I often stayed at the home of Uncle Ott and Aunt Lill most of those summers. And, many mornings, on the way into his shop, Otto and I stopped at that White Castle on the corner of Breckinridge Lane and Shelbyville Road for breakfast.Otto claimed that White Castle had the best coffee anywhere; I didn’t mind breakfasting on doughnuts and hot chocolate. And, of course, sometimes if we were in the vicinity at lunch time, we’d make a second trip and share a dozen hamburgers. (By that age I was eating the pickles, too).

This morning I took a picture of the corner where the White Castle Uncle Ott and I frequented had once stood:

I have no idea what in being built here, but it sure ain’t no White Castle!

So what’s going on? Why are all of the fast food joints disappearing? I am sure that it isn’t because we are giving up on fast food. But something must be behind the vanishing fast food joints!

Since I can’t answer that question, I offer this eulogy to the White Castles I have known:

Gutbusters, gluies, stomach bombs, sliders:
Let us name the little square things
with their five stigmata inexplicable.
Not respectfully.
Their sanctum is no cardinal's cathedral
but a stainless porcelain & shining steel temple
where pure spirit meets impure food
and martyrdom is a matter of digestion.
Only street-corner bodhisattvas can swear
to the holiness of this liturgy
It's the idea of the thing, the form,
so mysterious to snobs and dilettantes
that is sacred to these fast-food militants.
They choose by act of faith, of will
by bun and burger to take their sacraments.
And in the glow of a greasy fluorescence,
in the giddy gothic modernism
of drive-in battlements and streamlined sandwiches,
they give themselves over to steamy ecstasy.

~ Author Unknown

Yes, there are still White Castle hamburger joints in Louisville. However, for the most part, they are now all located in suburbia, which discounts the gastronomic desires of city dwellers such as me. Come to think of it, one is open 24/7 and even though it is midnight, I just might…


  1. Don't know if they are owned by the same company, but down our way those type burgers are Krystals - and they are still doing business. I too enjoy Arby's roast beef sandwiches and especially their cherry turnovers. ec

  2. I loooooooooove white castle. In fact, when I go back to the states next week, that just might be the first stop for the British friends tagging along!

    I don't think its a matter of fast food places disappearing, as it is about cramming them into smaller spaces, like a mall, or places like Walmart, who house McDonalds or Subway, or both!

  3. Don't know those fast food outlets but in Australia we have the same problem...oh they're not disappearing...they seem to be multiplying with great rapidity. Now we have the problem of too many fat young Australians. The reason? Too much junkfood. Dunno what "they're" going to do about it.

  4. Thank God we don't have many fast-food places over here - BK, McD and various pizza places... nothing appetizing...

    ryc: thank you! So it's not just me to think it was slightly off the normality scale?

  5. Oh! I truly love White Castles! Unfortunately, the closest one to me is more than 600 miles away. I can get frozen burgers from the grocery, but they just don’t taste the same.

  6. My theory is this - there is a great logoisation going on. We want a coffee? Can't go to the corner cafe - MUST HAVE STARBUCKS.

    And I think its the same with food.

    Second trend I see? Tear it down and build condos.

    Not great trends, if you ask me. I'm all for variety in the crap we ingest!

  7. They can't compete with Mickie D's and BK, probably.

    I wish we had an Arby's here. I like their roast beef sandwiches better than hamburgers.

    I don't think White Castle ever made it this far west but I remember them on the east coast years ago.

    We can buy them frozen by the box here. Good but not quite the same.

  8. I have not eaten fast food in so long that I don not think my system could stand it.

  9. Skip the fast foods and eat healthy:

  10. I've never been to a White Castle. I don't care much for Arby's either.

    In fact, I don't eat fast food if I can help it. If I want a quick meal on the go I will run into a local convience store and pick up a chicken wrap or something along those lines. Much tastier in my opinion.

    Of the fast food places in my town, I can only tolerate Wendy's...and even then, that's only once in a blue moon. I never liked the taste of Burger King. McDonalds food makes me feel ill after eating it. I get bad "poor hygeine" vibes from Taco Bell. And KFC...well, I have too much of a conscious to eat the dead carcass of a defenseless animal that spent her whole life being tortured and abused before feeding me. Even if it wasn't for that horrible treatment, the hormones alone turn me off. Do I really want to subject my body to all those hormones? If they cause a chicken to grow three times their normal size, what do you think it could do to a person. So I refuse to eat there.

  11. Haven't noticed ant fast food places vanishing yet where I am. Everything "Super" seems to be going in though. Thanks for the ode!

    Rebecca Roebuck
    Supporting American Farmers
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  12. I enjoy an Arby’s roast beef occasionally. I gave up White Castle hamburgers before I moved west. Sporadically I miss the distinctive White Castle smell and taste, but I never miss the urgent need to locate a toilet shortly after eating them.

  13. locally-owned breakfast houses are disappearing from missoula. we used to have at least a dozen of them...

    people around here used to get up it seems like most jobs are 9-5...

    i used to love to come in at 6am, and breakfast with men who actually worked for a living. nowadays there's only a couple of places left...ruby's cafe and paul's pancake house.

    the other restaurants serving breakfast are actually casinos or coffee houses...montana is disappearing to the service industry and gambling addictions.

  14. Wonderful post, Nick! It's America's "War on Big Fat" now that the "War on Big Tobacco" has ended. While personally I need to eat less and less of this junk on a regular basis, you've just got to have that corner 'burger joint' for the occasional greasy food fix! I hope you were able to repair to a nearby White Castle for your midnight cravings :D

  15. i sooooooooooo luv those burgers

  16. My cousins used to call them Whitey One-bites. I liked the fish sandwiches.