Why I Love the Whopper, Mess and All

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

I can pinpoint the exact moment when I decided that the Whopper was the only fast food burger for me. I was in high school, and, after another suburban party at Kevin's or Doug's or whoever's-parents-were-out-of-town's house that night, I grabbed a friend—I don't remember which one—hopped into my Pontiac Grand Prix, and headed to our local McDonald's, where I ordered the usual: a Big Mac, fries, and a Coke.

Up until then, the Big Mac had been my gold standard. When I was a child, it was the burger I enviously watched my father devour as I worked a soft pillow of chewed Happy Meal cheeseburger from the roof of my mouth. Someday, I thought, someday the Big Mac will be mine. And eventually, it was. Once I was old enough to place a fast food order for myself, I fell in love with the Big Mac's sweet sesame seed bun; its tangy, vinegary, Thousand Island–based special sauce; the pickle; the lettuce; the faint, almost superfluous hint of something resembling, well, burger. But that night at McDonald's, back in 1987, I realized something about this two-tiered burger. Something important.

The Big Mac wasn't that big.

After I'd wolfed it down in a matter of seconds, my teenage belly was still rumbling. And so, I decided to sate it by doing something that, a quarter century later, the comedian Louis C.K. would famously dub the "Bang-Bang."

"Should we go to Burger King?" I asked my friend, as we packed our straw wrappers and dirty napkins into the Big Mac's empty Styrofoam container. And, while we were both smart enough to know better, he said he was game. As far as I remember, we weren't even stoned.

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While the McDonald's in my town occupied a prime location on a well-traveled commercial strip, right next door to the high school and across the street from the mall, the Burger King loomed farther down the avenue in a no-man's-land of B-list franchises and a Red Roof Inn. Though I was young, the fast food chain already held an odd place in my memory. Burger King failed to conjure up the nostalgia I felt for Wendy's, with its laminated-newspaper tables and pigtailed mascot, or McDonald's, with its Playlands and Happy Meals and little shortbread cookies that brought me the same amount of comfort as the Toll House cookies my mom baked at home. In fact, aside from the cardboard crowns they bestowed upon younger patrons, I had no real memories of Burger King at all.

But once we sat down that night, once I bit into the Whopper I'd ordered, everything changed. While this wasn't my first Whopper—I'd scarfed down plenty of them in my short lifetime—it was the first one that made me appreciate just how good a Whopper could be. Maybe it's because it was the first time I'd eaten the burger I thought I loved—the Big Mac—at nearly the same time as the one I'd always overlooked. But suddenly, the Whopper, and Burger King in general, became memorable.

It had never occurred to me that the Whopper's flame-broiled flavor was vaguely reminiscent of the burgers my dad grilled in our backyard over Kingsford coals; that there was a snap to the pickles; that the tomatoes were fresh and juicy enough that, once I wrapped my hands around the burger, they smashed into the liberally applied ketchup and the mayonnaise, creating a sweet, sloppy, and tangy mess of condiments that dripped out of my Whopper with each bite, and which I sopped up with my french fries until it was gone. Here, I thought, was a big, messy burger you could linger over. Sure, its construction was questionable. But to me, its perfection was in its imperfection.

"Holy crap, this is good," I told my friend, who simply shrugged his shoulders in light of my epiphany. Apparently, he had no idea I'd just discovered my platonic ideal of a perfect cheeseburger. And anyone who remembers the burger (or the hot dog, or even the chicken cordon bleu) that changed his or her life will understand just how important a moment this can be. For years afterward, the Whopper became my go-to whenever I craved something meaty or salty or sweet or, well, sloppy.

There's an origin story to the Whopper, of course. It was introduced by Burger King co-founder James McLamore in 1957, after he'd noticed some of his local competitors were selling a bigger burger that was proving quite popular. McLamore cooked his newly dubbed "Whopper" on a gadget of his own design—a contained gas broiler in which burgers were fed through a chain belt and circulated until finished. McDonald's wouldn't get on board the big burger bandwagon (with its Big Mac) until more than a decade later, in 1968. The Whopper, you see, came in first. And to me, it always will.

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These days, like other fast food chains, Burger King is trying to generate constant buzz with new, almost intentionally absurd menu items. These things bother me sometimes, because they take away from the attention and the esteem my beloved Whopper deserves. Back in October, for instance, the company introduced a black-bunned, A.1. Sauce–infused Halloween Whopper. In the television ads for its latest offering, the Angriest Whopper (in which the bun is spiked with hot sauce and the patty is topped with jalapeƱos, spicy onions, and something they call "angry sauce"), the burger is portrayed in, quite literally, a burning ring of fire. Watching the ad on a flight from Los Angeles last night, I felt as if the messy, humble burger I'd known all my life had joined a death metal band and become all but unrecognizable to me. I get it, though. It's a cutthroat world out there, especially for fast food chains. Burger King has to do what it can to stay relevant in this shifting landscape of fried chicken sandwiches, chopped salads, and pseudo-Southern pulled pork.

Sometimes, I feel alone in my love of the Whopper. And given the number of higher-quality burger options out there (the Shake Shacks and Five Guys of the world), perhaps you're wondering why I insist on defending it. Maybe it's because the Whopper, despite its long history, has always been the also-ran in the burger universe, the perennial underdog in the fast food wars. Maybe I want you to recognize its sheer awesomeness before it fades into obscurity. No, I'm not trying to ignite a backlash against gourmet burgers—Shake Shack is top-notch—I just want to give the Whopper its due.

It's a mission that seemed even more urgent the other day, when no fewer than three of my coworkers told me, quite proudly, that they'd never even tasted a Whopper. I'll chalk this up to the fact that they are of a slightly younger generation, a cadre that for better or worse (probably better) wasn't raised on fast food like mine was. When I told one of those coworkers that I would eat a Whopper every day if I could, her response was simple: "Ew." Of course, I can't eat one every day. No one should. But you should at least try one. Give it another whirl. Embrace the meatiness, the decadence—the mess.

These days, my experiences with Whoppers are few and far between. I have a worrisome beer belly; a family history of bad things that can be controlled by good diets. So, on the rare occasion when I do find myself in the presence of a Burger King—on a road trip back home to Ohio with my wife and daughter, or in the food court of an airport—I deny myself the Whopper, opting instead for something more sensible for a man my age: a grilled chicken sandwich, a salad, a yogurt parfait.

I suppose we all have our Whoppers. The foods we always want but cannot have. For health reasons. For ethical ones. Maybe we think we're too good for them now. Maybe we think we're too old. But every so often, at least, I say we throw a little caution to the wind, and just go for it.

I went for my Whopper just last week, in fact. At around 9:30 p.m., after a few beers with friends, I found myself rushing past the noodle shops and corner delis of Chinatown and heading breathlessly toward Canal Street. After starting work at Serious Eats last year, I'd noticed there was a Burger King just a block down from my subway stop. I'd made a mental note of it, filed it under "in case of emergency."

My heart sank a little once I got there. A woman was mopping the gray tile floors; the restaurant was largely empty; some chairs had already been stacked up. "It's okay," the woman told me with a smile. "It's not too late to order." Once inside, there was no need to look at the menu. I got what I wanted.