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Junk Food Isn’t a Crime

March 10, 2015

Junk food is not a crime. It’s an indulgence.

Not too long ago, I got into a little dust-up on Twitter regarding this theme. And it may be an unexpected cause for someone like me to champion. After all, I was the fellow who took on the role of the Salmon Police a few years back.

Last week I really got to experience the true dichotomy of this when I visited 9 Miles East Farm and the new Sonic in Latham on the very same day. One makes three-day fermented sourdough pizza crusts as a delivery vehicle for their farm’s seasonal, sustainably raised produce. The other is a national burger chain that leverages the nostalgia for the drive-in to push saturated fat, salt, refined grains, and sugar into the arteries of millions.

But here’s the thing. Saturated fat, salt, refined grains, and sugar are totally delicious. And you’ll find that killer combination on the menu at the best restaurants in the world. Granted, the ingredients will be better and portions will be smaller, but the meals are longer and contain many more courses.

Junk food is a treat. The trick, I suppose, is how do you convince the rest of the country.

Far too often, when I walk into a fast food restaurant, it’s hard to find anyone truly enjoying their meals. There is no excitement when they peruse the menu. There are no signs that anyone is savoring a bite.

And that makes sense. This indulgence has become commonplace. It’s all too familiar.

The problem with junk food isn’t the food itself. If you were to ask me, I would say that it’s the conflation of junk food with actual food that reflects a failure of our society. And it’s a failure that runs deep.

There’s a layer about nutritional awareness, and the economics of school lunches that do little to teach our children about making healthful choices. There’s the one about underpaid workers and the economic necessity for working-class families to find cheap calories. There’s the one about the state of the family and the economic need for households to contain two working parents with little time to cook. There’s the one about economics and… well, maybe there’s a theme somewhere in here.

I think “failure of our society” sums it up pretty well.

Sonic is actually in a unique position coming into the Capital Region. The restaurant is still very much a treat. For years the brand’s television advertising has spilled into the DMA despite the nearest location being an hour away.

The day of Sonic’s press event, I actually met two of the people who would regularly drive down to Kingston to get a taste of their favorite indulgence. And interestingly, both had Facebook petitions to try and get the brand to come to the Capital Region.

I don’t think I’ve ever had Sonic, or if I did, it was 20 years ago and I have no concrete memories of the meal. In my mind, I’m pretty sure I’ve conflated the brand with Checkers, largely because they arrived in Miami at about the same time.

So I asked these Sonic lovers what I should get when our first Sonic finally arrives in June.

Tina Bartholomeu, who took her now-husband to a Sonic in Fort Worth on their first date, had good things to say about the chain’s BLT and tater tots. On their date, the pair ordered something called a brown bag special, which is apparently no longer a thing. But slushies, which are drinks made from crushed ice and real strawberries get the thumbs up from Tina.

Devin Brent is 21 and he’s more of a burger and shake kind of guy. He too picks the tots over the fries, but he says both serve really just as a delivery device for Sonic’s honey mustard. There is no honey mustard on his burger. Devin said he’s “all about the beef” so he gets a cheeseburger with simply bacon and ketchup. He appreciates the toasted bun, but really notices a “fresher taste” than other burger places.

I’ll have to give it a try.

It may be more difficult to get me to order one of Devin’s favorite milkshakes. Neither the peanut butter and bacon nor the strawberry cheesecake (with bits of actual cake) sound terribly appealing. But there are a tremendous variety of shakes to choose from, so maybe there will be something I like.

The point of the above exercise is to simply demonstrate that there are people out there love this food. Surely, there are others who eat it mechanically, just shoving it down their throats without a thought or care. But I’m not going to suggest that those who have a deep affection for something should be denied their pleasure because it’s “junk”.

That kind of thinking could very easily litigate my beloved deep-fried buffalo burger out of existence. And that would be a tragedy. However, given our current state of affairs, it’s eerily imaginable.

Food doesn’t need to be safe. It doesn’t need to be healthy. Food should neither be vilified, nor should it put on a pedestal. Eating too many carrots or drinking too much water is bad for you too, and that’s what happens when we create “good foods” and “bad foods”.

Just know what’s a treat and what’s not. And if something that should be a treat isn’t bringing you any joy, then it’s probably best you give that food a second thought.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Beck permalink
    March 10, 2015 10:57 am

    I think this is a really sensible approach to food. I try not to label foods “good” or “bad” either, and get annoyed at the barrage of “guilt-free” labels on food items, or women – it’s always women – saying they’re being “bad” because they’re eating junk food. I’m trying not to pass this harmful (in my opinion) view of food onto my son. He’s two; so far, so good, anyway.

    My husband and I stopped at the Sonic in Kingston a while back because we’d never had it and the commercials got to us. He was unimpressed by a burger, but I had really good chicken strips. I seem to remember enjoying our shakes, too. The various soft drink options don’t much appeal to me, but I prefer drinking water or unsweetened tea. Not something I’d go out of my way for, but as an occasional treat? Sure.

  2. David Nardolillo (DEN) permalink
    March 10, 2015 10:57 am

    I lived in Minnesota when the first ones opened there. When it first opened, they had to have police direct traffic and the owners had secured space in parking lots of adjacent merchants to create waiting areas for the first month or so.

    As for the food, the limeade stood out (I had it with cherry flavor added) as a tasty and unique item that I would go back for. The rest of the food was not bad, but did not strike me as particularly unique or noteworthy. The real knock on the place for me was how lousy I felt afterwards, as in much lousier than most junk food experiences. After more research, I blamed it on the large order of tots with cheese I would get (which I learned has as much sodium alone as eating 2 big macs and 2 large fries at McDonalds).

  3. -R. permalink
    March 10, 2015 11:03 am

    Daniel, are you getting soft in your advancing years? Do I sense moderation in your tone? IMO, that’s a good thing, since everything has its own time and place, Sonic and The Crimson Sparrow can happily occupy two very different niches in the gastronomic sphere. Sometimes you just need to eat, and shoveling down a greasy burger, fries and a shake can be just as rewarding as eating a carefully executed and curated tasting menu; sometimes you need comforting sustenance, other times you like your palate challenged. I recently began to personally survey all of the typical fast-food joints that I swore off at least a decade ago – McD’s, BK Lounge, Wendy, Arby, etc – you know, curiosity. Well, I haven’t been missing anything, that’s for sure (nor am I saving any money by patronizing such establishments) and I would have to believe Sonic would likely fit into the same category as well. That’s OK, and I’m happy for folks who believe that a local Sonic will change their gustatory lives – whatever works – I’m sure curiosity will get me to your door as well, Sonic. I myself will be swinging by the Illium Cafe and having a fine Cubano today – beats the hell out of a whopper.

  4. March 10, 2015 11:08 am

    I lived in the Norfolk/Virginia Beach are for 6 years, there are Sonics everywhere there. What I liked best was that they served their breakfast menu all the time. The Bacon/egg/Cheese and sausage/egg/cheese “toasters” are awesome! I would eat them over their burgers.

    They also have tater tots instead of fries, which are great (they always tended to be a little overdone though).

    I’ll definitely hit up this Sonic once in a while. I wish it was in a more convenient location, though. Trying to get a left turn out of there will be a major PITA I’m sure.

  5. March 10, 2015 11:48 am

    You’re killing me. When is the 9 Miles East Farm post? Enquiring minds want to know.

  6. March 10, 2015 12:35 pm

    Page one of the post made me angry enough to write in for the first time, to explain the societal reasons that junk food IS a crime. But then page two recited (pretty well!) all the reasons I would have mentioned. So now I just think (a) junk food is a crime and (b) your position is incoherent. The only way to reconcile page one with page two is by accepting that this blog is about food exclusively, even to the extent of ignoring the political realities you yourself have introduced into the discusssion. Incoherent.

    • Jack C permalink
      March 10, 2015 5:12 pm

      “If you were to ask me, I would say that it’s the conflation of junk food with actual food that reflects a failure of our society. And it’s a failure that runs deep.” I don’t see any incoherence. Recognizing the value of “treat” food in no way precludes a real discussion about the effects of treat/junk food’s prevalence. This isn’t an “all-or-nothing” debate. It’s a question of degrees. I don’t want to live in a world without milkshakes. If that’s your political position (“junk food is a crime” leaves no room for nuance/degrees), then you’re being unreasonable.

  7. chrisck permalink
    March 10, 2015 3:05 pm

    Just curious: how infrequently (on average) would you eat something for it to be deemed a “treat”? I ask this of myself. Seems like treats have become almost the norm in the American diet. How many different treats can one consume before a diet is dominated more by the treats than the healthy food?

  8. March 10, 2015 4:17 pm

    I just put up a post this morning on my blog extolling the virtues of Kraft mac-n-cheese.

  9. March 12, 2015 10:33 am

    Daniel I think you have finally gone over to the dark side. To me a treat isn’t greasy french fries and a burger, it’s something luxurious and healthy and beautiful on the inside too, like a perfectly ripe avocado or a tender risotto topped with a seared sea scallop. I want my food to taste good and be good for me and for the environment. I’ll so skips on Sonic just like the rest of the fast food joints that dominate the highway rest stops.

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