An Excerpt from Tommy Tomlinson's THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
At almost 50 years old, he weighed 460 pounds. In his debut book, the local writer examines his enduring love affair with fast food and attempts to break his addiction
GREASE IS THE WORD
I CHEAT ON MY WIFE with a redhead named Wendy. Her place is just a couple of miles from our house. She’s always smiling when I pull up. She gives me exactly what I want. Every time I leave, I swear I won’t come back. I keep coming back.
Wendy is my favorite, but she’s not my only one. Sometimes I go across town for a quickie with a guy in a clown suit named Ronald.
Fast food is my deepest addiction. Since I was sixteen and got my first car, I’ve spent endless hours idling in drive-through lanes, waiting to trade my money for my fix. I did some deeply depressing calculations one afternoon and figured out that I’ve spent at least thirty dollars a week on fast food for the last thirty-five years. That comes to somewhere around fifty-five thousand dollars. Fuuuuuck. That’s enough for a bass boat or a new kitchen, with some left over to stash in the bank. Instead, I have invested it in Big Macs and big pants. If you’re addicted to anything and want to get one solid measure of how much it has hurt your life: Do the math.
Next time you go to a fast-food joint, take a slow walk around the parking lot. You’ll find the spaces filled with customers eating in their cars. That’s where the junkies hang out. Alone in your car, you can get the double Whopper and the onion rings and the chocolate shake, and nobody knows but the cashier who hands you the bag. Every car I’ve owned has ended up with salt in the cracks of the passenger seat and leftover napkins in the glove box.
It always makes me laugh to hear people say fast food doesn’t taste good. They are obviously trying to convince themselves. Fast food tastes FANTASTIC. It has been engineered and test-marketed and focus-grouped by billion-dollar corporations whose profits depend on getting customers to come back. God knows what meatish substance they use to fill a Taco Bell taco, but it’s amazing. On the face of it, a Big Mac is a terrible bargain. It’s ninety percent bread and shredded lettuce. Somewhere deep inside are two little disks of meat. But once you spelunk your way in there, those last three bites are fucking awesome. Eating a Big Mac is like being a shitty golfer. You might shoot 120, but all you remember is that one drive that split the middle of the fairway.
The main object of my food lust is a Wendy’s double with cheese: two greasy beef patties, sandwiched around a slice of American, nestled in a soft white bun. Foodies talk about umami, that sixth sense of food where savory flavor and tongue-coating texture blend into something damn near erotic. I get my Wendy’s double all the way, but the part I really like is out on the edge, where the meat and the cheese and the bread melt into pure umami. It’s a burst of pleasure so powerful I want it again and again.
Not long ago, I was in the drive-through and called out my regular order.
“I’ll have a number two combo, medium-sized, with a Dr Pepper, and—”
The cashier cut in.
“—And a junior bacon, right?”
I was at the anonymous fast-food joint, ordering in the most anonymous way possible. But I went there so often that the cashier knew what I wanted just from my voice.
I’d become a regular.
I told myself I was never going back again. I was back in a week.
By the way: My regular order (double cheese combo with medium fries and Dr Pepper, plus a junior bacon cheeseburger) costs $10.37 at my local Wendy’s. But that’s not the real price. The FDA says the average American man should eat about 2,500 calories a day. That meal alone comes in at 1,910.
BURGER KING WAS a big night for us when I was a kid. In the 1970s, the three of us could eat for less than ten bucks. My mom and dad made minimum wage, or somewhere around it, for most of their lives. The local Sizzler might as well have been the Four Seasons. It’s easy to look down on fast food. But it’s a cheap night out of the house, and when you’re poor, that counts for a lot.
Still, we mostly ate at home. I didn’t start scarfing fast food in volume until I was in high school, working at the drive-in, making my own money. My friend Bert, who ran the projectors, lived his life in exclamation points. He did pull-ups on the metal beams at the concession stand. He hit massive home runs in our Saturday softball games. He wired home stereo speakers to the tape deck in his station wagon and blasted “Bohemian Rhapsody.” He ate big, too, and spent a lot of time thinking about how to get the maximum fast food for his money. He had decided the best deal was regular cheeseburgers at McDonald’s. So once a week, after softball, we’d hit the drive-through and split a dozen. I was fourteen years old but felt grown and rich. Every time that bag came through the window, it looked like a sack of doubloons.
When I got my own car, my fast-food intake quintupled. Maybe it heptupled or octupled. There was definitely tupling going on. McDonald’s on the way home from school. Steak tacos from Del Taco on the way back from the beach. In those days I played a lot of tennis with my best friends Virgil and Perry. After the match we’d hydrate with vodka and Gatorade. Then I’d grab a sack of Krystal burgers on the way home. I believe this was also John McEnroe’s fitness program in the eighties.
The great writer Calvin Trillin once said that if you don’t think your hometown hamburger place is the best hamburger place in the world, you’re a sissy. In that spirit, let me inform you that my hometown hot-dog joint, Willie’s Wee-Nee Wagon, is the best hot-dog joint in the world. I would argue (and have argued) that it is the best restaurant in the world. It’s a homely old low-slung building on Altama Avenue, the main drag in Brunswick. There’s an awning, a screened-in porch, and a few picnic tables. The paint and the light are both yellowish. The sign out front reads WE RELISH YOUR BUN.
Willie’s makes great greasy burgers and pork chop sandwiches, but I never have those, because their hot dogs strike me directly in the soul. They’re perfectly grilled, cradled in steamed sesame-seed buns, with steak fries on the side and tea so sweet it could hold its shape without a cup. You can get a dog a dozen different ways at Willie’s, but I always default to a simple dog with coleslaw and cheese. I did a travel story on my hometown for the Charlotte Observer back in the nineties and wrote that if I were ever elected president, I’d have slaw-and-cheese dogs from Willie’s delivered to the White House every day. Somebody from Willie’s saw the story, clipped out that paragraph, and hung it on the wall. Twenty-some years later, it’s still there. This is one of my proudest achievements.
Everybody needs a third place—a bar or a coffee shop or a bookstore—somewhere to feel comfortable that’s not work or home. Willie’s was my third place for a lot of years. I went there to meet old friends. I went after getting in trouble with my folks. I took dates there at the end of the night, when our clothes were tousled and our appetites high. I slunk back there after getting dumped. I went when I didn’t know what else to do. I’d sit on the hood of my car, and somebody I knew would eventually show up.
A couple weeks after my sister died, I drove the forty miles from her place in Jesup to Willie’s. I ordered a dog and some fries and a tea and sat at one of the picnic tables to wait. The aroma sunk into my bones. The flow of customers coming up to the window was as familiar as breathing. They called out my order. I ate in the car. I grieved for Brenda and felt a little better.
This sounds pathetic, I know, but one of the things I get from fast food is companionship. I’m an introvert who learned to talk to strangers because I love my work and how it makes me feel. I adore my wife and family and friends. But I spent so much time alone in my room growing up. So much time alone when I was single. So much time working a day shift while Alix worked nights. These days I spend so much time working at home or in a hotel room somewhere. Aloneness has become my natural state. That’s not who I want to be, but it’s who I am. I have lived most of my life in my mind.
On those days when the gravity of solitude tries to pin me down, fast food serves as a little bridge to the other side. Sometimes, when I’m in a creative rut, I’ll take a drive to get out of the house and see things with a fresh eye. Almost always, I’ll end up in a drive-through somewhere. Maybe I’ll sit in the car and people-watch. Maybe I’ll just take my food home. But at least, I tell myself, I’ve been out among people for a while. I’ve tried to be human.
This is the cruel trick of most addictions. They’re so good at short-term comfort. I’m hungry, I’m lonely, I need to feel a part of the world. Other people soothe those pains with the bottle or the needle. I soothe them with burgers and fries. It pushes the hurt down the road a little bit, like paying the minimum on your creditcard bill every month. The debt never gets settled. Those little moments of comfort are also moments of avoiding the discomfort behind it. In that small instant when the salt and grease get into my veins, it’s a release. But then, when I look up and out and back, my life is measured not in days or years or heartbeats but in an unbroken string of takeout bags.
FAST FOOD IS not just burgers and tacos. It’s the stuff in vending machines and Jiffy Marts and the quick-foods aisle at the grocery store—all that stuff processed to the point where you’re not sure exactly what it’s made of. (I’ve eaten a million Cheetos in my life, but until I looked it up the other day, I never knew what the base ingredient was. Cornmeal, it turns out. There’s not a single thing about a Cheeto that makes me think of corn.)
The convenience store where I buy gas has a big rack of candy bars just inside the front door. At the top it has a photo of various snacks—M&M’s and gummy bears and mixed nuts, all arranged in mounds. The advertising pitch is just eight words:
SWEET CHEWY SOUR SALTY
The Flavors You Crave
You have to admire the copywriter who came up with that. There’s nothing subtle about it. There’s no half-hearted nod toward nutrition. It’s not even about what you like. It’s about what you crave. Convenience stores are places where people make thousands of bad decisions every day—lottery tickets, malt liquor, Marlboro reds, taquitos that have been spinning on that rolling warmer for two or three years. Some convenience stores sell wine in individual glasses, with lids, just in case you need a few slugs of chardonnay to get through the drive home. But nothing else in the store is advertised with the bluntness of junk food. There’s no sign over the cigarette rack that says NICOTINE—THE CHEMICAL YOU CRAVE.
I’m hooked on junk food in much the same way I’m hooked on football. Every Saturday and Sunday I watch players get carted off the field with concussions and shredded ACLs, but I try hard not to think about it because the game is so brutally beautiful. The difference with junk food is, it’s tearing up my own body. The evidence is obvious. But I’m so drawn to it that I’m not sure how far the junk-food giants would have to go to make me quit.
We’re now making Cheez-Its from cat hair and sawdust. Deal with it.
All right, dammit. Gimme the party-sized box.
Just look at what they’ve done to potatoes. A plain potato, baked or boiled, is not terrible for you. It’s not exactly health food, but it has vitamins and fiber. Potatoes kept Matt Damon alive in The Martian. He wouldn’t have survived on beets.
But dip potatoes in grease and they can kill you a hundred different ways, all of which I love. Waffle House hash browns, scattered on the grill and smothered with onions. Home fries, spread out in chunks next to a three-egg omelet. Tater tots, better out of the frozen-food aisle than at any restaurant. Bo-tato Rounds, the garlicky hockey pucks made by Bojangles’, the Southern fried-chicken chain. I could eat a stack of Bo-tato Rounds as high as my head.
French fries might be the one and only thing every American loves—we eat nearly thirty pounds per person per year. Picky little kids eat them. Old folks with weak stomachs eat them. Vegetarians and carnivores eat them. People who claim to hate fast food put on shades and a hat so they won’t get caught in the line for fries at McDonald’s. My wife, being virtuous, almost never orders fries. She just sneaks them off my plate. They need to be tested, she says.
But to me, the pinnacle of potato evolution is the potato chip. Other fried potatoes balance soft innards with a crispy crust. Potato chips are all crust. They don’t even taste that much like potatoes—they’re salt and grease and whatever magic dust they’re coated with. It seems as if every week there are new flavors: sriracha, ketchup, biscuits and gravy. They’ve yet to make one I don’t like. My favorite chips in the world are Utz sour cream and onion ripple chips. That green-and-white bag sways in my mind like a hula dancer. I’ve been staying away from them, trying to cut at least one thing out of my junk-food diet, but the ghost of the taste is still on my tongue. Every time I go in the grocery store, they’re buy one, get one free. He’s been holding out, says the store manager in my daydream, twirling his mustache. But he still wants them. Oh yes he does.
My worst fast-food spirals happen when Alix is out of town. Some days I’ll wake up and grab sausage biscuits and Bo-tato Rounds for breakfast, then a Big Mac meal for lunch, then my regular Wendy’s for supper. Sub in a big bag of Utz for the fries. Add a sleeve of Chips Ahoy or a pint of Ben & Jerry’s for dessert.
I did the math on all this one day and it just about knocked me over. On a really bad day I might eat 6,000 calories—roughly the same amount as the daily consumption for the average adult tiger. And it goes without saying that I’m not spending half my day chasing down wildebeest.
How does a human being end up weighing 460 pounds? Six thousand calories at a time.
I’ve never done hard drugs, but on the worst days I feel the way I’ve always imagined a heroin addict feels—blissful on the outside, self-hating underneath, chained to an anchor in a bottomless ocean. No way to make it to the surface. Might as well let go.
THIS IS WHERE the discussion about obesity always ends up: temptation vs. free will.
In some ways, human self-control is no match for the junk-food industry. The big food companies push sugary cereals and nutrition-free snacks to kids from the time they’re old enough to stare at a TV screen. (I can still sing the Honeycomb cereal theme from the seventies commercials—Honeycomb’s big / Yeah yeah yeah / It’s not small / No no no—even though I’m pretty sure I never ate a mouthful of Honeycomb cereal.) It feels wrongheaded at best, and evil at worst, for companies to put so much money and skill into making people want food that can ruin and kill them. In his awful life, Pablo Escobar never sold a product that hooked as many people as Oreos.
But the libertarian in me (it’s a small area near my gallbladder) believes that dodging the threats of the world is my own responsibility—especially as an adult. I wish constant sleepless nights on the advertising execs who get kids hooked on junk food. But what they made me crave when I was six shouldn’t dictate my life today. In the same way, all that fried chicken I ate growing up doesn’t make my mom and dad responsible for the Popeyes I ate yesterday. They did the best they knew how. I ought to do the best I know how. At some point we have to own our choices. If not, we’re eternally children.
For the last few years, every time I’ve bought fast food, I’ve kept the receipt in my billfold. The idea is that one of those meals will be the last fast-food meal I ever eat, and I want the receipt as a reminder. For now it’s a weary ritual: I buy something from the drive-through, toss the old receipt from my last meal, and replace it with the newest mistake. At my worst, I swap it out twice a day. For me, the biggest step toward becoming healthier is to just stop eating crap. It also feels like the hardest step.
Every so often I pull out the latest receipt and look at it. Most days the ink is still fresh. I think about that day when I’ll pull one out and it’ll be so old that it’s yellowed and faded. I think about the day when it won’t be a symbol anymore but just a useless scrap of paper. I think about the day when I can throw it in the trash, not needing the reminder anymore, because I broke the addiction before it broke me.
TOMMY TOMLINSON is a writer in Charlotte. His first book, The Elephant in the Room, was published by Simon & Schuster on Jan. 15.