Today I ate a 2-patty super burger, a corndog, french fries, and 5 donuts. Thats right. Two big, hand-shaped patties, topped with lettuce, dripping with cheese, and with a generous dollop of ketchup. It wasn’t exactly what I ordered, but the carhop brought me someone else’s meal and I didn’t realize until I’d already got home with it. What else could I do? It was all very fortuitous, though, I’ve had an unexplainable corndog craving all day, and then God miraculously gave me one. So, if you’re one of those people who thinks he doesn’t answer prayers…..well, I just got a free corndog. Even though, in hindsight, I don’t know why I didn’t just order one in the first place. But whatever, it all worked out. Oh, and before you judge, I didn’t actually finish the burger or the fries, but I had a good time trying. As for the donuts…well I don’t know what kind of self control you guys have, but to be honest I don’t have any.
I only hope whoever got my baby burger and fries instead of all that is just as happy as I am about the exchange!
As you can see by the picture above, the donuts are a little flat. They’re kind of misshapen, the holes aren’t round, and the icing is a little sloppy. The cream filling is bursting out the sides. When you peek through their back door, you don’t see a donut assembly line a-la Krispy Kreme churning out picture-perfect specimens, just a simple flour-covered baking table. And oh man, they are delicious. Light, fluffy, and the perfect quantity of filling. The lemon one had what tasted like real lemon curd, not some cheap artificially flavored gel. Before purchasing, the lady brought me some samples of the sour cream donut, claiming she’d “put on 5 pounds since they started carrying it.” After a taste, I could see why. And then I went against my better judgement and bought a half dozen for $3.
This silly little donut place, Richy Creme Donuts, turned 65 last year, making it just a few years older than the drive-in down the street, where the burger mix-up took place. When I was a kid, I figured drive-in’s were a thing of myth, until finally a Sonic opened and we all excitedly drove like a half hour down the road for mini banana splits. It’s a little silly perhaps, but we’re all a little bit led by nostalgia, aren’t we? I’m not sure we left feeling satisfied by Sonic’s mass-produced fare, but whether it’s a local dive or a chain restaurant, it’s still a fun experience, isn’t it?
Then, while a student, I got a job at an art gallery in downtown Raleigh, and started venturing down the road to the old Chargrill Burger joint for lunch. Chargrill is still my favorite burger in town, not just because the burger itself is pretty darn good (there’s usually a reason places stick around for 50 years), but because I like walking up to the window, writing my order on a slip of paper and sticking it through the slot to the cooks, who then make my burger to order exactly how I like it. Sticking slips through the window is a kind of a silly system when you think about it, but it’s just part of what Chargrill is.
It’s kind of special, y’know, a ritual of sorts, something that doesn’t happen just anywhere you go.
And perhaps it’s not as efficient as a drive-thru where they’ve already got hamburgers packaged up and sitting under heat lamps, ready to toss carelessly into bags and then shove out a window at a moment’s notice, but sometimes you don’t just want fast food, you want to feel you’re enjoying something authentic, something that is lasting, something that is important to the history of your town and your personal experience. And crazy as it sounds, sometimes something as simple as a hamburger can be all that.
Hum-dinger Drive-In definitely wasn’t fast, but it was authentic…at least, it was to me, a 25-year-old who never got to experience drive-in’s the first time around and to whom the 50’s just look a lot like Poodle Skirts and Grease. But perhaps that’s why I always find myself at places like this. Why, when it’s not even suppertime and I’m not hungry and I just left the donut shop with a whole bag of donuts, I still can’t resist swinging in to the parking lot to see what it’s all about.
It’s kind of like something Chuck Klosterman wrote once, “It’s uncomfortable to admit this, but technology has made the ability to remember things borderline irrelevant. Having a deep memory used to be a real competitive advantage, but now it’s like having the ability to multiply four-digit numbers in your head — impressive, but not essential.
Yet people will still want to remember stuff.
People enjoy remembering things. Remembering creates meaning.”
It’s strange to say I can remember something I never experienced in the first place, but I did a degree in History, itself not much more than a study of collective memory…which is exactly what little places like Hum-Dinger, Chargrill, Richy Creme, and who know what other places I haven’t discovered yet, give to a community. A collective memory. They exist in a world where Mcdonald’s isn’t readily available on every corner in America; instead, they have menus that have been shaped by time and local tastes. They give us special moments and experiences, they give us an anchor to place. They have old pictures on the walls of locals enjoying themselves, jerseys on the walls worn by High School ball players. They spell “potato” like “tater”. They boast themselves to be the inventors of fried bologna sandwiches. It doesn’t even matter if, in the scheme of things, they themselves really aren’t all that unique, and didn’t really invent anything because everybody in the world already knows about fried bologna sandwiches. But they give that community something unique to call its own, to identify it, and to glue it to its past.
And yknow, I think the existence of Hum-Dinger and Richy Creme are part of what makes me really like this town. Even if they did get my order wrong.