Thursday, January 17, 2008

King Midas's Lunch

A while back, I posted on the anniversary of the Big Mac, so now it's the Whopper's turn. 2007 marked the Golden Anniversary of the Whopper.

I have an odd ideological truce with the Whopper, since I have always been pretty much a Mustard Guy when it comes to saucing preferences on my burger. Mayonnaise just doesn't work for me. Yet something about the particular combination of mayo and ketchup on the Whopper (mixed with grease, of course) makes the Whopper the exception that proves the rule. The Whopper is the one mayo burger that I will occasionally go out of my way to eat.

Of course, part of the success of the Whopper was that it was more of a home-style burger than its competitors. McDonald's, White Castle... those burgers were fast and tasty, but you'd never make something like that at home. At home, you'd throw some burgers on the grill, then load 'em up with lettuce and onions and tomatoes, just like BK. The King tried to play up this feature of their burgers in the 80's when they trotted out what is possibly the worst jingle I've ever heard in a national campaign, "We do it like you'd do it when we do it like we do it at Burger King."

The ironic thing, of course, is that the Whopper's home-style goodness, its char-broiled flavor and the way it comes to your hands hot and fresh, is the result of a series of industrial, machine-fabricated illusions. There's no guy in back flipping burgers on a charcoal grill; the patties are run on a conveyor through a flame-broiling machine, which imparts their smoky flavor and burns in the sear lines. Then the cooked patties (caveat: I have never worked in a Burger King, so I may have some process details wrong, but I've watched the guys in the back enough to think I've got a good handle on the general process) are held in a warmer until a burger is ordered, at which time the precooked patty is assembled with the other ingredients, then zapped in a microwave to give it a "fresh-cooked" feel.

In fact, the first microwave I ever saw was in a Burger King in Oklahoma City when I was a teenager. We didn't have many Burger Kings where I lived. We had tons of McDonalds, a few Wendy's (urgh-square patties, greasy buns and no flavor to speak of), the odd Whataburger where rumor had it there was actual meat mixed in with the salt. When I was very small, we went to the A&W Drive-In. Soon enough, those phased out and we were stuck with Sonic and Coits (a local drive-in with excellent root beer).

Then there were the local independent places with really awesome burgers, although I'm sure I'd be horrified if I saw the kitchens. Charcoal Oven and Split-T and Johnny's all had real charcoal broiled taste and hickory sauce. There was another place that I loved, but can't remember the name of, where you ordered via a little red phone at your booth. Their burgers were good, but what I really loved were the curly Q's. Thin and long with the peel still on, they were the standard by which all other curly fries must be measured.

But Burger King... It was a franchise operation, and nobody in our part of town seemed willing to risk opening one or something. I wasn't introduced to Burger King in a big way until I moved away to college. There was one right across the street from the USC campus, and I ate there at least three times a week, and twice on Dungeons and Dragons Saturdays. And then, when I moved back home, why, there was a Burger King a half-mile from my house, so I became a frequent visitor.

It's been an odd strange trip for Burger King. Always relegated to the number two spot behind McDonald's. They tried competing with the Golden Arches for the kid market by introducing the "Marvelous, Magical Burger King" in the 70's, but it didn't go over. They tried competing by burger quality and flame-broiled taste, but they were never able to penetrate McDonald's market share. The Pillsbury sell-off in the late 80's really hurt their operations and morale, and next thing you know, they were trying desperate experiments like deluxe platters with table service.

But all of that is in the past, right? Burger King is now a resurgent brand, with off-the-wall viral ads like Subservient Chicken and a revitalized menu of politically incorrect choices like the Triple Stacker. And concurrent with the 40th anniversary of the Big Mac, BK could honestly say that the Whopper is even more distinguished at 50. This is the Whopper's time to shine, its golden age. Surely if there were ever a time that the Whopper could stand on its own with pride, without acting like McDonald's envious little sister, that time is now.

But sadly, no. I've got a Burger King tray liner in front of me, celebrating the 50th anniversary, where it describes the Whopper's attributes in what are supposed to be breezy, fun, light-hearted terms. Reading through it, though, the thing just reeks of desperate envy. "Burgers with a bun in the middle will feel much lighter." "Kissed by fire, never fried." "'Secret Sauce' not required." Reading the tray liner as I eat, I'm thinking, "Man, a Big Mac would sure be tasty right now."

Basically, I just want to grab the King by the throat and say, "Congratulations on your anniversary. Now get some therapy. Seriously."

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