Columns Small Talk

Slow season, fast food

Hey. It’s summer. Get the heck out of the kitchen. You’re making me look bad.

I maintain that this is the time for fast food with a clear conscience. I like to rationalize it this way:  I could be on an expensive vacation somewhere, spending oodles of money. But since I am still home, dealing with all the cares of home, then I will take my own sort of mini-vacation — from the kitchen.

Yes, you could argue that I have more time to cook, but I counter that I have less inclination, if that is possible. Besides, I am out and about more. It’s time to live on big burgers, Mexican food and milkshakes at least three times a week.

In my further defense, I will say that during the school year, when life is regimented, I was the green-vegetable queen. I never had any compunction about denying my children anything palatable until they choked down some zucchini or broccoli. But when I do summer, I do it with gusto, and the main rule is that there are fewer rules. Breakfast can range from cold pizza to cold cereal. It is based on the well-known dietary laws of whatever is closest when you open the refrigerator.

My kids would graze until we hit the road, when they always became suddenly ravenous.  I truly long for the days of real drive-ins with those cool window trays and big root-beer floats. Drive-throughs are not the same, and just to make my life more expensive, my children decided at an early age that they would no longer consume typical, down-and-dirty fast food.  It had to be somewhat fresh, and not completely pre-made. But I still love that funky hot dog hut with the killer chili dogs. 

Occasionally, at some point in the summer hiatus, I am stricken with a wave of nostalgia and I will actually peel, boil, mix and bake the picnic fare that made my childhood summers memorable. For me, it was homemade potato salad, burgers with everything and chocolate cake with fudge icing. It will never taste as good as when Mom made it, because I can’t risk our lives like she did. I think the key to the flavorful potato salad was that it was just this side of bursting out in salmonella. The hamburger meat sat out by the grill for longer than we would ever permit in these days of bacteria awareness.  But if our generation has learned anything, it’s that almost everything good is bad for you.

Occasionally, I flip through a cooking magazine and get delusions of grandeur. For a few minutes, in my mind’s eye, I am at the backyard grill, preparing perfectly seasoned kebabs, vegetables drizzled with flavored olive oil that will complement my pasta tossed with exotic mushrooms, tiny, odd-colored tomatoes and olives from the far corners of Greece.

Then I remember that my children won’t eat fish, mushrooms or vegetables with strange grill stripes on them.  The meal, which would cost $50 per person, would go right down the disposal.

So it’s back to basics. Tonight — hot dogs, beans and watermelon.  And this time of year, ketchup is still a vegetable.

Jean Gillette is a freelance writer who is getting far too skilled at take-out. Contact her at