Learning from White Castle

article image
Image by Flickr user: Marshall Astor - Food Pornographer / Creative Commons

From August 13 to 16, 2010, I ate at White Castle #100034 in East Williamsburg 12 times. I live around the corner from the restaurant and use it to guide friends to my apartment all the time. I happen to be a vegetarian. Like most fast food establishments, White Castle doesn’t really cater to diners like me, but as part of a recent effort to explore neighborhood businesses I know nothing about, I decided to spend a few days recording and analyzing life in my local chain restaurant. Here are some observations.

1:31 p.m. 8/13/10. How White Castle Explains Capitalism.

As expected, there isn’t much for the non-carnivorous to eat here. French fries and a “small” soft drink (21 ounces!) cost me a reasonable $3.46. Drink refills are free.

The restaurant offers seven “Saver Sack” meal options, which get you two or three tiny White Castle burgers, plus fries and a soft drink, for $2.99. Solid mathematical deduction demonstrates that it is cheaper to buy three hamburgers, fries, and a drink than just fries and a drink.

7:12 p.m. 8/13/10. How White Castle Explains Aesthetics.

The interior of White Castle #100034 feels a little cramped. It is not a welcoming dining space. The kitchen and staff areas are encased in bulletproof glass. You sit on benches made of lacquered plywood and consume your onion rings ($1.72) on melamine tables the color of muggy summer skies. It is meat-locker cold. The bathrooms are also cordoned off by bulletproof glass and you have to gesture (through more glass) at someone in the kitchen to buzz you in.  Out of the 11 occasions I ate at WC, only once was I asked “to stay or to go?” and given a meal tray; every other time my food came in a paper or plastic sack.

The word crave is everywhere–customers are called Cravers, the menu subdivisions are Sandwich Cravings, Drink Cravings, etc.–and cravings are immediate, short-lived. You satisfy them and then they’re gone.

9:34 p.m. 8/13/10. How White Castle Explains Pedagogy.

On the bottom of every White Castle box is a fun factoid or quip. Some are just dry bits of trivia: “White Castle patented its unique five-hole Slyder® in 1954.” Others resemble Buddhist koans: “White Castle is open after dark. But why is it called after dark when it’s really after light?”

9:40 p.m. 8/13/10. How White Castle Explains Charisma.

This evening, three men are conspiring in a booth. One of them, whom I’ll call Purple Hat, is hoping to get the phone number of one of the WC workers. His heavyset friend, White Shirt, is coaching him. The Third Man mostly just laughs and says nothing.

White Shirt [loudly; the girl can hear him]: She right there! Go!

Purple Hat: Aight.

Purple Hat stands up and walks over to the registers. White Shirt and Third Man cheer him on and then White Shirt guffaws.

White Shirt: Get that burger outcha hand! Are you still chewing?

Purple Hat [to girl]: Excuse me? Excuse me?

White Shirt: I’m sorry, miss. He don’t mean no disrespect. Yo, put the burger down!

Girl: How old are you?

Purple Hat: Twenty-one.

Girl: You not twenty-one.

Purple Hat: Swear on my moms.

Girl: Go back to your friends.

Purple Hat: Lemme getcha digits?

Girl: My digits?

Unintelligible yelling from kitchen. Girl vanishes. Purple Hat retreats, smiling but a little furious with himself. White Shirt and Third Man are slumped over in the booth, hands over their mouths.

White Shirt: You get her digits? [Can’t hold his laughter.] What you want, her pin number?

2:49 p.m. 8/14/10. Discursion.

In a second-floor gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art hangs a large oil painting called The Harvesters by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c. 1565). The Harvesters depicts farm laborers in early fall, some eating their midday meal under a pear tree while others reap wheat in the fields nearby.

Viewing this painting with an order of White Castle French Toast Sticks and a small black coffee ($3.11) in your system will make you a little jealous of these men and women. You’ve just experienced the total separation of food from its sources, and patronized a place where food preparation has been cleaved from tradition and natural processes. Compare this to the world of the painting, where everything the peasants are eating has come directly from the land that surrounds them. For a moment, before you consider how much of a pain in the ass it would be to be a field worker in 16th-century Europe, you envy those peasants.

5:50 p.m. 8/14/10. How White Castle Explains Illusion.

On the bottom of my box of fries: “If a regular White Castle burger has four sides, shouldn’t a Double Hamburger have eight sides? Yet it doesn’t.”

11:23 p.m. 8/14/10. How White Castle Explains Boundaries.

“Everything has its limits. While noted for adding its own special flavor to White Castle burgers, a slice of cheese does not make a very good coaster for a cup of hot coffee.”

12:54 a.m. 8/15/10. How White Castle Explains Legacy.

The liveliest time to visit White Castle #100034 is after midnight, when the runoff from two nearby bars come staggering in. The late-night clientele are nothing like the baggy-jeans-and-chains crowd one sees at dinner or the small families and traffic cops who drop by at lunchtime. At 1 a.m., when I stop by for some cheese sticks, the place is crowded with tattooed twentysomethings in cutoffs and Ray-Bans, discussing music video shoots and Adrien Brody sightings. One man orders a cardboard suitcase filled with 30 cheeseburgers and rechristens it “the Bolaño” because the price works out to be $26.66.

I notice the four killers in the last booth, all ladies who have to be at least 70. They sport knit sweaters and polyester pants and wear their hair in finespun bouffants. The oldest has on a black wig that’s not fooling anyone. From their accents I can tell they’re the real locals, the descendants of Italians and Eastern Europeans who’ve lived in this neighborhood since World War I. The women eat their miniature apple turnovers ($0.85) and watch the action.

“What are these kids doing here so late?” one of them asks, and I’m tempted to pose the same question to them. We’re pissing away our youth in bars and burger joints, ladies. What are you doing here?

Except White Castle has been around since 1921 and these women have probably been eating WC sliders since before we were born. There’s a photo print mounted on the wall next to the women, four beautiful twentysomethings in a Studebaker at a New York White Castle, circa 1941. Decades later, here they are again (plausibly), and here we “kids” are, all of us enjoying late-night life, stealing looks at one another between bites.

Excerpted from The Brooklyn Rail(Sept. 2010), a journal of arts, politics, and culture. www.brooklynrail.org

This article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.