Tag Archives: white castle

King of hearts

7 Aug

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One of the most solemn men that I have ever known is also responsible for possibly the greatest belly laugh of my entire life.

The man, chief of cardiac surgery at a renowned New York medical insitution, had one day earlier spent eight hours performing an open-heart procedure on a 42-year-old patient named Joe.

“So,” said the man, sounding uncharacteristically warm as he took a seat on his patient’s hospital bed, “how are you feeling today?”

“Okay,” Joe whispered unconvincingly. “How are you feeling today?”

The surgeon smiled briefly and reported that he was doing just fine, then moved closer to his patient.

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” he said sounding genuinely concerned.

Struggling with discomfort all Joe could manage was a head nod.

“What I’m wondering, see, I mean considering your history, as well as your family’s, of course, which we’ve discussed…”

For a chief surgeon the man was coming awfully close to stammering, which raised the anxiety level in the room considerably. After all, this was not the first but the second time he had performed surgery on this patient in just five years. How could a professional possessing such skill and confidence behave so tentatively? What awful news was he attempting to deliver?

“Would you ever, just possibly, well…” He paused and straightened himself, as if readying for confession, then blurted out, but ever so softly, “consider the idea of becoming a vegetarian?”

The words hovered above the men for what felt like several moments of electrified silence. In reality it took but a few seconds for Joe to summon what little strength he could muster and answer the man.

“Fuck. No.”

The surgeon and I collapsed into such prolonged laughter that two nurses and as many aides appeared at the doorway to see what the fuss was about.

I probably should have mentioned my presence in the room earlier. Joe is my brother, you see, and I love him very, very much. Where else in the world could I possibly have been at that moment?

Today is his 58th birthday. More important, sixteen years have passed since the last time he was wheeled into an operating room. So this is a good day, one that is worth celebrating.

Joe takes much better care of himself these days. He doesn’t smoke anymore, goes to the gym every morning before work, golfs most every weekend from April through November, and moved to a much nicer neighborhood than he had grown accustomed to for more years than was wise or necessary.

I wish I could say that he eats as well as he should. Joe was diligent about keeping a healthful diet for a few years after his surgeries, but as time has lapsed so too has his discipline.

A heart-healthful vegetarian he is not.

Like me my brother is a product of a very particular culinary heritage: Italian American. More to the point, we each stubbornly embrace this heritage, no matter how many annual physicals we put behind us.

Joe is also a bachelor who works long hours, which presents its own set of menu challenges. His refrigerator is often stocked with prepared foods, many from the Italian grocery/deli a few blocks from his apartment in Queens. There are often balls of fresh mozzarella, arancini stuffed with ground beef and peas, chicken and/or eggplant parm, sausages with broccoli rabe; you get the idea.

I visit Joe a few times a year, always staying in his apartment, usually just the two of us. For a while there I tried being a good brother, suggesting going out for sushi when I really wanted a burger and a beer, or Chinese when our favorite old-school Italian Don Peppe was what I desired. I cannot tell you how many times I have sneaked away alone to a White Castle in order to protect my brother from an unhealthful craving that we both share.

Lately when Joe and I spend a couple days together we eat and drink what we want, without regard to his or our family’s unpleasant coronary history. Recently we were sitting at the bar at his favorite Italian spot in the new neighborhood. About midway into a bottle of red I stopped and surveyed the landscape before us: manicotti, meatballs, lasagne, baked clams, pizza topped with burrata and prosciutto di parma.

I thought about how the surgeon had once tried—and failed—to move my brother in a new direction, but kept it to myself. We were enjoying our evening out together and I wasn’t about to ruin things by being a nag. Besides, I don’t exactly have the cred to lecture anybody about responsible eating.

Maybe it’s time I started working on becoming a better brother.

Happy Birthday Joe!

A Christmas Story

17 Dec

‘Twas not the night before, but Christmas Day itself. Late in the day, actually. It had been dark a few hours already. I remember it being bone-chillingly cold.

I was sixteen or seventeen. The family dinner had taken place earlier in the afternoon. At around seven o’clock or so I walked over to my girlfriend’s house. Her family was a lot like mine, Italian-American tight you know, and so I figured that an appearance on such a holiday would be appreciated, if not expected.

To get to her place I had to walk past the White Castle on the corner of Atlantic and Shepherd Avenues. This was in the East New York section of Brooklyn, I should mention, the place where I was raised. Going past the restaurant on Christmas Day was always both fun and spooky, because this was the only 24-hour period in the entire year that the place was closed. Often my friends and I would go by the White Castle just to witness it on Christmas Day, to see the lights out and the grills cold, to hear the quiet.

Sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against the glass door to the restaurant, was an elderly couple. Elderly to a teenager, I should say. They might have been in their fifties, as I am now. They were bundled up but not enough to my eye; their bodies were next to each other but not close enough to keep each other warm, I thought.

“Cold tonight,” the woman said as I walked past.

“Sure is,” the man repeated.

I nodded and kept walking. Moving was the only way I could keep warm.

After visiting a while I decided it was time to get back to my own family. Mom and Aunt Anna would be putting out an evening buffet and I wouldn’t want to miss it. As I said goodnight to my girlfriend’s grandmother she grabbed me tightly by the wrist and drew me toward her.

“You be good to my granddaughter,” she said in the thickest Italian accent. “Understand?”

Before I could answer the old lady kissed me and said I was a nice boy and that she liked me. Then she handed me a tray of my favorite Christmas cookies: cucidati, or fig cookies. I ate one right on the spot, or maybe it was two. They were extraordinary, better than my mom’s, in fact. I hugged the old lady very tightly and kissed her.

“You keep making me fig cookies like this,” I told her, “and I’ll be good to anybody you want.”

Approaching the White Castle I could see that the couple I’d seen earlier was still on the cold ground and against the door. It was around nine o’clock by now. Three hours before the place would reopen. They were waiting for exactly that, I realized. It hadn’t even occurred to me earlier.

Just as before the woman and then the man remarked upon the weather. Again I nodded and kept on my way. It seemed colder now.

After walking another half block or so I turned around and headed back to the White Castle. This time as I approached the couple I made sure to speak first.

“These are my favorite cookies, and I want you to have them,” I said handing them to the lady.

“Thank you, son,” the man said quickly and without looking up, most of his face buried inside the warmth of his coat.

“We’ll have them with some nice hot coffee in a little while,” the woman said. “Won’t we dear?”

I nodded and started on my way again.

“Merry Christmas,” I heard the woman say. “And good night.”

White Castle: what I crave

27 Sep
A way off-topic rant that has no business being on this particular food blog. Apologies. We will return to our regularly scheduled Italo food-focused programming just as soon as the new meds kick in.*
The blue in the upper right corner of the photo is a garment. Blue jeans, actually. They are mine and I am wearing them. The white foreground, a flimsy paper napkin, is held in place by the index finger — also mine — visible at the top left.
The setting is Atlantic Avenue, at the corner of Shepherd, in the borough of Brooklyn, New York, in the summer of 2011. It is the interior of my automobile, the driver’s seat, which I am occupying.
A car or a truck’s cabin is the ideal place to consume the main subject of this frame: the White Castle hamburger. I enjoyed six of the tasty burgers this day, but many times I have eaten far, far more than that.
Where I come from, “Buy’em by the sack” isn’t a slogan, it’s a mandate.
I grew up just around the corner from a White Castle, in fact the very one that I visited this summer. Well, not the very one. As with many of the restaurant chain’s older stores, this one was rebuilt from the asphalt up some years back, to better accommodate traffic flow for the oh-so-crucial drive-thru trade.
White Castle has always been the most convenient of places to fall into and satisfy your craving, no matter when it might strike. For as long as I can remember the restaurants have been open 24 hours a day, including holidays (yes, the Thanksgiving stuffing is good; I’ve had it). The only day that the stores are not open is Christmas.
Of course, it’s only convenient if you happen to live near one of the 400 or so White Castle restaurants in the U.S., which I no longer do. I have to travel through five states before reaching a store. The nearest locations to my current home are in New York and New Jersey, more than 300 miles away.
This seems to me an unnecessarily cruel and unusual siting strategy for a restaurant company that I have been so loyal to and for so long.
Doesn’t it?
I mean, would it kill these jokers to throw a store up someplace in the New England states? We have electricity up here, you know. Indoor plumbing too.
The way I figure, they owe me at least that much. I haven’t just spent sacks full of money in their restaurants over the years. What about the ways in which I have fiercely defended their product against those who are so quick to malign it. Doesn’t that count for something?
It takes courage to be a White Castle enthusiast, you know. Never has a fast food been more ridiculed than this one has. “Belly bomber” is the most common term used to denigrate the two-bite-and-you’re-done little square hamburgers. “Greasers” is another. “Sliders,” a term embraced by the company itself, is yet another, however it appears not to carry with it an air of negativity or shame.
That’s right, I said shame. You should see the way some people look at me when they find out that I eat at White Castle. You would think that I had just swallowed whole their little darling child’s adorable pet golden hamster, Freckles.
You know what, I really don’t give a crap what anybody thinks. I’d put a White Castle (the plain single is the only one I eat, by the way) up against any hamburger, any one at all. Yeah, that’s right, even those Five Guys characters that everybody is so all hopped up over these days, the ones who are growing like weeds in the gutter.
Get a grip, would you. The burger isn’t that good.
As for so many other bastions of burger blandness, the clown’s place or the king’s or any number of other mediocre restaurant “concepts,” as they are known? Hell, Freckles probably tastes better than most of them. (Sorry. The new meds*, remember?)
White Castles are anything but bland. Considering the way they are cooked, how could they be? First the hot grill is covered in finely chopped soft onions and water, which are then topped with little square hamburgers, each with five holes punched into them. (The holes allow steam to pass through the burger; this ensures quick cooking without flipping the patty.) On top of the patty goes the bun, which becomes infused with the steam coming from the onions and the beef as they cook. A dab of ketchup, slice of pickle, and you’ve got yourself one soft, moist, flavor-rich handful of tasty goddamn goodness — for around 75 cents!
Served in the blue, white and (lately) orange box that I love so very much.
If only the company’s knuckleheaded siting team would allow me to love them just a bit closer to home.
[*Shyster Jersey lawyer friend insists that I state publicly that “the new meds” are a literary device only, a fiction designed to justify this unusually out-of-place story’s appearance on this particular blog. I am not now, nor have I been treated with prescription pharmaceuticals of a mood-enhancing nature. Not yet anyway.]