Real Food in a Fast Food World

By Deane Barker

I worked at Hardees in high school – back in the 80s. Hardees is a fast-food chain specific to the Midwest, I think.

At the time, I didn’t recognize how high-quality the food was. I don’t whether this still holds true, but let me give you a couple examples of how good the food really was.

  • We got a big truck once a month with supplies – the bags and cups and ketchup packets and stuff you need to run a fast food restaurant. But the vegetables came on different trucks, much more frequently. The vegetable trucks looked somewhat local. They weren’t big semis with a Hardees logo on the side, they were smaller trucks driven by what I imagine was a farmer. The veggies weren’t frozen or anything. They were boxes of actual vegetables that looked like they had been packed a couple hours earlier.

  • We cut up the vegetables, by hand, just-in-time for insertion into other food products. For the salads, we actually washed the lettuce and the tomatoes, and we sliced them up and put them in the salad container. I think we even grated the cheese. I was making a salad at home the other day, and I got to thinking that the salads we made at Hardees 20 years ago were fresher than the salad I was making in my kitchen right then.

  • The tomato slices on your Big Deluxe? They were sliced too – a couple hours before you took your first bite, they were a whole tomato.

  • I made the biscuits in the morning. Were they just frozen and nuked? Nope. Here’s how it started out: 10 pounds of flour, two sticks of shortening, and four quarts of buttermilk. To this, I added a “Biscuit Kit,” which was a little package of all the incidentals – a tablespoon of baking powder, a pinch of salt, etc. That was the only pre-packed thing in the entire process. I kneaded it all up, rolled out the biscuits, and put the in a big oven. In the end, I melted a stick of real butter in the microwave and painted it on the top each biscuit with a basting brush.

I shudder to think how fast food has probably changed. Hardees food was great, but it was inefficient to make. And inefficiency is the bane of a mass-produced anything. Remember, we didn’t defrost biscuits, we made them by hand, probably much the same way your grandma does (sure, she didn’t have a Biscuit Kit, but the intent was the same). This process would drive an “efficiency expert” insane.

Towards the end of my fast food career, things were becoming different. Instead of cooking a burger real-time for an order, we were pre-cooking them and storing them in some steamy storage box. That was a march toward efficiency that I’m sure has continued unabated with some probably unappetizing results.

The other day, David and I met a colleague at the Queen City Bakery in Sioux Falls (it’s new, it’s awesome). I ordered a hot chocolate.

Me: “This tastes weird.”

David: “That’s because it’s real hot chocolate, not a chemical designed to taste that way.”

Sure enough, after I got a little used to the flavor, it was amazing.

I stopped and talked to the owner on the way out. Turns out he uses fresh milk that was in a cow about 24 hours earlier on some farm just north of Sioux Falls, heats it, and then crumbles up an actual block of dark chocolate and lets it melt in the hot milk.

Score one for real food.

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