Food Diary: The First 5 Burgers of My Adulthood

A longtime vegetarian goes on an American hamburger Odyssey

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1. “Burger.” The Fainting Goat, Washington, D.C.

I don’t usually eat dinner after eight because I’m not European and I still consider myself a child, and yet I’m here. It’s 9:35 on a Sunday night in Washington, D.C. I’m playing with my napkin on the table in this darkened bar, staring at wallpaper that kind of reminds me of the dressing rooms at Victoria’s Secret, and I’m about to have my first hamburger in six years. My sister has to tell the waiter how I want the burger cooked, because when I suggest that it be medium-well, she just shakes her head in horror and grabs the menu from me, telling him that I’d actually just like it a solid medium. It’s been too long.

When the food makes its way to our tiny corner table, plated on what looks like artisanal wooden slats straight out of a Kinfolk magazine, my sister turns to me and asks if I am ready. I say I am as I poke at my sunburned shoulder, freshly toasted from our paddle-boating experience earlier that day in the Tidal Basin.

Woefully underprepared to be on a boat, we flashed hundreds of other tourists as we circled around the Lincoln Memorial while wearing skirts, blasting Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” on repeat. Paddle-boating, or any other form of outdoor physical activity, would normally be low on the list of Sarvady girl activities. But my sister is determined that I have a good time on this trip and is terrified that if she doesn’t plan every minute we are together, I will get bored.

Therein lies the difference between my sister and I. She is a planner, I am the Big Lebowski. I have always been the worse sister, known for borrowing sweaters and losing them, borrowing CDs and losing them, stealing sweaters and CDs and then, yes, losing them. I am scatter-brained, she is focused. She is introverted, if I don’t talk to someone every three hours Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” begins playing on loop in my head.

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Because my college starts four weeks later than any school ever should, I’ve decided to take a week-long excursion midway into this unfailingly lonely month visiting people I love: my sister, my high-school friends, my future roommate. In the past month, my sister has begun a new job in a new city, spending her free time meeting new people and exploring new neighborhoods. I have cleaned my closet and made movies of my dog dancing to music. By default, anything we do together is twenty times less boring.

So, we find ourselves at a trendy bar a few blocks away from Howard University filled with well-dressed people and nice cocktails at 9:35 p.m. not because we’re two wild and crazy gals enjoying city life, but whatever is the opposite of that. Our Sunday consisted of waking up at noon, eating Chipotle on the roof of her apartment, paddle-boating, eating raw cookie dough, taking a nap, then waking up in time to make it to a 9:15 dinner reservation. It was absolutely beautiful.

Our burgers come and I struggle to find adequate lighting for taking a photo of mine; the elderly man behinds me grows increasingly perturbed as I use the flash on my camera several times to get the right shot. My sister takes a picture of me taking my first bite. I am nervous and do it wrong. All I get is a mouthful of the potato bun and a little ketchup. Second try, I succeed. I smile. I don’t feel as bad about myself as I thought I would. I make notes on my phone that will prove to be very unhelpful when it comes time to write this piece: Juicy but not too juicy, simple, GOOD. I look up at her, already four bites deep into her own burger.

“It’s good,” I say. “It’s really good.”

We’re in agreement. And, in typical Sarvady girl fashion, we’re finished with our food before the perturbed man can even finish his drink.

2. “Shackburger.” Shake Shack, Paramus, New Jersey

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“No, Puh-ram-mus.”

My roommate is coaching me on the in and outs of New Jersey. I am learning. For instance: the Jersey shore isn’t just one place, but many. Seaside Heights is just what you see on MTV. This morning, we opted for the subtler town of Ocean Grove for our beach experience, devoid of stereotypical impurities because the beach has a substance-free policy and the town is known for being a mecca for religious travelers. I curse on the beach when sand flies in my book and I feel guilty, like the entire town has just witnessed by bad manners. I get another sunburn.

Later that night, we find ourselves in Puh-ram-mus, right off of Route 17, at the first ever Shake Shack in the Garden State. We’re with her mother and sister, whom I explain the whole burger-virgin thing to. No red meat since eighth grade after watching the documentary Food, Inc., vegetarianism for the past year and a half. But throw in a year of anemia, two flus, and six viruses and now I’m back to meat again. It plays out like a funny story. A girl who is just bad at being a vegetarian. I leave out the messier parts, the moral quandary of turning omnivorous, the fear of unhealthy food that seems to have been instilled in me since the Kale Revolution of 2012. Instead, we just toast with our burgers to trying new things and eating good food. And eat good food we do. The cheese is melty and hot, the bun is perfect and the hamburger patty is thin. I imagine that this is what a Krabby Patty would taste like.

“This,” I say with a full mouth, manners be damned, “is nice.”

My roommate and I order one caramel milkshake to go, which we finish later at her home while hanging out with her pet macaw, teaching it the words to “Uptown Funk.” New Jersey brings out the weird in me.

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