Column: Lunch really isn't about food at all, it's about time

Today's topic: lunch. For some reason, people tend to give me a hard time about what I eat for lunch. Maybe it's just their way of making small talk, but every time I walk into the office with a bag of fast food, it seems, somebody makes a comment like, "Oh, that looks real healthy."

Maybe it's because I eat fast food practically every day.

I'm not talking about a fast-food salad, either. I'm talking a burger and fries. A sandwich. A taco or two. Maybe one of those mini-pizzas.

Not all on the same day, mind you. That would be gluttonous.

I've tried eating a salad for lunch. And some fruit. And maybe another salad. And then perhaps a candy bar. Then a snack in the afternoon - some popcorn or chips or something.

You see, I get hungry. So I eat.

The only thing that keeps me from weighing 300 pounds is ... well, I don't know why I don't weigh 300 pounds. Perhaps I will someday.

Still, even when I'm having a tuna-salad sandwich from Subway, which I consider to be an extremely healthy lunch, somebody will make a wisecrack about my eating habits.

What they don't realize: Lunch is not about food. It's about time. The important part of fast food is the fast.

Excuse me if you're one of those people who lunches leisurely in some of Carson City's finer establishments.

Perhaps you're having broiled salmon with a parsley sprig, an iced tea and a square of Jello on the side. I don't know. I so seldom eat lunch in such places.

And maybe you're having a delightful conversation with your luncheon guest, who should by necessity be someone with whom you can discuss business so that the tab is picked up by your employer or, at worst, written off on your taxes.

At least, this is how I imagine lunches to be. As for me, I'm huddled in the Appeal's breakroom with a paper bag as a placemat and a newspaper spread out in front of me for intellectual stimulation.

Thirty minutes later I'm wiping off the crumbs and heading back to my desk to write something about, oh ... lunch.

(Those of you who make your own lunch in the morning, thereby saving time, as well as money, and affording yourself the possibility of healthy dining - I'm thinking apple sauce here - I salute you. Some people do that here at the Appeal, but they also carry padlocked lunch safes, because if they don't there is a distinct possibility someone else will eat their apple sauce along about, oh, 10:30 in the morning.)

I know that I am not alone in the faster-is-better theory of lunching out, because some major corporations are spending a lot of money to make sure their fast food is the fastest food.

As a matter of fact, they have installed high-tech timers in their drive-through lanes so they will know exactly how long it takes for you to go from ordering to eating - assuming, of course, you pop a fry in your mouth the moment you pull away.

Before I let you in on the results of a study to show just which fast-food chains are the fastest, I must pause to relate the Worst Experience Ever at a drive-through.

Now, I expect people have had more troubling experiences than I. In fact, you may have read about the well-known college football player who became frustrated at his lack of a chalupa, tried to crawl through a Taco Bell drive-up window, got stuck and was arrested. But I digress.

My Worst Experience Ever came at a McDonald's (in another state, lest you be put off McDonald's forever). I pulled into the drive-through lane to find a car parked there with no occupants whatsoever. This was not one of those drive-through lanes that gives you an escape option, so there was little I could do short of trying to back out.

As I was considering that option, however, two young men came out of the bushes behind the menu board where they had obviously just finished, um, relieving themselves. Well, I said to myself, I guess I can understand the urgent call of nature.

They entered the car and pulled a few feet forward to the menu board itself, where they stopped and shut off the engine. I took this to be a bad sign. It was.

They spent the next several minutes studying the McDonald's menu as if it were the bill of fare at Four Seasons. When the driver finally leaned over to speak into the microphone, I assumed he was inquiring as to a wine list.

Finally, they ordered. Firing up the engine - I believe it was a rusty Oldsmobile, although my memory is a bit foggy on that - they pulled forward to the service window, where they shut off the motor again.

By this time, I had spent more time at the drive-through lane than, say, my wedding. At last, they were handed a bag of food. They proceeded to search the sack and - believe it or not - start handing sandwiches back into the window. Apparently, they had ordered Big Macs medium-rare, but the chef had braized them a bit overzealously. How gauche.

My mind, given ample time to wander, thought of a friend, Nick, who had once rammed a car out of his way at a drive-through. But Nick had been a sheriff's deputy at the time, driving a squad car and trying to respond to an accident. Even so, Nick was suspended for three days.

Eventually, of course, I got my lunch and went on with my life.

No need for a high-tech timer on that visit. It could have been measured by a sun dial.

Anyway, if you're interested in who was the fastest in the 1999 study of 25 fast-food restaurants, as measured from menu board to departure:

Wendy's, 2 minutes 30 seconds; McDonald's, 2 minutes 47 seconds; Checkers, 2 minutes 49 seconds; Burger King, 2 minutes 51 seconds; Long John Silver's, 2 minutes 52 seconds.

My friend Nick, however, still holds the record.

Barry Smith is managing editor of the Nevada Appeal.

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