Why I first arrived in Houston, Texas in the dead of night on a flight from Israel is a long story. It was many, many years ago, yet I vividly remember the plane landing quite late at night, and being dead tired.
Being in my 20’s, from a small town and not particularly wealthy, my experience at eating out was quite limited. Here and there some simple Middle Eastern restaurants, where my pleasure was to eat hummus with pita, and once in a while – when my brother-in-law was in a generous mood, a better, more “upscale” visit to a new restaurant in Netanya, my home town.
At that time, about forty years ago, the whole concept of eating out as a life-style was almost unknown to most Israelis (not anymore), and especially if you lived in a small town.
Restaurant styles were basically utilitarian. There was hardly any emphasis on furniture, decorations, and ambience – none of the good stuff you read about on Yelp or Chowhound. There were no food-critics, except for word of mouth, and you knew that one restaurant had better hummus than the other because someone told you so.
Cleanliness wasn’t an issue. If things looked superficially fine, it would be sufficient. I would venture a guess that most places I ate in at that time could hardly get a B today and maybe a C.
Jerry, our host who picked us up from the airport, was trying to find us a place to eat, but most of the restaurants in the area were closed already. After a couple of futile attempts he finally announced that the only place that would still be open would be Jack in the Box.
I assume there isn’t any American who doesn’t know what I’m referring to unless you were chained to your bed since birth. I, on the other hand, had no idea what he was referring to, and when he kept on apologizing – I told him that any place would be fine. I was hungry.
When he drove up to Jack’s box, they had a conversation! I was in awe. I could not believe that you talk to Jack and he actually responded. I inquired about Jack’s voice and how come Jack knows we’re driving by. (Jerry was bemused.) When asked about what’s inside
the little building, Jerry pulled into the parking lot and said that we could dine inside.
I was so impressed! Yes, Jack in the Box was my first dining experience in the US and I thought I entered an upscale restaurant.
First and foremost there were the colors. There were bright reds and yellows, and I’ve never seen a restaurant where the colors were so bold.
Then the cleanliness! Everything was shiny and sparkling clean. So clean that I understood for the first time that what I was used to in my limited experience, was limited indeed.
The staff was so nice! They greeted us with a smile and said: “Welcome to Jack in the Box!” I was truly mystified. It was so late, and they were still smiling!
My hummus and pita place in Israel had a waiter who wore a dirty apron; there was always a cigarette hanging from his lips; he always looked severely preoccupied and though not impatient – his demeanor made it clear that he’s in a rush, that he had better things to do. What the rush was I never understood, because there were always just a few patrons in the restaurant, but still…
The hamburger’s aroma entered my nostrils and I thought I was in heaven, when Jerry brought our order to our table. The expression on Jerry’s face slowly turned to one of pity and embarrassment as I excitedly told him that he shouldn’t feel bad about taking us to this fine dining establishment; that this was the nicest restaurant I’ve ever been to; that I would probably come here every day. Yes, I noticed his expression, but I was I was too tired (too green?) to decipher it. Besides, I was in a state of hamburger bliss.
Months later, now settled in and getting to know Houston, I had a short conversation with Jerry. We were talking about going to a new restaurant that his girlfriend had heard of. After giving me directions and getting up to leave he smirked and said: “You know, Rachel, we can go there, or we can go to this famous upscale restaurant, the one you love so much, Jack in the Box!
I looked at him and said: “Jack in the Box is great, Jerry. It’s clean, it’s efficient, it’s cheap and I love talking to Jack! Oh, and I love their fries more than McDonald’s”
Jerry looked at me with surprise: “Rachel, even though I really don’t like Jack in the Box, hearing you compare the fries is a definite sign of assimilation.”
I still have fond feelings towards Jack, even when later on I’ve discovered other drive-thru places, and better – more upscale restaurants.
In my heart I’m still the girl from Netanya who is happy to eat hummus or a sandwich, and hardly ever willing to drive far away for food. I eat out a lot. I frequently meet people for lunch, dinner and breakfast. I’ve been to simple and fine restaurants – but basically I’m happy with the tuna sandwiches that Peter makes, or some good bread and cheese with cut up vegetables.
The other day I went to the bank, and Jack in the Box was next door. I decided to eat their chicken fajita pita and fries. The place was full with mothers and their children, and I resisted the impulse to tell them not to feed their children any meat that’s not organic, nor did I tell the day-laborers who were drinking diet coke about how artificial sweeteners can cause cancer.
But, then my number was called, I took my order, sat at the clean table, amidst the bright colors, and enjoyed my food, especially the curly fries.