The other day, I was in a foul mood. It was the kind of mood where you just want to eat your feelings in calories and carbs. With no food in my fridge, I considered my usual go-to local, quick and affordable options: the pear and brie sandwich from Satsuma, a specialty slice from Pizza Delicious, the red beet Reuben from Siberia, a pulled pork sandwich from The Joint, fried chicken or a po-boy from, well, anywhere. None of it sounded appetizing to me.
After much internal debate and personal judgment, I finally admitted to myself that all I wanted was something from a chain restaurant: a Big Mac, a Whopper, anything. It didn’t matter. I surrendered and went to McDonald’s. And it hit the spot. But for some reason, I felt guilty.
After living in New Orleans for about 8 months, that was the first time that I had eaten at one of your typical chain restaurants. This realization came as quite the shock to me coming from the corporate land of New York City where the only thing that stands between you and basically any chain of your choice is a $2.25 MetroCard. I remember the confusion that would follow when a coworker would ask me to meet him for coffee at Starbucks when I worked in Midtown (there were 3 Starbucks in a 2-block radius).
We live in a corporate chain desert down here that is largely dominated by local mom-and-pop shops who specialize in comfort food. When you go in them, you know that you’re in New Orleans. And I guess that’s why it’s sort of magical. You actually need to go out of your way to find something that you can also get in another city, so why go anywhere else?
Although not all the food here can be considered healthy (I’m mainly referring to the New Orleans tradition of frying everything), most of what we eat is the real deal. There is a large locavore movement happening in the city as locals embrace eating food that is locally produced and eco-conscious. People are really passionate about the food they make and where it comes from, and you can tell when you taste it. No two places are the same in the slightest. It’s a beautiful thing.
So then what is it about a chain that makes it so comforting to society? Maybe it’s the knowing exactly what you’re going to get – a menu that hasn’t changed much in years, a tacky decor, a slightly mysterious yet recognizable smell. It’s as if once you enter those doors you escape into a parallel universe and are able to immediately forget what city you’re even in.
Maybe it’s also our attachment to the familiar – like finding security in a dish that your grandmother always makes at family gatherings, not because you enjoy eating it, but simply because you know it’ll be there.
Or maybe it’s the relief in not having to make a decision – like how the sound of Can I take your order? triggers an immediate response that requires no thought.
Regardless, it’s refreshing when I see the creative and original food options that are hatching around town and the constantly changing lists of specials or displays of baked goods at coffee shops when I get my morning caffeine fix. It’s rare now to see food options that aren’t followed by words like local, organic, vegetarian, vegan, or even gluten-free. People my age advocate strongly for this new way of looking at food. It’s sort of becoming a thing. Yet, I hate to say that while I’m a big supporter, there are those rare times when this thing just doesn’t do it for me.
Sometimes the only comfort food that will satisfy my craving has more calories than I want to know and can be found in pretty much any other major city in the world. Sometimes I want to slip into this parallel universe and not be judged for it. And sometimes I just want to take advantage of the metabolism I still have in my twenties before it goes out the drive-thru window.
Call me mainstream, but at the end of a rough day, nothing soothes the soul like eating your feelings with a good old-fashioned Wendy’s hamburger and a Frosty to dip your fries into.
Joey Albanese writes about the twenty-something generation in New Orleans for NolaVie. Send him questions or tell him the answers at email@example.com.