I published this essay on July 7th, 2011, on my old blog, which will eventually pass into the great Internet beyond. It’s one of my favorites, so I’m reposting it here with a few edits.
“I was twelve going on thirteen when I first saw a dead human being. It happened in 1960, a long time ago. . .although sometimes it doesn’t seem that long to me.” —Stephen King, “The Body”
When Dan the Manager got busted on a coke binge, the Steak ‘n Shake gang wasn’t surprised. We had all left St. Louis after high school; I was living in New York, Josh in Virginia, Jack in North Carolina. Over vacations we visited our adolescent haunt, sipping milkshakes and polishing off bowls of bright red chili. Yet, even a steakburger topped with guacamole and chopped onions and pepperjack cheese couldn’t bring back our teenage years. First, our favorite waitress, Shannon, quit and went to college at Northeast Missouri State. Tani’qua got fired and works at Walmart. Sean disappeared, too—he once banged a Mexican gangster’s girlfriend and narrowly escaped execution. Or so he said. But Dan was always around with a grin twitching under his mustache.
Steak ‘n Shake is famous for steakburgers. Gus Belt founded the chain in 1934 with a passion for ground steak and hand dipped shakes. It is fitting that Steak ‘n Shake was born in a town named Normal, in a state called Illinois. Midwesterners worship before the Steak ‘n Shake altar, offering up hard-earned dollar bills for chocolate malts and chili 3-ways—soggy spaghetti, chili, extra beef, and “special sauce.” In his ode to Steak ‘n Shake, “Car, Table, Counter, or TakHomaSak,” Roger Ebert professes his love for chili mac and chili 3-Ways and steakburgers, steakburgers, steakburgers, those glorious steakburgers: for Ebert, “a symphony of taste and texture.” He would recommend Steak ‘n Shake to the Pope and eat steakburgers on death row, invite President Obama to join him in a black vinyl booth and take detours to Kankakee looking for a new branch. As all true-blooded Midwesterners know, we do not choose our favorite foods by taste. Those dishes we ate while young and growing into the world come to define our spirits, our gastronomical selves. Ebert remembers his father passing him the ketchup bottle in a Steak ‘n Shake near the University of Illinois—at the age of three, all was right in the world, and all would remain so in the white and black tiled walls of Steak ‘n Shakes everywhere.
I started frequenting Steak ‘n Shake during 9th grade; I had joined the debate team, and after competitions we would go to the franchise in Overland, a lower middle class suburb that swallows up an old railroad line. The tracks rarely clatter these days; Overland hosts a different kind of traffic, truckers moving through to Highway 270 and the interstates. Fast food chains have sprouted along Page Avenue to serve their various needs. Next to our Steak ‘n Shake, Long John Silver’s and Jack in the Box and Dairy Queen keep the midnight haulers well fueled. An influx of Mexican immigrants has altered the neighborhood flavor, too. Restaurants like Durango serve burritos big as babies and tacos de chicharron. But we were loyal to Steak ‘n Shake, never wavering in our devotion. For the first two years of my Steak ‘n Shake affair, I remained faithful to the chili 3-Way. You could stand a spoon in a well made 3-Way; it would quiver in the spaghetti, sweating, greasy with stringy beef and beans. I graduated to vanilla malts streaked with syrup, banana split milkshakes that turned puce with strawberry jam and chocolate fudge, steakburgers with skinny fries and cheese sauce, sliders with A1 and ketchup and mustard, and plates of pickles and diet Cokes. Jack always ordered a mint chocolate chip shake, which changed to mint cookies ‘n cream circa 2008. Josh rarely paid—Shannon brought him bowls of chili on the house and ice cream cookie sundaes, with the cookies warmed, please. My brother, who kept the Steak ‘n Shake tradition alive until he left home, picked at fries and chocolate shakes. By no objective evaluation is the food at Steak ‘n Shake especially delicious, except as a fragment of childhood that you can pick up between your hands and wipe off with paper napkins after you’re done. And in that sense, the food at Steak n’ Shake is the most delicious I’ve ever eaten.
In this fast foodified nation, where big agrobusiness and industrial conglomerates seek to disguise methods of food production, Steak ‘n Shake prides itself on using only the best ingredients. When Gus started up the Steak ‘n Shake brand, he insisted on grinding the burger meat right in front of his customers. Steak ‘n Shake’s slogan is “In Sight It Must Be Right.” The Food and Drug Act of 1906, the Meat Inspection Act, and the Food and Drug Administration (est. 1930) weighed heavily on the public—meat could be deadly, tainted by poison and greed. Steak ‘n Shake meant “Normal” America: a point at the country’s geographic, moral, and political centers where honesty and entrepreneurial capitalism dominate the culture. George Babbitt could have been spotted stopping in for a cup of coffee on his way home from the real estate office. Ironically, Steak ‘n Shake’s expansion—it now counts more than 500 franchises—has changed good intention to hypocrisy. Steak ‘n Shake is famous for steakburgers that taste neither like steak nor burgers; it embodies the anti-“Normal” values that have become the new American norms: serialization, speed, and virtuality. Even in a Steak ‘n Shake where the hiss of a real griddle backs up the Staples Singers on repeat, the experience feels corporate and technologically manipulated. Visit a Steak ‘n Shake in St. Louis and you’ve visited Steak ‘n Shakes in Indianapolis, San Antonio, and Las Vegas; eat a steakburger one night and you’ve eaten thousands of identical meat product patties simultaneously replicated around the country.
If anything remains of Gus Belt’s ethos, it is the collection of original characters that populated our Steak ‘n Shake. Every night for three years a man on crutches took a taxi to dinner and slowly ate his chili. Gangbangers drove in from North St. Louis. Fat Midwesterners squeezed into booths and ordered outrageous meals for their fat Midwesternlings. In 2008, one gangboy got really tough and pulled a gun and robbed the register, and from then on Steak ‘n Shake closed from 4 a.m. till dawn. Out of all the servers we saw work that register—Pete, the tall man with a thin smile, Taffy, the scowl with a weary face, Tani’qua, Sean—I will remember Shannon. She went to Ritenour High School, actually on the wrong side of the tracks. She teetered on late night shoes, wore industrials through her ears, got a tattoo of flowers running up her calf to her thigh. She would sit with us and adjust our bills, and we were friends. We grew up together over endless coffee cups. When I saw her in March, she was visiting Steak ‘n Shake too, and I asked her about Dan. “Dan was crazy,” was all she said.
The beauty of a diner is in its transience. There would be no Diner without the threat of growing up and out of the hangout; there would be no Pulp Fiction without the circular movement of Pumpkin, Honey Bunny, Vincent, and Jules through the diner doors; there would be no American Graffiti without the threat of Curt leaving Mel’s Drive-In for college. While the diner offers nostalgia—listen to those Del Vikings, those Chordettes!—it is a place from which, to mature, you must move on. Dan’s replacement, Terry, was a monumental black woman who asked a girl to prom for my brother and greeted us with hugs. I once promised to bring her an “I Love New York” key chain, but never got the chance—she left to pursue a career in business management. A new generation of high schoolers now frequents our booths, sips our milkshakes, and races through the parking lot in their parents’ cars. They will have their own memories of Steak ‘n Shake, and while it feels satisfying to revisit ours, too many cookie sundaes make a man sick.
One August night, Dan walked over to our table past twelve. We were kibitzing over empty plates. “Can one of you give me a ride to my house?” No one answered, initially out of confusion. “My car’s in the shop, and I need to pick up something at my house. I live just a few minutes away,” Dan said, looking desperate. Little boys do not routinely return from such missions. “I’m almost out of gas,” I lied. Jack shrugged and said, “I’ll take you.” Josh and I locked eyes. Jack was better known for his chemistry acumen than his bad boy abandon. “I’ll go,” he repeated. Dan didn’t look relieved, but just jerked around anxiously. “Thanks a lot man, I owe you. Chili’s on me tonight guys.”
We waited half an hour, and then they walked through the door, Dan with an oversize envelope in hand. After settling our reduced checks, we reconvened by Jack’s white Chevy Lumina. “He just went into his house, grabbed the envelope, and came back,” he explained. We didn’t need to ask—close encounters seemed to accompany Dan like a cloud of cooking oil. Two weeks earlier, Dan had brought us a life size Barbie head along with our coffees. “Some girl left this here. Her mom was hot,” he said, and walked away. “Are you guys done fucking that chicken back there?” He screamed at his staff in the kitchen. For a moment, we wondered whether strange acts of bestiality were proceeding on the griddle. Josh and Jack grinned and returned to their chili.
Last summer, Dan walked into Steak ‘n Shake, emptied the register, bought a mountain of coke, checked into a hotel room, and took off on a bender. The cops found him tweaked out, too high to resist arrest. Josh texted me the news. Suddenly, Dan’s curious behavior seemed suspicious—what was in that package he picked up that summer evening? “You probably helped Dan traffic drugs,” I joked with Jack the next time we met in Steak ‘n Shake. We laughed nervously. I was nineteen going on twenty when I first saw a man destroy his life. It was not a long time ago. He was my friend, even if he didn’t know it.
This May, I was passing through St. Louis and met Jack for a drink—more accurately, a milkshake—at Steak ‘n Shake. It was a new menu item, a key lime pie shake with graham cracker bits swirled in for good measure. Somewhere between Steak ‘n Shake and New York I lost my innocence. These days, I just feel hungry—for a chili 3-Way, a waitress who knows my name, and another night with Dan the Manager and the Steak ‘n Shake gang at my side.