When I was seventeen, two future conditions distinctly outweighed the prospect of a college degree:
Decked in red as part of the fast food chain’s now traditional Valentine’s Day celebration, East Williamsburg’s White Castle was positively radiant with decorations of the heart, their glow undeniably enhanced by their reflection in bulletproof glass. While a representative of the restaurant’s New York District Office states that various White Castles around the nation have been celebrating Valentine’s Day for well over a decade, this particular slider house (as well as its sister joints in New York City) has been a participating location for five years.
My valentine and I are happy to report that they’ve got things down to a fuzzy science. One table and three booths were cordoned off for 45-minute, reservation-only meals and draped with just the right amount of kitsch to set the mood. A live rose in water was complemented by an electric candle, our table was set with a handful of Hershey kisses and glasses of candy-sweet, third-tier apple cider, and our waitress took orders and customer photos with the playful sense of dignity that a $13.50 dinner date deserves.
Encouraging guests to “Celebrate your love… of the crave,” White Castle’s stylish Valentine’s menus emphasized fun over stuffiness without stumbling into the territory of irony, and the diners around us followed suit. As plastic trays bearing sliders and root beer hit our table, we couldn’t help but enjoy how god damned nice this all was; even as a mischievous snub to the world of wining and dining, our dinner at White Castle was uncompromisingly pleasant.
All the apple cider in the world can’t make up for unpleasant food, so I was especially thankful that my fair lady and I share an appreciation for the White Castle slider. And yes, there is something to appreciate in these pillowy, proportionally reduced burgers – the inventive cooking that defines a slider is well documented, giving at least the form of White Castle’s product a backbone in edible Americana.
The White Castle itself, rendered somewhat indistinct by cheap meat and relatively flavorless dried onions, is not the regional delicacy that it ostensibly once was. Still, there’s a distinct comfort in these 69-cent morsels, and it’s a feeling that somehow out-classes the crude indulgence piled into a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, the mass-market commercialism wrapped in a Happy Meal, and the nothing-is-sacred reconstruction that is the Jack-in-the-Box taco.
Maybe it’s the fact that every slider is ordered and boxed individually, but the components of each slider instantly melt into the fluffy equivalent of hamburger-flavored Wonder bread. Maybe it’s the branding genius behind America’s first burger chain, which still maintains the allure of purity despite its firm entrenchment in the questionable practices of American fast food.
Maybe it’s White Castle’s sweet potato fries. A seasonal menu item that’s well worth $3 for a large order, they’re as crispy as fast food fries come, with the heft and understated sweetness of a sweet potato (even a frozen one).
Maybe it’s the simplicity of taking my girl out for burgers that makes this food more memorable than it deserves to be. Some would think of this night a quaint marketing gimmick. Others might call it out as an affront to romanticism. As someone who grew up believing that sipping on milkshakes at the local burger joint makes for a classic date, while white tablecloths and champagne are what show up on the movie screen after dinner, all I can say is:
Happy Valentine’s Day!