You’d be hard-pressed to find a fast food chain, at least until 2014 or so, that had more of a “eh, who cares?” attitude toward incredibly unhealthy menu items than Long John Silver’s—with the notable exception of Hardees, of course. Still, what Hardees is to “turf,” Long John Silver’s undoubtedly has been to “surf”—a grease-slicked, fishy-smelling franchise wriggling on the end of America’s fast food hook.
And yet … there is some small part of me that loves it.
I have long had a weird relationship with Long John Silver’s. When I was a small child and ended up there for the first time with a parent on some now-forgotten excursion, likely a shopping trip to the mall, I immediately became a devotee. I expect the unwitting parent, most likely my mother, would have taken me there because I went through a period of obsession with fried fish—every fast food place I would visit, I would be ordering fish sandwiches of any description. I can’t imagine why else my mother, a career nurse and proponent of nutritious food, would have taken me to this bastion of fried gluttony for any other reason, but the damage was thoroughly done. Long John Silver’s got its hooks in me as a child.
As an adult, most of that immediate love turned to easily justifiable disgust. I’m unable to deny that I enjoy their food in a disgustingly hedonistic way, but the disdain almost always outweighs any compulsion that would lead me to actually eat there—or their Southern counterpart, Captain D’s, now that I’m in Atlanta.
Rather, Long John Silver’s has come to represent, in my mind, everything about fast food that I find fascinating, in the same way that a terrible train wreck is fascinating to watch. Their brazen disregard for health and good taste has been something incredible to witness over the years. Even as other national chains did everything they possibly could to combat their poor health reputations, LJS just turned into the skid, cranking out new and frightful meals of D-grade fish and ultra-crispy batter. They never tried to hide what they were, to the extent that no piece of satire seems impossible when attached to their name. This is why, when a friend linked me to this story from The Onion the other day, I thought it sounded perfectly reasonable that they were producing a “golden fried abomination from the deep” for approximately 5 seconds before seeing the URL.
And for that reason, I’ve always felt the very occasional trip to Long John Silver’s is like pure writer’s inspiration. Once a year or so, I go. I go, I eat, I watch and listen. I try to absorb what if anything has changed or evolved. And then I go home and feel ill for an extended period of time.
The incidents below all happened as a result of those various trips.
Long John Silver’s holds the distinction of being responsible for the first time in my life that I ever suffered from heartburn—and as a child, no less. I was probably about 10, and had never experienced anything like the post-meal gastric reflux before. “Why does it feel like there’s a smoldering campfire in my chest?” I wondered. It would be years before I ever experienced the same sensation again, which makes the fact that Long John Silver’s was able to provoke it for the first time some sort of achievement in grease. Every time I experience heartburn today, I flash back to those childhood moments of licking fryer grease from my fingers.
If you’ve ever ordered … well, pretty much anything at LJS, you know that it comes with a complimentary sprinkling of the brand’s proprietary fairy dust, known in the parlance of the restaurant workers as “crispies.” A crispy, if you were wondering, is one of the tiny bits of fried batter that coats everything going into the fryer—fish, chicken, shrimp, etc. All those bits of batter that fall off the completed pieces of pseudo-meat? Those are collected with what I can only imagine is some sort of industrial sieve to become “crispies”—quite simply just a handful of crunchy particles of batter, not coating anything. They’re liberally tossed onto nearly any order—even a side of fries will come with a smattering of crispies in there.
Authentic crispies in the wild.
What you may not have known is that the restaurant staff is trained to treat crispies essentially like a side item, if requested by the customer. As in, you can get them on demand, should you so choose. I learned this while making a once-yearly Long John Silver’s visit while in college when a small but corpulent child—he couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10—trundled up to the counter while I was ordering and asked “Can I get some crispies?” There I was, watching in rapt fascination and wondering what exactly he was requesting, when a worker emerged from the back carrying a fry container. A fry container completely filled with crispies, which the fat little child gleefully took back to his booth and began to lustily devour. I spent the rest of the encounter attempting to restrain myself from running out of the building, waving my arms and babbling nonsense about the end of the world.
Who needs a box?
I once witnessed someone in a Long John Silver’s attempt to eat one of the large-scale combo meals intended NOT for one person but a small family. Having plenty of food left over once his belly was appropriately distended, he went up to the counter to ask for something to carry his food home in. To which, they handed him … a plastic bag. And I watched as this person scooped up uneaten pieces of fish, chicken and fries and just, you know … tossed them into a plastic bag. No box. No barrier. Just a plastic bag full of room temperature fried fish, carried out the door. A tasty snack for the road, perhaps?
Don’t tell the wife
Before moving to Atlanta, I discovered that another friend had a similar relationship to mine with Long John Silver’s, except even more shameful. Like me, LJS was something of a weird, yearly ritual for him, but his wife was not so fond of the concept. In reality, I believe she disliked the idea of him eating anything so patently unhealthy, so when we went for our ritualistic LJS consumption, we actually chose to hide this fact from his significant other. That’s how damning the admission of eating at a Long John Silver’s is—you have to hide the fact that it’s happened from your spouse or significant other. My advice to you: Make sure you check your collar for stray crispies. That’s a dead giveaway.
The Big Catch
I initially began writing Eating Badly columns before joining Paste, while working in newspapers back in my home state of Illinois. While there, we would occasionally do videos of me taking on various eating challenges or simply dissecting fast food minutia that I found particularly amusing, and one of the most memorable moments came courtesy of—you guessed it—Long John Silver’s.
Pictured: A svelte person who clearly eats The Big Catch regularly.
Back in 2013, LJS introduced what was probably the single most audacious item in their storied history, the “Big Catch Basket.” It consisted of simply one giant hunk of fish and the usual sides, fried in their normal fashion, but the nutrition info was well and truly staggering: 1,320 calories. 3,700 milligrams of sodium. 19 grams of saturated fat. And the coup de gras, 33 grams of trans fats—that is just about two weeks the recommended amount of trans fats IN A SINGLE GODDAMN MEAL. It was so awful that it was named the “Worst Restaurant Meal in America” by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. So naturally, I had to go eat one:
I’m experiencing nostalgic heartburn right now, just remembering that experience. If you’re wondering if you can still get this thing, by the way, the answer is no: Kowtowing to health pressures and an FDA ban on trans fats, The Big Catch is long since extinct.
If you haven’t just finished watching the above video, though, there’s a single moment that really sums up the Long John Silver’s experience. As we went through the drive-thru to order my Big Catch Meal, we were presented with an opportunity: “Would you like to add a chicken plank for 99 cents?” Here I am, ordering the “Worst Restaurant Meal in America,” and the drive-thru attendant is under contractual obligation to ask me if I want to add even more additional fried food to said meal.
What could I say? Except “Of course I want a chicken plank for 99 cents.”
Because that’s what you do, when you’re a Long John Silver’s consumer. And if you want to write about the grotesqueries of fast food, that’s who you have to be, from time to time.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and it’s currently been more than a year since he was at a Long John Silver’s. He did, however, go to a Captain D’s about 6 months ago. You can follow him on Twitter.