If you’ve ever met an omnivorous Californian, you know that the surest path to his stomach is laid out on two and a half words: “In-N-Out.” Among the many topics left-coasters will waste no time picking up and taking down in a string of verses winding their way around a dispossessed yet domineering tirade, In-N-Out Burger ranks as highly as unnaturally omnipresent sunshine and artificially enhanced confidence.
It’s important to note that in the case of In-N-Out, we Californians are verifiably correct. There’s something to be said about the flashback value of fast food (and its availability at the drunkennest hours of the night), but the quality of an In-N-Out burger easily dwarfs the lifeless grease-and-paste bombs of its drive-thru counterparts. Having sustained a consistent vision of quality, simplicity and relentless geographic domination for the past 60 years, the In-N-Out dynasty has achieved what most fast food chains fail to even consider as a possibility: the making of an edible legend that is at once authentic and mass produced.
That said, when Rexasaurus offered to take me to “The In-N-Out of New York City,” I signed up immediately for a taste. Our destination was the Shake Shack, a hallowed hamburger stand tucked into a corner of Madison Square Park in Midtown Manhattan. The food here is indeed worthy of the overwhelming praise it receives from native New Yorkers. What is more striking about Shake Shack, though, is its similarity to In-N-Out as an emotional anchor of the burger. The ritualistic pride attached to these establishments betrays the extremely divergent paths of their food, their aesthetics, their histories and their customers.
For a visualization of this paradox, I turned to Flickr. The photographs of loyal fans of In-N-Out and Shake Shack produce a collage of memory in appetite that underscores the junctions and splits of both.
The sentiment uniting these photographs is nostalgia. Just as In-N-Out has been seared into the epicurean memory of California, the comparatively newborn Shake Shack has already become an institution for New Yorkers. Both sides cling fervently to the subject of their burgin’ delight, using cameras to make icons of buildings and capture the significance of the folding patio chair.
Flickr’s public collection of Shake Shack photos imparts the more traditional bond between food and place. The number of possible angles from which to shoot the hamburger stand is limited to a handful of reoccurring viewpoints. Each one seems to capture a moment in time, bringing to a standstill the vibrant, bustling life of the Big Apple. Diners feature prominently, populating the lush backdrop of a singularly recognizable piece of earth. While a meal at Shake Shack is not yet a historic rite, its Flickr catalogue opens a window into precisely that quality, giving viewers the impression that, by peering through the lens, we too share in one of New York’s most intimate and treasured traditions.
In stark contrast, Flickr’s public collection of In-N-Out photos depicts the imperial sprawl of a singularly recognizable insignia. The almighty arrow towers above all else, protruding into the sky and claiming dominance over all that lies below and above its monumental banner. Rather than present a single moment in time, these images present a consistency of conquest and an ever present sun that differs wholeheartedly from the more subdued natural lighting of New York City. Where one would expect to see life in motion, there are only the vessels of life and the symbols of its progress: cars, planes, buildings, and the planned palm tree. In a way, it’s uncertain if these photographs provide a window into a living world of which we are all members or if they offer a glance at the emptied ruins of a burger civilization.
Yet, for all of its sterility, the glow of the In-N-Out arrow ties together the diffuse icons of its existence just as well as the evening lights of Shake Shack frame their cozy scene of the city. A certain warmth is shared by all of these images. Whether the impression being captured is humble or grand, organic or manufactured, spontaneous or mechanized, it is still an inspired reflection of the human spirit. And it is delicious.
Madison Square Park
New York, NY 10010
United States of America