Not since my baby teeth left my mouth or Oprah quit TV have I felt so betrayed. Whataburger, the National Fast Food Chain of Texas, changed out its chicken patty for a new model, and I am raging like a drunk horse in a fashionable tea house.
Whataburger’s replacement of the classic Whatachick’n patty with a blasphemous thick-as-hell chicken piece is an affront to Nature, Texas and most of all, me. During my college years in Texas, I used to eat a grilled Whatachick’n literally every day—just as dictated in the Dead Sea Scrolls. I quit several years ago, after learning the magic of cooking soup at home. Recently, I returned to Texas and had the chance to purchase a Grilled Chicken Sandwich from the orange-and-white striped canopy of Texas’ most beloved burger joint. What a terrible night to eat such a curse.
I’m sure you can imagine what that was like, but I plan to tell you anyway. When I went back to Texas, this visit to Whataburger was planned with detail that would put Lance Armstrong’s doping regimen to shame. I’d deliberately gone off my keto diet to re-integrate the regal Whataburger experience into my life, at least for one weekend. Shortly after midnight, we pulled up the drive-through on University Street in Denton and ordered. I managed to keep my excited screams at an adult level.
Inside our car, a smaller vehicle—my human body—was ready for pure eating action. I was tense, and every inch of pure cartilage in my face was laced with glowing anticipation. I was so excited that I had the super-strength experience that only people on PCP know. If I’d been shot, the bullets would have fallen away from me like rainwater. Cobras would’ve melted into smaller cobras at the sight of me. Good and evil were but words to me, and indifferent to the taste sensation I was about to receive. All life’s highways that I’d wanted to ride all night long had headed towards this moment.
Then I bit in—and discovered I was eating what was essentially a huge, gross, gristle-core patty instead of the beautiful narrow plank of chicken I’d devoured for years. It was mostly tasteless protein. This was not my beautiful food, this was not my beautiful meal. To me it smacked of the Burger King and all his devices: ridiculous expansion at the cost of tastiness and quality. Verily, it is the NATO of chicken patties. There was no need for it to grow, no call for it, this needless steroid-infused revision of Texas’ greatest contribution to food science. And yet it came all the same.
Friends, I could not finish a Whataburger Grilled Chicken Sandwich. Five, 10, 15 years ago, that sentence would have seemed impossible to me.
Now it is the rule of the land.
Those of us who have wolfed down grilled chicken by the millions of pounds are a scattered, prudent lot. We grew up eating fast food burgers and switched over at some point to eat a purer beast, the common yardbird. Two legs trumps four legs. The fewer legs, the closer to God. I notice very few of us choose to devour octopus, and I can’t help but think that’s intentional. Legs of two, good for you. Legs of eight, prevaricate.
But eating grilled chicken requires nerves of steel, because it’s so easy to screw up a chicken sandwich. Burgers are fairly easy to get right. A middling beef patty can be rescued by amazing sauces. If you’re a burger cook, don’t hit rock bottom and you’re near the top. But chicken, any kind of chicken, is a different game altogether. Chicken is a highly flexible meat which can be arranged for any purpose, like the lyrics of Eminem can be co-opted for your older brother’s graduate thesis. But the same flexibility which makes a great chicken sandwich easy also makes screwing up the recipe simpler than a taekwondo blackbelt. Bad chicken ingredients equals radioactive doom in the hands of a bad cook.
You can imagine my anger when I came back to Texas this May and discovered Whataburger had Brutus’d me.
What happened? As with World War I, we can see the terrible march to ultimate tragedy by examining the historical record. Several months ago, Whataburger ads in Texas started making flagrant use of the adjective “New” next to its chicken sandwich, which could mean anything from “not actually chicken anymore” to “we are manipulating matter at the genetic level, get religion.” It was highly strange: why mess with perfection? Whataburger’s grilled chicken patty used to be pressed, with a slightly spicy braise to it. The grill was of an obvious, black-marked kind, the sort of brand that lets you know there was once sin in this patty, but it has been driven out by the blessing of fire.
Friends, in this world, some rules ought to remain constant. Some stars do not move, and some sandwiches ought to stay in one damn place. I looked at the ad closely:
“Real NEW, real fresh, real good CHICKEN Sandwiches” it read. Below that, in front of a photo of two sandwiches: “GRILLED CHICKEN, with New Zesty WhataSauce.” And below that, “NEW PREMIUM WHITE MEAT CHICKEN FILETS.”
New premium? How about keeping it old and not-horrible? How about not nauseating me, and probably killing dozens of Texan senior citizens, with this shocking shift in your chicken? As I write, men and women across the Lone Star State are frowning, weeping silent tears, going over to dog-runs, unlocking pit bull cages, whispering “With the change in Whatachick’n patties, I can no longer afford to keep you in the lifestyle you deserve and love. Go now, and seek your fortune.” When pit bulls are elected to the city council of Waco, you will have only Whataburger to blame.
Reader, does this seem like a fantasy to you? Well, so did a world of Whatachick’n changes to me, and then the impossible happened … and now I am writing hangry essays about this true crime, as if I was a bitter Clint Eastwood character in a teen gun movie.
Now that I can no longer eat Whatachick’n, what comes next? Am I supposed to eat owl pellets to get my birdacious nutrients? Is that what is required of me? Slough off dignity and go into the woods, hunting like owls do? Whataburger had a moderately pleasant consumable which kept me satiated during my grad school eight-hour anime binges. Now you’ve given that over to protein mediocrity and make-believe sauces. Is this the mid-nineties ABC network? Because I feel like I’m Hangin’ with Mr. Duper, Whataburger. I am no ordinary food-digesting yahoo, who can be tricked by shoving any old calories down my maw; I am a Texan, which is a different kind of high-functioning strangeness. For a Texan, denying Whataburger means denying the Burger Pope. It’s not all trap basement and Slipknot: After all, your ketchup is still worth several dozen man-weights of gold, and your fries are arguably more important to the national life than any individual vaccine. But this Whataburger chicken patty betrayal makes me think, which is a poor man’s replacement for eating.
Whataburger, this shift in the chicken paradigm has called our relationship into question. Like the British space program, you don’t bring a lot to the table.You’re the Samantha Bee of food changes: I see people online excited about you, but to me it’s mostly praise for a tasteless product. My Whatafriends, you are entering a world of pain because I am entering a world of hunger. Ask yourself if this is the path you want to go down. Do you really want to make frenemies at this stage? Already on the Western borders the taste-ambassador of California—the In ‘n’ Out Burger—is besieging the food culture of God’s most precious wonder, the State of Texas.
“Give the new Whatachick’n another try,” you say. I hear what you’re saying, anonymous voice, and you play a strong hand. But listen. I’m not after a single, good meal. I’m looking for a food habit.
People don’t understand how eating works. Foodies typically get their spicy kicks from having wonderful individual meals. They think that’s the test of high-quality restaurant. To which I ask, hell no?
Do you want each bone in your body to be individual—one of gold, one of silver, one of trick glass? Or would you prefer them to be made of one material—calcium? Consistency. That’s the key.
While you’re thinking about your skeleton, think about how important uniformity is to you. Reliability is a huge part of your life. If literally everything in your life was spontaneously new in some freakish way every single day, you’d basically go nuts and ram Volvos. Seriously, imagine a world where you have a new set of fingers, where your chair is a little different every minute, your car is made of wood one days and flame the next. Consistency is what keeps us all mildly sane.
As somebody said in some story somewhere—probably one of the Terminator movies—you can’t judge a restaurant by the first meal, you judge it by the millionth meal you eat. I thought Whataburger was in this company. I guess not, and now I’ll have to cross out all the tattoos I ever gave myself in their bathrooms. Strike three, Whataburger. Consider this a parole hearing to get you out of shame jail. Spoiler: you failed. I wanted a wow factor, but I left Whataburger with a “Why now?” factor. Just when I was looking forward to getting back together, you flipped me the bird. Whatashame, Whataburger.
Jason Rhode is on Twitter.