bookOnce, while visiting my brother’s family in Chicago, somehow the subject of White Castle came up. I’d never eaten there, since there aren’t any within shouting distance of anywhere I’ve ever lived. Sadly, my brother decided to be gracious and bought home a big bag of said establishment’s “sliders” for dinner that night. I managed to eat two of them, which may be the lightest meal I’ve had in my adult life. I know millions of people are devoted to them, but if I never see another of their burgers, it will be too soon. If forced to describe them, the kindest thing I can think of is “Ummm. . . Steamed meatloaf sandwich?” This is all a roundabout way of saying “Not all fast food is created equal,” and that’s the rationale behind Fast food maniac: from Arby’s to White Castle, one man’s supersized obsession with America’s favorite food by Jon Hein.

While Hein is no Jane or Michael Stern (authors of Roadfood, and other foodie books, several of which we have here at the library), he has provided a serviceable summary of all the major national fast food establishments and a number of regional ones as well. So, in this book you’ll find a brief history of each company along with a chart of what they’re best known for, any “secret menu” items, and whether or not any of their items made his Top Five lists.

The first section is devoted to Arby’s, McDonalds, and so forth, the big chains mostly available cross-country (and some around the world, though some are really just super-regionals, like Bojangles or widely scattered like Checker’s or Fatburger). Here you’ll find that A & W is the oldest fast food franchise in the U.S. and the fact that the biggest selling item at Jack in the Box (closest locations are in Tulsa) are the tacos (2 for a dollar!) I remember Jack fondly from my childhood in Southern California, before their taco days, I think. At least I always had hamburgers.

The second section is somewhat misleadingly labeled “regional,” because while some (like Culver’s and Braum’s ) are truly regional, others (like Massapequa, New York’s All-American Burger or Krazy Jim’s Blimpy Burger in Ann Arbor) are single outlets or at most single-town, like Dick’s in Seattle.

In-N-Out had the first 2-way speakers at a burger drive-thru in 1948. In-N-Out has a devoted following, sadly the chain is primarily in California and Arizona. Hein is a big fan, claiming that his first stop whenever he travels to California or Arizona or the other four states they operate in is always the nearest In-N-Out. Closest to us? Dallas/Ft. Worth. Given the excellent things I’ve heard about them, I think I’ll track one down next time I have to go to the Big D. Hein awards them his first place for burgers and third place for fries. At least we can get the second best fries right here at home at McDonald’s! (The best are at Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, which you can try in St. Louis).

Other listings in the regional category include Pink’s, known world-wide for hot dogs and Primanti Bros. in Pittsburgh , famous for their sandwiches containing your choice of meat and/or cheese and (drumroll, please) cole slaw, tomatoes, and (wait for it) French fries! Yup, your fries come on your sandwich. Tradition has it that a truck driver (one of their biggest customer groups back in the day) asked for his fries and slaw on his sandwich the better to eat with one hand while driving with the other. I can only surmise he had really big hands!

As I mentioned, I spent my early childhood in California, home of Weinerschnitzel (Der Weinerschnitzel at that time), but never made it there. I used to hear their ads on the radio and was always hopeful of getting a chance to try that rare thing, the weinerschnitzel. Fortunately, I never got the chance since I found out from this book that said fabulous item is. . .a hot dog. I felt a little bit like Ralphy from A Christmas Story when he got his Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring and found that the secret message was “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” Hot dogs?! Glad we went to Jack in the Box!

Hein wraps up with lists of which places have the best you-name-it (burgers, fries, shakes, burritos, straws. Yup, straws, and loads of other items) and tips and tricks for fast food dining, some useful and some just silly. Next to last is a list of his favorite “secret menu” items (which I have never had the nerve to try to order anywhere) and finally an “In Memoriam” page or so of gone-but-not-forgotten fast food joints of the past.

Happy reading, and I’d suggest you have lunch before you start unless you don’t permit fast food to pass your lips.