Today, I am going to ask you to go on a little trip to days gone by – when burgers reigned supreme and fast food seemed simpler.

Before we begin, though, let me say that I plead guilty to reminiscing about “the good old days.” But when you stop to think about that, it isn’t necessarily true that everything was better about those days. There have been some great advances in food lately; for example, we have more emphasis on local food and very good local chefs today. We have greater access to a wider variety of ingredients than we did even 20 years ago. So while I love nostalgia, I can take off the rose-colored glasses.

Still, the food and memories of the good old days hold a special place in my heart. When I was a kid, meals were eaten at home for the most part. But when you traveled you often got to enjoy one or two of the plethora of roadside eateries, mom-and-pop diamonds in the rough. National chains were around, but they didn’t dominate the landscape the way they do today. But one chain that did stand out back in my youth was McDonald’s, which celebrates an anniversary this month. (Ray Kroc opened his first McDonald’s on April 15, 1955 in Des Plaines, Ill.)

This advertisement harkens back to the days when going out to eat was special.

When I think of McDonald’s, I don’t think about the contemporary, global fast food icon. Instead, I remember it as it was in my own childhood memories. Recalling food from the past helps provide inspiration to create new memories, which is one of the basic ideas behind Zombie Burger + Drink Lab here in Des Moines.

All these years later, I can remember that smell of hamburgers and fries – no matter if it was locally-owned roadside cafe or a 1970’s McDonald’s, all burger joints had that smell. Thinking about it brings me back to those good old days. Oddly enough you don’t smell that smell outside a McDonald’s any longer. Some might think that is a good thing, but I do miss it.

For as much as I might be going on a nostalgic binge here, McDonald’s was in no way a huge part of my childhood. In fact, it was the opposite. McDonald’s was a special treat, like sharing a glass bottle of Coca-Cola with my brothers. (That was back when Coke came in an 8-pack of 16 ounce bottles. My dad must have been related to Mayor Bloomberg from NYC – we never were allowed us to have our own large bottle!)

This is the mascot who eventually lost his job to Ronald McDonald.

Back in the 70’s, McDonald’s offered what you would consider a pretty darn good road house burger: simply seasoned beef patties on white, pleasantly squishy buns with onion, pickles, mustard and ketchup. For an extra nickel, you could get a slice of American cheese, too. We did not have today’s “extreme” burgers – the closest thing we had was that “fancy pants” burger, the Big Mac (introduced in 1967, basically a copycat of the signature burger at Big Boy restaurants). Quick – can you still remember the jingle (without the aid of Google)?

Here goes: Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions all on a sesame seed bun.

The buns were also special – I don’t have any definitive proof of this, but I think they used fewer ingredients than they do nowadays. A typical formula back then likely included eggs, milk and sugar. Today, buns can have things like high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, and other additives which add shelf life and make it easier to mass produce and ship buns from centralized locations. Anyway, my memory is that the buns were softer and a bit squishy, which provided the inspiration for the “Zombie Bun” we produce at South Union Bakery. (I worked on that one for nearly a decade before I got it the way I wanted it!)

But the pièce de résistance at McDonald’s was their fries – they were (and still are) delicious. Blame McDonald’s for putting the idea in our head that a good French fry has to be ultra-thin and, in my opinion, unnaturally crispy.  They have to do a great deal to that potato to get that result; mostly, pulling the natural moisture out of the potatoes. Years ago, McDonald’s would cut their spuds in house and fry them in animal fat – a beef blend to be exact. They don’t do that any more, but if you want a taste of the past check out Django’s fries, which are hand-cut and cooked in duck fat. Fries cooked in animal fat are a beautiful thing.

Once upon a time McDonald’s Golden Arches really stood out on the landscape.

McDonald’s used to have wonderful unique fried pies. Regular fried pies are great, but these pies were something special. The chefs and home cooks who have attempted to make these little fried wonders will vouch for the difficulty in recreating these, so there was definitely some McDonald’s trickery mixed in. But I am happy to report that we’ve broken the secret code and these fried pies are on their way to a Zombie Burger near you!

A glimpse inside a regular burger from a 1973 McDonald’s training manual.

Now for a local angle, let’s stop briefly at Little John’s on 2nd Avenue here in Des Moines, a place that still brings back happy memories for me. Places like Little John’s are hard to find anywhere these days. The decor looks largely unchanged since the 70’s. They’re definitely not trying to follow the latest culinary craze – their relatively small menu has all the classics: burgers, fries, tenderloins, turnovers, shakes and soft drinks. The burgers are flame-broiled, then placed on a perfectly toasted bun and immediately wrapped in paper. This steams the burger, infusing the bun with great flavor and giving you a nice juicy sandwich. The pair the burger with some crispy, piping hot fries. Nothing crazy or creative, but as I will always say, there is NOTHING wrong with just plain good!

I spend a lot of time thinking of what draws us to classics and things that remind of us of those “good old days.” It comes down to something rather simple – memories!  For me, me of time I spent with my parents, brothers and sister and childhood friends. Recalling those special treats after a ballgame or celebrating a special occasion reminds me of when life was simpler. When I walk into Little John’s, that’s what I remember… and as much as we all change, it’s good to know that some things remain the same!

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