Years ago, on a discussion board, someone started a thread titled: “What are your food confessions?” Broadly, the title meant: “What favorite dishes are you afraid to claim in polite company?” As so often happens, respondents seized on the call to confess as an excuse to show off. Responses ran along the lines of: “Gator’s pretty high in cholesterol, but it hits the spot, especially when you’ve caught it yourself!”; “Got hooked on roast shoulder of rock ape when I was in Nam with the 2/5 Marines”; “Call me crazy — I’m just a fugu kind of gal!”
Being more literal-minded, I wrote back: “I can’t get enough of the jalapeno-and-cheese hot dogs they sell at Circle K.” What followed — cross my heart — was one of those moments where you could hear throats being cleared across an Internet connection. I haven’t felt so painfully aware of breaking a social taboo since that time I told an ethnic joke while passing gas in a crowded elevator, after I’d eaten a couple of jalapeno-and-cheese hot dogs from Circle K.
Well, here on my blog, where I get to serve as commissar of good taste, I hereby decree it respectable to love convenience-store fare. I speak here with the additional authority of a foodie to the salmon mayonnaise manner born. Growing up within sleepwalking distance of Zabar’s, the iconic deli, I learned the taste of smoked sturgeon, pecorino foglie di noce, and once, when the two of us were at summer camp together, the lips of the daughter of Zabar’s current owner. (They were sweet and salty, like honeydew and prosciutto.) Since then, like a lot of Americans, I’ve come down in the world. Whatever bottom-feeding might be doing to my cardiovascular system, it’s gone pretty easy on my taste buds, stomach and general sense of well-being
Taking the last of these first, convenience-store food is, first and foremost, comfort food. Evidence suggests comfort food deserves the name, since it might actually calm diners down. Pecoraro, Dallman and La Fleur — three researchers with names like gourmet cheeses — found that adult male rats supplied with lard and water containing 30% fructose managed to gain weight, even while being subjected to stress. A control group supplied with regular “chow” stopped both eating and growing. Thus, researchers conclude, the rats who ate the comfort food experienced a reduction in stress-induced neural sympathetic outflow. Compared to the others’, their bodies took less note of stressful laboratory conditions and went on behaving normally.
Carb-laden and grease-baptized, convenience-store food is probably as close an equivalent to what those rats ate as any human could find outside of a secret government research center. In the stomach, it sits heavily, like a set of gas fireplace logs, and gives off the same kind of warm glow. The life of a writer amounts to an endless train of emotional crises — Is this really funny? Does that count as plagiarism? And I’ve found that a steady trickle of these slow-burning munchies works on my nerves like Prozac or transcendental meditation. In the two hours or so after I’ve scarfed down a taquito, it becomes much harder than usual to resent my rivals’ page views.
When it comes to delicacies prepared in-house, convenience stores are by no means equal. The Zabar’s, or the Trader Joe’s, would have to be Quik-Trip, or QT, as the smart set calls it. QT taquitos are slender and elegant, like the flautas served in the best Mexican restaurants. They are, to the blocky tornados served at Circle K, as P.F. Chang’s spring rolls are to Jade Panda Buffet’s egg rolls. Speaking of egg rolls, QT’s might not be crispy or flaky, but they’re far closer than the oil spills sold at Jack-in-the-Box.
But after a certain point, that kind of self-conscious high-endness tends to subvert whatever’s convenient about a convenient store. QT takes itself just a little too seriously for my tastes. Whenever I walk in wearing an un-collared shirt, the gaze of the cashier — usually a person as clean-cut, and as stern, as a Citadel cadet — makes me wilt a little for shame. If I wanted that experience, I’d go clubbing.
No, my comfort zone starts a little farther down the ladder, at 7-11 or Circle K. Their menus aren’t bad, by any means. Dressed up in sweet relish and brown mustard (Heinz’s, from a plastic squeeze-bottle on the counter) and laid in a soft poppyseed bun, a 7-11 all-beef frank can compete for taste and price with any frank I’ve had in any ballpark in America. Circle K goes a little further out on a limb, to generally good effect. Not only do they impregnate their franks with real jalapenos and fake cheese, for a time they encased the same fake cheese in tubes of real ground beef and dubbed the result their “cheeseburger dog.” With ketchup, it carried the flavor of the backyard grill (or rather, a backyard grill after many hours of honest use). If it had the look of a stool sample, well, so did the shashlik I’ve seen in Moscow’s top Georgian restaurants.
But it’s the service at these humbler convenience stores that makes the trip into a dining experience. And by “service,” I mean, of course, the counter girls. In age, size and color, convenience store clerks show at least as much variety as lawyers, but there’s one type that occurs often enough to qualify as iconic. Female, late thirties to early fifties, Rubensesque, these angels of the till show signs of wear that serve just as surely as reminders of mileage that remains. In a word, they flirt — beaming, batting eyes, tossing out “honey” and “sweetie.” The effect is at once homey and exotic, like being hustled for drinks in a Yukon cathouse by a motherly madam named Big Dolly.
A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a rag-time tune…
You get the idea.
I’ve never found the nerve to ask them exactly why they lavish such geisha-like attention on morons who line up six or seven deep to pay $2.39 for a Slim Jim or $7.99 for a six-pack of Stella Artois. Since there’s never a tip jar in sight, I’ll venture they slap on the personal touches because doing so makes them feel less robotic and more human. Maybe they read a cautionary tale in the flat affect of their sisters in the TSA and the power company’s billing department. If that’s the case, then I’m happy to smile back — it makes me, in a sense, a patron of the arts.
A better question might be why I’m lavishing such skald-like attention on crap food. I can think of three reasons. The first is practical: Americans eat crap. Always have, always will. Unlike fast food chains, convenience stores don’t encourage patrons to load up on it with super-sizing options. (Nor do they guiltily hedge their bets by offering lean, yuppified dishes like grilled chicken breast sandwiches or Caesar salad.) No, convenience-store deals are modest and straightforward: at Circle K, $3.03 will get you two hot dogs, a small bag of chips and a fountain drink; $2.50, a pair of breakfast burritos, or two ham-egg-and-cheese biscuit sandwiches. You’ll swell, but you won’t burst. You’ll die, but you’ll die slowly, and relatively stress free.
The second is kind of on the religious side. I remember walking, as a kid, through the supermarket toy aisles and wincing at the godawful, third-rate merchandise: action figures with the personality of chess pieces; toy guns that looked as ready to shatter in a user’s hand as a Saturday night special. Then I’d feel guilty. Someone, somewhere, had sat down and said, “Okay, what can we make for kids that’s cheap, but not totally un-fun?” Some mother, somewhere, was pleading with her son, “Look! This stuff is almost as cool as Star Wars stuff, isn’t it?” The crap toys deserved my respect just for being there, and so, I think, does crap food. Of St. Francis, people said, “He hears those God Himself won’t listen to.” I like to think I’m following the same impulse, finding beauty in lepers.
The third? Well, let’s just say I’m serving the interests of fairness. The New York Times Magazine published a beautiful essay by Pico Iyer on Lawson convenience store and its importance to his life as an expatriate in Japan. The New Yorker sent Calvin Trillin to Singapore to review the food sold by street “hawkers.” Before we can appreciate anyone else’s basse cuisine and culture, we ought to make an effort to appreciate our own. Like charity, hipsterism should begin at home.