Ken Hoffman dishes with a Houston-born drive-thru gourmet who's made it big
It’s not a career move I would have done (I’m kidding), but Adam Chandler has written a book about Big Macs, Whoppers, Original Recipe Chicken, and Stuffed Crust Pizza and uses our fascination — and by fascination I mean addiction — with fast food as a metaphor for American life.
Chandler will be the headliner at Sneak Preview Night of the Houston Jewish Book and Arts Festival, October 17, at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston.
Chandler grew up in Houston, attended Poe Elementary, Trafton Academy, and Bellaire High before moving up to the northeast for college and for good. He remembers rolling into Whataburger at 11 pm, ordering a bag of breakfast taquitos and pushing the gas pedal to get home before curfew. (Yeah, him and every other kid who’s grown up in Houston the past 50 years.) He now lives in Brooklyn, where the world’s greatest pizza is only a few subway stops away, in any direction.
I spoke with Chandler, whose book, Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast Food Kingdom (that’s a mouthful) is a tasty, fun read, a No. 1 combo of cheeseburgers, fries and Jack Kerouac. I remembered to get close to the speaker and talk clearly.
CultureMap: Before we get started, and I’ve got to warn you, 10 Questions can end right here. You grew up in Houston and you live in New York. Who are you rooting for in the American League Championship Series?
Adam Chandler: The Astros! I hate the Yankees!
CM: You’ve written articles for many major publications: Time, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times. But this is your first book. Why did you pick fast food as your subject?
AC: I grew up in Houston, love Whataburger, love the experience of driving. Now I’m in New York where you don’t drive, people hate fast food, at least the cultural attitude toward fast food is a lot more negative. I think fast food is an interesting way to talk about other issues, not just politics, but wages and health and how people eat and how people gather. People may say they hate fast food, but they eat it. It’s the great common denominator. The stats back it up – 96 percent of Americans eat fast food at least once a year. That’s more people than use the Internet.”
CM: How long did it take you to write the book, in terms of time and weight gain?
AC: It took me about three years of research and writing to put this book together. At one point, I was averaging about 3,200 calories a day for about six months. I only gained about seven pounds. It’s a different story now that I’m out on tour with the book and meeting people who want to sit and eat a burger with me. That’s where the real trouble is.
CM: Give me your roadmap for researching the book.
AC: I started at the Whataburger flagship in Corpus and drove to the first Ray Kroc-owned McDonald’s by the Great Lakes, right up the gut of America. The theme of the book is these two unsung, wonderful American coasts that nobody really talks about. There’s a lot of stuff happening between the Gulf Coast and the Great Lakes.
CM: Whose commercials are funnier, Jack in the Box or Sonic Drive-In?
AC: I think Jack in the Box. I don’t like the Sonic guys that much, but I know their commercials play well.
CM: Where do you stand on the national minimum wage debate, which affects tens of thousands of fast food workers?
AC: I think we absolutely need to raise the minimum wage. It’s not just for fast food, it’s the entire food and hospitality industries. You don’t have sick leave or healthcare. I was a bartender in New York for six years. Let’s say it’s a slow night, like the day after Super Bowl. You may walk away with $20. The entire system is unfair. The emphasis is on fast food workers, but it’s important to focus on all the workers in food and hospitality.
CM: Best burger? Best fried chicken? Best sub? Best pizza?
AC: Best burger is Whataburger. I’ve heard about their new Breakfast Burger and it sounds amazing. Best fried chicken, can I say Frenchy’s? Best sub, I’m going to say Potbelly. Best pizza, there’s a place in Brooklyn called Di Fara. It’s the kind of place where the owner has calloused hands and pulls pizzas out of oven with his bare hands. I like Joe’s Pizza in Greenwich Village for slices. It’s the quintessential New York slice experience. You can drop your slice on the floor and it still tastes great. When I was in Houston, I loved Bambolino’s, which was near my house, and Mr. Gatti’s.
CM: What’s the most disgusting, horrible, awful thing you ate while researching the book?
AC: Fried butter at a fair in Missouri. It looked like a Twinkie, but instead of cream filling, there was butter. I didn’t feel great after eating it. You could see me half a mile away, I was shiny.
CM: In-N-Out Burger is finally coming to Houston. Everybody’s excited. What is the mystique about that place?
AC: There are so few of them nationally. I think people associate In-N-Out with California, which has its own mystique. There’s good weather, you could be standing next to attractive people late at night. But mostly, you’re getting something that most people can’t get anywhere else.
CM: What makes Chick-fil-A so special?
AC: As a family-run business, Chick-fil-A is still relatively small. They have their hands of operations. Their service can’t be matched. The service is consistent. Part of their service protocol is, when you say thank you, instead of them saying you’re welcome, they’ll say ‘my pleasure.’ It’s that extra step of hospitality that people embrace.
Chandler headliners Sneak Preview Night of the Houston Jewish Book and Arts Festival, October 17, at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston (5601 S. Braeswood Blvd.). Tickets are $15 for members and $21 for the public.