The Dinner Table: My Lap, Sitting in The Passenger Seat of a Jeep Liberty Sport
A personal narrative essay on my food ethic and how it relates to finances and fast food.
In the past few months, I have read a lot about the dangers of fast food, the crime of convenience, and the unhealthy chemicals that go into feeding capitalism. All of this, however convincing, does not stop my craving for a chocolate frosty and spicy chicken nuggets from Wendy’s. That’s my order, with french fries, ketchup and honey mustard on the side. As we’re ordering, Riley makes a face when I ask for a chocolate frosty because her and Ava Kadence both get vanilla. She asks if we want anything else, a drink or sandwich, making sure we won’t go hungry. After we get the food, Riley whips the steering wheel to the right and Ava Kadence has a small heart attack because Riley’s driving really stresses her out. I check that Riley actually puts the car in park, because even though she’s never done it before, it definitely seems like something she would do. We would pull into the little parking line off of the drive-through, a gorgeous view overlooking the State Farm insurance building and cars speeding by on Main Ave. Sometimes we see people walking by with dogs-Riley and I get excited while Ava Kadence rolls her eyes.
The food would be in my lap; Riley haphazardly threw it to me after she took it from the guy at the window. I can picture it in my mind, she’s holding her credit card in her mouth because she doesn’t want to hold up the line putting it back in her wallet. We protested that she shouldn’t pay for us again, we beat her one time, even after she had already handed him her card. He joked with us and said it declined as he handed it back to her and took the $20 from my hand. It could’ve actually declined, that’s happened before too.
The honey mustard is at the bottom of the bag, I would take it out and set it on the arm rest in between the two front seats for Ava Kadence while we share a ten-piece spicy chicken nugget. It’s the goldilocks of bundles, because 4 feels like too little, and 6 is too much. We each get 5 and I have to hand her each one from the passenger seat where I hold the carton in my hand. Riley asks, ‘where’s my sandwich’, and I hand her the crispy chicken sitting next to the extra sauce at the bottom of the crinkly bag. This happens a lot, eating fast food in Riley’s car, our ice cream held between our thighs because we keep our phones in the cup holders and have never thought to move them. We laugh for twenty minutes as the nuggets dwindle. We reach into the bag for fries until they’re gone (or on the floor of Riley’s car where they seem to wind up without fail), and even then there’s still some at the bottom. We put our trash in the bag, and even though Riley says that it’s okay, I still can not make myself throw trash to the back of her car, so I make her do it.
In those moments, I’m not thinking about the chemicals likely embedded in my chicken nugget, if it is actually chicken. Or the corn bi-products used to thicken up the sugary soft-serve ice cream coating my plastic spoon. I don’t feel guilty about the feed farms, or the under-paid farmers. I don’t think about the carton of blueberries I could have bought for the price of 16 chicken nuggets that would not have made me feel as full. I don’t even think about the calories I’m consuming or how bloated and gross and guilty I’m going to feel later. I just feel grateful and happy.
When we hang out, there isn’t a house to go to, Riley’s is too far, Ava Kadence’s is full of kids, and mine is complicated. We’ve spent so much time villainizing fast food places because of the things they produce, but have not stopped to think about why teenagers go to them so much. They’re a safe haven. They’re a parking lot to sit in, a conversation to laugh about, and memories to have. They’re warm food, not just snacks from City Market, and affordable for three teens reliant on the free-and-reduced lunch program. They’re the bounty that graces the dashboard dinner table of our youthful, eclectic, chaotic found family.
Despite my current love of baking bread and the food network, I never had a person to drive me to the farmer’s market every Saturday; I didn’t even know that it was something I should’ve asked for. When I do cook every once in a blue moon, I spend hours browsing the web to find the perfect recipe, usually with minimalist ingredients, and follow it exactly, too afraid of wasting resources on failed experiments. The first time I went to a barbeque with my rock climbing team, I baked a gluten free lemon meringue pie, being more loose with a recipe than I ever had before. I felt the joy of being able to feed a group besides usually just buying Wendy’s for my friends.
After we grow up and become slightly more thoughtful and intentional with our food decisions, my friends and I are going to throw the best dinner parties. We’ll have money to splurge, we can cook together, argue over dishes and quiche, with space and time readily available. Someone will bring wine, and cake, and maybe we’ll play board games if they’re still around. We will have grown most of the produce ourselves, or outsourced an adventure to the farmer’s market together. We’ll sit around the dinner table as a family and recount all the times we would laugh on our route through the drive-through, run around the grocery store at 10 pm, and sit in parked cars eating. We’ll be sitting at a real table then, with cotton napkins on our laps, knowing that although the quality of food has changed, the quality of company hasn’t.
When Riley would drive us home, Wendy’s would always be the place we stopped because it’s on the road between school and our houses. Just when we’re getting close, when our short-lived adventures in the navy blue Jeep Liberty Sport are coming to an end, Riley would ask, ‘Am I the only one really craving a frosty right now?’, and we would spend a few more minutes fighting over fries and drinking melted ice cream before our drive would be over, and the memory of our curbside conversations would fill our bellies instead.