by Juanita Mantz
“Fast Food Memories” appears in Season 2, Episode 12 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour, which originally aired on July 5, 2019.
When I think of the food from my childhood, the most prevalent memory is of McDonald’s. My childhood hometown was 1970’s and 1980’s Ontario California, a low income suburb about sixty miles from Los Angeles. Dad was a truck-driver and Mom was a waitress and time and money were always short. When he finished his shift at Mayflower Moving Company, Dad’s favorite treat for us was to stop at McDonald’s. He sometimes used the tips from his moving customers. Occasionally, he would take us in his sixteen wheeler to McDonald’s, and my sisters and I would yell over Dad’s CB radio at cars to “move it.”
My choice at McDonald’s was always a cheeseburger with french fries and a small orange soda. I savored each bite of the cheeseburger. The bun was soft and the meat always tasted fresh and the fries were an explosion of heat and salt. I know McDonald’s doesn’t taste the same, but is it a matter of perception or fact? Many of my friends have the same nostalgia for McDonald’s golden arches. It was as much a part of our 1980’s childhood as Pac Man and Love Boat.
Many of my friends have the same nostalgia for McDonald’s golden arches. It was as much a part of our 1980’s childhood as Pac Man and Love Boat.
As the daughter of a German-American father and a Mexican-American mother, I should know at least one of my heritage cuisines well. Unfortunately, my ignorance of my food culture continues to vex me and any acquired knowledge of my food culture is limited at best. What I do know has only been acquired from visiting restaurants as an adult. Thus, I know nothing about my dad’s German heritage food and for years (more like decades), I was ashamed that I didn’t know how to make homemade tamales and that my Mexican mom couldn’t cook.
I will confess that I am a connoisseur of fast food and processed food products. It is something I used to try and hide.
In many of my memoir stories, there is a fascination and obsession with food. This obsession probably stems from my dad’s preoccupation with having, or not having, enough to eat. As a young boy in post-depression Great Falls, Montana, my grandparents could not afford to feed my dad and his two siblings. In a sign of the times, my paternal grandparents’ solution was to place my dad, his brother and sister in an orphanage for a couple of years. I never met my paternal grandparents, but I would like to ask them what they thought when they dropped my dad off at the orphanage. Did they ever wonder what my dad was eating and if he went hungry?
Dad passed down his obsession by regaling my sisters and me with stories of his stomach growling as a young child. At the orphanage, Dad was forced to eat bowls of white rice. During my childhood, I overheard Dad telling Mom never to make white rice. He said it made him gag. He didn’t mind Mom’s Mexican rice because that was the only thing she knew how to cook.
The next stop on my food memory lane is Pizza Hut, the one on Fourth and Grove in Ontario.
Dad occasionally took us after he finished his moving shift, and Mom went to work. Just in case you don’t know, Pizza Hut used to be an actual restaurant with a jukebox and tables with red and white checked tablecloths with small black and white televisions on every table. A waitress came to take our order and served their thick-crust pizza at the table in a big black skillet. We always ordered a large pepperoni pizza, a pitcher of root beer and Dad accepted his standard pitcher of Budweiser. My father would plug the little black and white television with quarters and my sisters and I would watch episodes of Different Strokes and Facts of Life while we grabbed slices of the hot, cheesy pizza and shoved them into our mouths. Dad would sit and watch us in his sweat-stained green Mayflower uniform and shake his head. “Slow down girls,” he would say, “Don’t forget to save your mom a piece.” Even after a long day of moving furniture, Dad let us watch our sitcom episodes while he drank his beer with a tired look in his eyes.
In our family, eating out was a treat. Dad was the cook and not my Mexican mother.
In our family, eating out was a treat. Dad was the cook and not my Mexican mother. Dad guarded his coffee can of bacon drippings like it was the most valuable of treasures and when he was cooking no one was allowed into the kitchen. When he was done, a bright sheen of oil glistened on the countertops.
Dad didn’t cook German food per se. He favored American classics like pork chops, hearty beef stews and meatloaf for dinner. He packed our lunches with polish sausage and pickle sandwiches or spam with mustard and his most “special” lunch sandwich was potted meat delight with mayonnaise and relish on white bread. His sandwiches were impossible to trade and often went straight into my school’s trash can. I was always a peanut butter and jelly kind of girl. But I confess that because of my dad I love a fried egg sandwich with salt and mayonnaise but only when no one is looking.
When I try and at least capture one side of my food culture, my mom’s Mexican side, the only thing that pops to mind is taco night.
My first and most powerful memory of Mexican food is ground beef simmered in canned tomato sauce and Tabasco. My sisters and I spooned the mixture into store bought taco shells. The shells always tasted a little stale. Mom made sure there were lettuce and tomatoes cut up on the on the side along with refried beans from a can. My twin sister Jackie always tried to take more than her fair share of tacos and our little sister Annie hogged the sour cream. Biting into them the sauce from the meat and tomato would run down our chins. The tacos were hot and crispy and I ate at least two. The first one I would bite into with gusto. The grated cheddar melted from the heat of the meat and the tomatoes and sour cream gave the taco a creamy sweetness which contrasted with the saltiness of the fatty ground beef.
Mom’s solo homemade culinary offering was her rice. It was the perfect blend of spicy and salty. Take rice and brown it briefly in a pan with hot oil, onions, and crushed fresh garlic. Transfer rice to a large pot, add water and tomato sauce and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for at least two or three hours without opening the pot. Add salt to taste.
As an adult, I always mess up the rice by checking on it too much. Mom never had that problem.
My next memory of Mexican food, if you can call it that, is Pup N’ Taco. Pup N’ Taco, a precursor to Taco Bell, was located on Fourth Street in Ontario, right past Vineyard Avenue. My sisters and I would ride our Schwinn bicycles to Pup N’ Taco with our best friends Melinda and Pam. Whoever had money pitched in and we all shared. Sometimes we paid in wrapped pennies. A tostada cost 25 cents and tasted like heaven. We would open the tostadas slowly. I remember how crispy the shell was, and the hot sauce came in packets that we would suck on.
Mom waitressed at a Cantonese style Chinese restaurant for most of my childhood and Melinda and Pam’s mom Mary watched us most afternoons. Mary would not accept money for watching us. Occasionally, my mother would bring Mary some Chinese duck from her restaurant in a brown paper bag. Mary was born in Mexico and unlike my mom, she knew how to cook. Her Pozole was a spicy combination of pork and hominy with shredded cabbage and a touch of lime. Mary would feed us the soup in small ceramic bowls with homemade tortillas on the side. We all crowded around the kitchen table slurping down the Pozole as fast as possible so we could fill our bowls with a second helping.
In my sophomore year of high school, I worked at Taco Bell. I was only fifteen, but had a work permit. They trained me to make the taco meat by placing ground beef into a huge pot and pouring in a large bag of taco “flavoring” which brought back my childhood memories of my mom mixing the ground beef for our taco nights. I loved Taco Bell’s Mexican pizza and ate it on my break every time I worked. Last month, I went through a drive-thru and ordered the Mexican Pizza to try and recapture the magic. It tasted like old flour and burnt, bitter meat. Has fast food went that far downhill or have my taste buds changed?
Last month, I went through a drive-thru and ordered the Mexican Pizza to try and recapture the magic. It tasted like old flour and burnt, bitter meat.
After high school, Melinda and I worked as waitresses at a restaurant called Don Jose’s in Montclair, California on the corner of Central and Ninth Street. We had to wear “authentic” Hawaiian style flowered dresses that we pulled down to our shoulders.
Don Jose’s had a generous eating plan for its employees and Melinda and I would often share the arroz con camarones de pollo, a spicy combination of chicken, shrimp and rice. The shrimp were the large ones and Melinda and I would portion them out to one another to make sure we each got our share. We ate the rice and shrimp like Fajitas in tortillas with salsa.
The rest of my Mexican food memories blend together like homemade salsa. La Cita in Montclair, which I frequented with my boyfriend Adrian at the age of 20, and where the waitresses never checked our IDs and our favorite plate was grilled carne asade. There was also a Mexican restaurant I liked by Mt. SAC when I was in junior college. I was struggling to get by while waitressing part-time and going to school and when I was stressed I would get some fish tacos with lime. And I can still remember the pizza place I used to frequent by UC Riverside when I transferred to finish my four year degree in English Literature. The place had a taco night and 99 cent Coronas and my friends and I would gather around the tables and laugh. And, there was King Taco in Los Angeles when I went to USC Law School.
I also can’t forget Houston, Texas. After law school, I moved to Houston for a job at a large law firm and their Tex-Mex creations sustained me through three years of loneliness away from my boyfriend, friends and family.
I showed my fondness for Tex-Mex cuisine by gaining thirty pounds. My favorite treat was the fast-food Tex-Mex restaurant Taco Cabana and after a long day of work I would drive through and buy their chips and queso which were hot tortilla chips with a side of melted cheese swimming with meat and peppers. I ate most of the chips and queso in the car while driving home.
As a Deputy Public Defender in Riverside, California, my favorite restaurant, Heat Kitchen (now known as Kimchichanga) on University Avenue, serves Mexican and Korean fusion. Try the Taco Sam which is a lettuce taco with Korean short rib meat and sriracha sauce. It is the perfect, soul satisfying blend of sweet and spicy and the cold lettuce wrap cools it off. They also do a mean Mexican Pizza with a crispy shell piled with hot pork and just right spicy sauce that reminds me of my teenage favorite from Taco Bell in all the best ways.
Ultimately, I guess I am an anti-foodie because the memories I cherish most about food are my fast-food childhood memories.
Ultimately, I guess I am an anti-foodie because the memories I cherish most about food are my fast-food childhood memories.
The taco nights when I was little and sitting with my sisters at the table in our Ontario house.
Fighting each other to the table and wrestling over the sides of cheese, lettuce and tomato.
Biting into store bought taco shells.
Shoveling mom’s homemade rice into our mouths while fighting over who got the last taco.
Driving with my dad to McDonald’s to get a cheeseburger in his big rig.
Watching television while eating pizza with my sisters at Pizza Hut.
Those bike rides to Pup and Taco with my sisters and our best friends.
The fast pedaling and yearning for the taste of a twenty-five cent tostada on my lips.
Those memories are my childhood and all I need to do is go to a drive-thru or order a pizza for a taste of nostalgia. Like most memories, these memories are bittersweet and don’t always taste like I remember.These may not be the most elevated culinary memories but they are all mine.
Original artwork by Kelly Minear.
About Juanita E. Mantz
Juanita E. Mantz (“JEM”) grew up in the Inland Empire in the 1970s/1980s in the kind of chaotic home from which great memoirs are made. At seventeen, she dropped out of high school, but later took her GED and worked her way through Mt. SAC and then UC Riverside and finally, USC Law. After practicing at the largest corporate law firm in Texas, she came back home after her father’s sudden death to give back to her community. JEM is a writer, performer and deputy public defender in Riverside specializing in mental health law representing those incompetent to stand trial.
Her stories and essays have been published in numerous literary journals and magazines including The Acentos Review, The James Franco Review, As/Us, Inlandia: A Literary Journey, Lifetime, MUSE, Mutha magazine and Bitch Media, amongst others. JEM is a four-time participant in VONA’s Summer Writing Workshop and a member of the Macondo Writers Workshop.
She is finishing a final draft of her YA memoir titled, “My Inland Empire: Hometown Stories” and will be looking for an agent. You can read her blog at http://wwwlifeofjemcom-jemmantz.blogspot.com. She is a proud resident of San Bernardino and loves punk rock music.