January 11, 2012

A fast food disillusionment

Upon my return to the U.S. from Germany, I had a four-hour layover in Chicago and a plan: to get a smoothie from Jamba Juice, get a McDonald’s cheeseburger and savor my reintroduction to American fast food. That is, until I unwrapped my Big Mac and felt not a sense of relief (as in, “Finally, a real cheeseburger”) but disappointment.
This was only the first of many such incidences: Taco Bell tacos suddenly seemed puny, Subway could not satisfy and KFC chicken might as well have been mystery meat. There can be only one explanation for my disillusionment: the döner kebab.
For the unenlightened, a standard döner consists of roasted meat (often lamb or beef, although chicken is becoming increasingly popular) placed inside of a flatbread pocket with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and either garlic or spicy sauce. That all sounds very unremarkable, but what makes this treat so scrumptious is the experience, from the hot flatbread pulled out of the oven after you place your order to the meat sliced fresh off of the spit. Nothing is pre-made here. Nothing is pulled out of a freezer and zapped in an attempt to give it some color back. Nothing is questionably real, either; the only “mystery” is how shop workers are not driven over the edge by the lunch rush every day.
Faced with such a creation, American fast food simply cannot measure up. For example, I enjoy a hamburger as much as the next carnivore, but what you get from a typical burger chain is thrown together as quickly as possible with whatever ingredients can be kept in the fridge for seven years. The quality is lacking, the flavors are purged out by preservatives and the result is ultimately unsatisfying. Döner, on the other hand, is fresh and decently healthy, and I have never heard of someone not finishing one — not because you can do so in two bites as is possible with a Big Mac, but because you do not deserve to live if you do not savor every delectable bit of it.
Unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending: döner is originally a Turkish dish, and although it has spread to Germany and other European countries with large concentrations of Turkish immigrants, the U.S. has yet to catch on.
A quick Google search for “döner in the U.S.” turns up several threads where panicking exchange students learn that options are few and far between (although there is apparently a shop in Wichita). This could be attributed to the general lack of Turkish people in most areas of the country, but I choose instead to blame Americans’ taste in fast food because my cravings need something malleable at which to unleash their anger. True, some fast food places are trying to accomplish the first two by offering salads and such, but the idea that fast food can be simultaneously healthy, fresh and delicious is foreign to us. (When was the last time you really wanted to eat a salad?) We are so accustomed to pre-prepared fast food loaded with chemicals that we forget that there are alternatives that are just as fast while being a lot more natural.
Yet there is hope. On Monday evenings, the Oak Room now offers chicken schawarma, which is more or less the same as döner. (I have yet to try it, so I cannot attest to its authenticity.) Now to simply wait for the rest of the American fast food industry to catch on — and more importantly, for Americans to realize that taste, speed and freshness are not incompatible and to demand all three. Until then, for anyone who believes in the ability of fast food to both satisfy hunger and taste buds … road trip to Wichita?

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