If you’ve been reading this site from the beginning, you’ve read some of my stories about how obsessed I was with food from my earliest days. I don’t remember a lot about my childhood, but the memories I do have all seem to be related my pursuit of “good” food.
When I was 12 I lived in Palos Verdes, a hilly peninsula on the south side of Los Angeles. I loved to bicycle, but since I lived a good thousand feet from the city below, going anywhere was a bit daunting. If you headed down, you knew it was a long climb back up, and if you headed up… well, it was tough – a very long, steep hill before you got to any real destination. None of this really mattered to me, because I knew whatever direction I might take, the end result would somehow involve food. Fortunately, my best friend Jeff was nearly as adventurous as me, had his own state-of-the-art three speed(!) bicycle, and was always game for my crazy pilgrimages for food. One fatal afternoon, it was the pursuit of a papa burger, but before I tell the story, you need a bit of history.
In my early years, I was dragged all over the western United States with my parents. They were big on backpacking, and we’d frequently venture off into the most remote corners of the Sierras. After five days of eating freeze-dried food, topics around the campfire at night would inevitably turn to what we’d eat after our return to civilization.
In those days, there weren’t many places to dine on the road; it was always a crapshoot as to the quality of food you might get, taking a chance on some unknown restaurant. There was one chain though, and its brown and orange restaurants used to show up in the oddest places: tiny little towns in the middle of nowhere, and just outside of national parks. We are talking, of course, about A&W root beer restaurants. Back then, they still had carhops, and burgers were named Papa Burger, Mama Burger, and, as I recall, Baby Burger.
Sure, you can sit here and scoff, but after a long backpacking trip, we’d pull into some small town, hot and dusty, and spot the orange paint from a half-mile down the street. To a 12-year-old, it was like finding nirvana – for you drinkers out there, today’s equivalent would be sighting an In-and-Out Burger within walking distance after a substantial evening of gin & tonics, but I digress.
I’ve often said that the difference between a good meal and a great meal is the experience itself; for me it was celebrating my escape from that hot, pre-air-conditioning car, and walking into the cool of the restaurant, feeling that frosty root beer float in my hands.
That fateful afternoon, I had finally convinced Jeff that a Papa Burger and root beer float was worth the 1000 foot climb back up the hill from Torrance, and so we set off on our bicycles, hurtling through Rockbluff Park, screaming down Hawthorne Boulevard towards our burgers. That is when I heard the unexpected sound of metal on asphalt, and looked back to see my friend flying through the air, coming in for a landing with his wrist bent into some impossible position. Just a short distance away, the A&W sign rotated like a beacon, saying “Just leave him… he’ll make it home… Papa Burgers”!
I squealed to a stop and sat there for a moment, looking back and forth between the sign and my friend lying in the road. I could smell French fries. After a few minutes of indecision; “Jeff later claimed it seemed like an hour”; I reluctantly turned and made my way back to him, leaving all my fantasies about the burger behind.
He was unable to bike for a long time after that, and since the whole idea was to share my meal fantasy with someone else, there just wasn’t much pleasure in going alone. I’ll never know if A&W was as good as I remembered, or if my previous experience was just the product of hot, dusty days of hiking and french fry fantasies. I do know that all these years later, I’m still mad at Jeff for getting his pants leg caught in the bike chain, and he’s probably still mad at me for those minutes of indecision.