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Such a Deal

On the perils of so-called 'bargain' dining, where you get more than you bargain for

By Christina Waters

ALL YOU HAVE TO DO is open your eyes and it'll hit you like a case of heartburn. America is becoming Fast Food Nation. All those greedy mouths yearning to eat free. People love to complain about not getting enough to eat in certain restaurants. They insist that they want huge portions--mammoth salads, steaks the size of the Oakland Coliseum. They want more food than they can eat.

Putting aside the obvious compensatory subtext of this mega-meal mentality--lack of mother's love, status rage, erectile dysfunction--let's just note that quantity appears to stand in for quality. Think, for example, of how often you've heard (or said) "I love that place--you really get a lot to eat." Why is getting a lot to eat so important? (Note that I am not quibbling with one's unalienable right to get enough to eat.) Are diners' taste buds so paralyzed, so flavor-deaf, that they need more and more sensory bombardment just to feel that they're having a dining experience?

Or are consumers so paranoid about being cheated that they need to see their buying power piled high on that plate?

Part of this love of fat, fast food comes from what I call the Bubbafication of America. Think of Bubba as Homer Simpson without the sophistication. Bubba is so laid-back that even those extra-large sweats have begun to feel too constricting. Bubba would rather rent a video than go to a movie theater where he can't belch out loud. The very idea of sitting upright in a chair that doesn't recline, that isn't padded with polyester pile, is unthinkable. So why would Bubba want to park the car, get out and sit down at a table with a white tablecloth when he can cruise by, yell his order at some kid, pick it up and eat it right there in his car.

The Bubbafication process also involves taking revenge on fancy restaurants. I'm tired of hearing Bubba complain about high prices at restaurants he's never set foot inside--the ones filled with people who are not wearing sweat pants. Is a clean table in an attractive atmosphere chopped liver? Your food has actually been prepared for you, from fresh ingredients, and it's brought to the table--you don't have to go up to the counter when they call your number. Yes, that roasted half chicken with fresh mashed potatoes and seasonal green beans will run you more than $3.19. It will also come with a fresh salad--salads contain minerals and fiber as well as delicious dressings. You will be able to call for as much of that well-made sourdough or francese--dipped into olive oil or spread with real butter--as you like. You will be able to take your time enjoying your meal. You can be reasonably sure that what you're eating is fresh, prepared with a minimum of fat.

Is a quick burger for $1.99 really such a better deal?

Consider what else you're getting when you buy three tacos for 99 cents. You will get full. You will get a quick fix of salt and grease (but you probably won't get anything resembling fresh, lean beef). You will without doubt be lining your arteries with fat, paving the way for future strokes, heart attacks and brain damage. And if you keep eating this way, you'll be well on your way to obesity. If you think I'm exaggerating, look at the other people in line at your favorite fast-food place.

Anyone who "saves money" by bringing home fast food should understand this: You are jump-starting your child's future as a diabetic or a heart-attack victim. Along with taking credit for her good report card, you can also take a bow for her high blood pressure, bad skin and obesity. While you're at it, why not do a little online investing in Pepto-Bismol and Rolaids? Your family will need it.

If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And if the stuff you're eating is unbelievably cheap, what does that say about your self-esteem?

YOU REALLY DO GET what you pay for--cheap prices, cheap experience. Consider the following field notes from my college-student informants; let's call them Rod and Noah. Fast-food aficionados, they can't work a stove. They don't have much money. They don't mind severe flatulence and two-day cases of heartburn.

They were perfect.

"The guilt really gets to me," Noah admitted after a week of fast-food tasting. "It's quick, cheap, sometimes tasty. But I always feel bad about myself. I notice all the fat people in these places and I vow 'never again.' I try to keep it to once a month. This stuff is really bad for me."

Both Noah and Rod sampled Burger King's 99-cent Italian chicken sandwich ($3.12 in combo with fries and soda). Noah's response: "Yuck. The 'marinara' tastes like ketchup with oregano in it. The chicken looks like it was run over by a train. The whole thing was dry, visually unappealing." He would never eat it again. Rod admitted, "This sandwich truly sucks," saying it put him off ever eating at Burger King again. "This sandwich will offend anyone's tastes--like geologically aged sedimentary rock disguised as food."

McDonald's $3.49 Filet-o-Fish combo ranked high with Noah, who confessed that it always brought back childhood memories: "I've been eatin' this crap since I was a wee li'l tyke." Noah loves the tarter sauce, found the sandwich way too small to fill him up and was happy to report that it caused no gas--though there was "massive burping from the soda."

Taco Bell's $6 order of chicken nachos, bean and cheese burrito, and Pepsi was "very filling," Noah said, adding that this combo produced "long-term gas," and that while the burrito was like glue, the nachos tasted "very zingy." Noah noted that he'd eat the nachos again, but will "never have another burrito," because, when bitten, the burrito spewed "fake neon green guacamole." Rod's Taco Bell experience--which included the new beef chalupa--provided a "fulfilling, pasty and tasty experience." And it also gave him "gas galore, which makes great fun with the guys the rest of the day."

Both tasters swear by KFC. Says Rod: "An all-out assault on the taste buds, peppery, salty, extremely filling, like a pile of greasy bricks. Of all the fast-food guys, you can't get more full than KFC--it's on a par with Taco Bell." Noah sampled the $4.49 Zinger Combo; the spicy orange cheesy goo sauce, which he liked, "tasted like Cheese Whiz" and the bun was "excellent--light and fluffy." In defense of his meal of original-recipe chicken, potato wedges, coleslaw and Dr. Pepper ($4.59), Rod paid his highest fast-food compliment: "Under five bucks to feel gorged to the point of sickness."

You do the math.

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From the March 8-15, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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