The Persistence of Memory
Understanding Whataburger’s delicious role in the deep nostalgia of the Texas stomach.
By Mark Stenberg, University of Texas at Austin
Beginning in 1913, Marcel Proust published series of volumes that I’ve never read, which he collectively titled “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu,” which—if you’ve eaten pain perdu you might have guessed—translates to “In Search of Lost Time.”
Reading this encyclopedic novel is an impressive literary flex, a shiny brooch of pretension emblazoned on the downy cardigan of the literati, and at some point—one filled with self-loathing—I plan to read Proust’s tour de force myself.
Until then, memorizing the novel’s cultural currency has given me a “get out of jail free” card for the literary dick-measuring contests that lurk around every corner of an English department. More importantly, it can do the same for you. Cultural currency is essentially the social spark notes of a creative work, be it book, movie, album, whatever.
So instead of watching, reading, visiting or otherwise legitimately engaging with the piece, you simply recite a fact or quote about it and people assume you’re familiar with it. For instance, if you say “You—talking to me?,” then decorum forces people to assume that you’ve watched “Taxi Driver,” because that line is its cultural currency. In much the same way, one trivial tidbit stands as proxy for reading all 4,215 pages of “In Search of Lost Time.”
In volume one, the narrator dips a madeleine—a tiny, shortcake-esque cookie that’s baked in a particular mold (the French!) to make it resemble a seashell—into a cup of tea.
The bite immediately relays the narrator back to his childhood, as he remembers eating the same cookie with his aunt.
He attributes the whole experience to eating the madeleine, and in doing so, he invents the concept that is now called Proustian memory.
The term defines involuntary memory, a remembrance unintentionally brought on by an experience. While any number of things can tease out a Proustian memory, it’s most often associated with sensory stimuli like smell, sound or taste. As a result, food is one of the most common sources of these memories. If you’ve ever heard someone say, “It reminds me of when I was a kid,” they’re flirting with this concept, possibly even describing a véritable Proustian experience.
For me, no more effective Proustian trigger exists than the Whataburger #1 hamburger. Whenever I eat the #1 (an increasingly rare phenomenon as the delicious stranglehold of the Honey Barbecue Chicken Strip Sandwich becomes tighter and tighter), I’m instantly transported back to half-day Friday’s in high school. We usually had one half-day a month, and when it rolled around, I would always go to Whataburger with friends.
I’d order the #1 with no cheese and one of each ketchups, and then sit back in Whataburger’s uncomfortable, un-ergonomical booth seating and scheme out the rest of the day. Half-days ruled because everyone’s parents were still at work, so we could do hoodrat shit at our houses with impunity.
Usually though, we spent our precious free time sneaking into the local JCC through the pool entrance and playing basketball with retired guys wearing sports goggles. But it was the sense of possibility that was intoxicating, that rare air of freedom—having a car, no school, nothing to do and no parents—that I remember from those days. And now, every time I eat a #1, that same carpe diem feeling of half-day possibility bubbles up.
I’m not alone in my Whataburger-induced nostalgia though, as the restaurant knows to stick to its old-timey guns, unapologetically milking its retro vibe.
Its iconic gaudy colors and A-frame architecture, combined with its Texan gestalt—William Basset’s gravelly voice narrates my dreams—and wholesome, lovable uncoolness make it the perfect food chain to bear the sigil for the Lone Star stomach.
The restaurant is steeped in tradition and engrained in Texan life: fathers take sons out of school to eat with them at Whataburger, busloads of high school football players load up on burgers on the drive back from away games; hordes of drunk college students fill its booths late on Saturday nights, and good friends of mine have at times requested only Honey Butter Chicken Biscuits for their birthday.
Given all this, Whataburger could probably get away with serving par food, be the place people love to eat at because the atmosphere, where the food is just a pleasant afterthought, like Panera Bread or a movie theater.
Instead, every menu offering is on point. On a Monday night, I went with two friends and ordered my trusty companion, the Honey Barbecue Chicken Strip Sandwich Meal ($7.39), while they ordered a Monterey Melt Meal ($7.39) and a #1 Meal ($5.59).
First, and this is an important first, Whataburger is affordable.
The standard Whataburger meal is 20¢ less than a Big Mac and almost a dollar less than a Whopper.
How Whataburger stays cheaper than the international burger oligarchs beats me, but I’m not mad about it. Plus, Whataburger is much more filling than its competitors. Bigger, cheaper, and better? It’s the American dream between buns—buns bigger than industry standard, buttered and toasted.
Cozied up against said buns is a sharp, tangy mustard—a serially underappreciated Whataburger condiment by virtue of its counterpart, the famous ketchup—as well as the soft ghost of lettuce, brackish pickles, bits of tired onion and tomato zombies, basically shitty produce in the way that produce on fast food burgers should be shitty.
The patty is a healthy quarter-pound of beef, a concept that Whataburger actually introduced to the world back in its Corpus Christi salad days. Taken together, a bite into a #1 is sweet (bun), tangy (mustard and onions), beefy (more umami than many) and multi-faceted texturally (different levels of smush). Pure divinity.
My personal favorite, the Honey Barbecue Chicken Strip Sandwich, shows how Whataburger has improved me as a person. Normally, I can’t stomach cheese on hamburgers, but I vividly remember the first time I tried the HBCS: I had just taken the SAT at Churchill High School and felt unconquerable. A friend ordered the novelty (only recently introduced at the time), and with a burst of confidence, I threw caution to the wind and took a bite.
The Monterey Jack cheese—dispensable, nearly irrelevant, and nonsensical alone—is indispensable to the bite. Without the cheese, nothing counters the sweet tang of the barbecue sauce.
Instantly, I questioned every long held belief I’d ever thought infallible—and this all the result of only one bite. The salty, crunchy chicken fingers turned my tender fingers to atwitter fingers, softened by the sauce and melted cheese, and the thick Texas Toast held it all together like a strong, responsible dad (Vin Diesel circa Pacifier).
Finally, the Monterey Melt. I’d never before tried it, because the word “melt” usually discourages diners who avoid melted cheese (me). But, remembering how I mistakenly judged the Monterey Jack by its cover, I took a deep breath and a big bite. The peppers were not as soft as grilled peppers should be—they were sweet enough, but a little too raw.
The jalapeno ranch barely came through, but I imagine its mission was to mellow more than enflame, and so in this case mission accomplished. The main interplay between the sweet onions, beefy patties and lacto-heavy American cheese basically made the whole thing taste like a Philly Cheesesteak. I can see its appeal—I really can—but it missed the mark with me. That’s more the result of personal preferences than a failure of execution though, because I imagine it tastes the way they want it to taste. Which is just like I like it.