My childhood was defined by two rituals: three hours of Mormon Church service on Sundays and a trip to Arby’s almost as regularly. The Arby’s location in my Texas hometown possessed all the visual splendor that the church I was raised in did not: stained glass and smoky wood paneling, sauce packets stored in a long buffet under heat lamps. And yet it was, in some ways, an extension of the church. The location was managed by a family friend from our congregation, a man I knew as the Colonel, who was something of a surrogate grandparent to me.
On those Sunday afternoons, as I sat in his back office chomping on curly fries, he would regale me with stories of his military service in Vietnam: running into the jungle, hopping out of choppers, getting pinned down under heavy fire on the battlefield. One look at the Colonel, and you could see the price of war. He was paralyzed from the waist down. I was always eager to catch a glimpse of the Purple Heart and other medals he had framed on his desk, and the time we spent together shaped my early ambitions as a child. For years I made my dad give me crew cuts so I could look like the Colonel. Until third grade I would tell people that I wanted to be an Army Ranger when I grew up.
The Colonel died when I was in my early teens, right as my worldview was beginning to change. As I grew up, I learned that war was not my childhood fantasy of toy soldiers and brass trinkets; it was grim, relentlessly destructive and often pointless. I eventually leaned into the political differences between myself and rigidly conservative Mormons as a way to express my dissatisfaction with the belief system I was assigned. I stopped going to church, and I started smoking weed. I became a socialist. I moved to New York.
In all this time, I’ve yet to encounter a single person who loves Arby’s like I do. I’ve celebrated birthdays at Arby’s — sincerely as a kid, and half-jokingly as an adult. I get the same thing just about every time: plain roast beef with curly fries on the side. When I worked as a cog in the machine of a Midtown office building, I would reward myself with a weekly pilgrimage to the Arby’s near the Port Authority Bus Terminal. It’s the kind of nonplace that gets left out of reminiscences for a pre-quarantine world, but Arby’s is a blank space I find myself missing in these times: somewhere to just exist anonymously for a little bit, certain you’ll never run into anyone you know. The closest I’ve come to an Arby’s since lockdown was watching one burn during the protests in Minneapolis.
Arby’s has built an entire brand out of being stubborn, unyielding and conservative — not right-wing per se, but willfully ignorant and almost aggrieved. In the late ’80s, the chain mounted a marketing campaign called the Burger Boycott. Arby’s briefly took over the town of Hope, Ind., and encouraged its residents to abstain from eating ground-beef patties for two weeks. In a series of commercials that felt like miniature Errol Morris movies, townspeople brandished signs with slogans like: “Let’s knock burgers on their buns.” It was a reactionary stunt for its own sake, like many that Arby’s has pulled since. As other fast-food restaurants started offering plant-based meat surrogates like Beyond Burgers, Arby’s developed a meat-based vegetable, the marrot.
The meat from Arby’s is real, but it’s processed to the point that it becomes something distinct. It comes inside a plastic pouch, which is superheated in water until the meat is cooked through, and then sliced after being removed from the packaging. When I was a child, this completely altered my expectations of reality. We had “real” roast beef for dinner once, at my mother’s insistence, and I was vividly disappointed as I have rarely been in my life. It tasted nothing at all like what I’d had at Arby’s. Even then I could tell that it was more refined or complex in its flavors, the product of more involved labor. But at the end of the day, it was just another meal at home: no adventure, no ambience and certainly no war stories. What the restaurant served was thinner, sweeter and more immediate in its flavor, instantaneous in its gratification. If I’m being honest, I still prefer it to the real thing.
There’s a joke people make on Twitter, at the expense of someone who’s oversharing or thinking too hard out loud: “Sir, this is an Arby’s.” And yet, whenever I’m eating there, my thoughts feel inappropriately expansive. I didn’t choose to be Mormon, or to grow up in the South, but those conservative structures did give me comfort — they provided an uncomplicated worldview, one with easy answers. I sometimes wonder if that’s what I indulge in when I eat these deliciously mediocre roast beef sandwiches, the fantasy of having something in common with the people I was once surrounded by and have now so fully abandoned. If the Colonel had lived to see how I changed as an adolescent, our relationship would probably have soured. I know my feelings for him have. The only thing we would agree on now is roast beef. But at least it’s something.