Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Porcelain Palace

My parents moved us out of the city to the suburbs in 1977 when I was only two years old.  I don’t think they really wanted to but my father’s company had moved their headquarters from a downtown office building to a suburban office park, just like so many other companies had, and the commute was wearing on him.  They had hoped to stay in the city, on the far north side in the Sauganash neighborhood but when compared to the size of the new houses we could afford in the northwest suburbs, Sauganash lost out to Arlington Heights.

For the most part, my parent’s families had stayed in the city on the south side where they grew up (or reasonably close: Oak Lawn is barely a suburb).  By second grade I had memorized the roads to get to my both of my grandparent’s house after the countless number of trips there.
There were certain things on the south side my parents missed.  The drive through liquor store, that sporting goods store on Harlem by the Daily Southtown office, the bowling alley my dad supposedly rolled a 300 game when he was fifteen or sixteen, the CTA buses my mother favored because she didn’t drive.  There were things they didn’t miss, like living next to my mother’s mother.  But every trip to the south side ended with a visit to the place.  A place many of you have maybe only gone to after drinking, but a place I’d gone to a hundred times by the time I was eight years old.
White Castle.  Sliders.  The Porcelain Palace.  Whitey’s.  Call it what you want, just don’t call it Krystal’s.  It might have been my dad’s favorite thing in the world, or at least that’s the way I like to remember it.  
I like the black and white logo better
While other people were stuffing themselves with second helpings of turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce on thanksgiving, our family was saving room for the stop at the White Castle at 63rd Street and Cicero, probably best known as the White Castle so close to Midway Airport, you can reach out and pull a sack of sliders from the drive thru as your plane lands.  And there was a routine.

How We Ordered
The White Castle menu has grown to over twenty five items over the last few years, but we only ever order one thing: the classic White Castle hamburger. Usually somewhere between twenty and thirty of them.
On the way to White Castle my dad would ask everyone how many they wanted with the total added up before we pulled into the lot.  My mom would stay in the car.  One or all three of us kids would go in with my dad.  He’d get in line and order.  Us kids would press our faces up to the glass and watch them cook.  Every White Castle had a window where you could watch the grill master work.   First, he’d scatter a layer of finely chopped onions across the grill.  Then, from a frozen stack he’d shuffle out the iconic five holed beef patties, super thin, tiny squares. Once the patties were on the grill, the bun, both top and bottom, would be placed onto of the patties, to steam up.  Once the patties were cooked, no flipping involved, they were lifted by a spatula, bottom bun slide underneath, a pickle added atop the patty before being capped by the top of the bun and stuffed into the famous White Castle boxes.
The magic is in the holes

Once the order was complete and my dad had the sack in his hands, we headed back to the car (you see kids, there weren’t many drive through windows back in my day).  My dad would hand the bag to my mom and start driving.  Mom was in charge of handing out sliders to everyone and she also controlled the pickle box.  My brother and sister both didn’t like pickles but they weren’t allowed to order them without them.  Unwanted pickles were removed and placed in the pickle box for the rest of us pickle eaters to eat or to add to our own sliders.  (Note: As adults, my brother and sister are finally allowed to order them without pickles.)  Most of the time, all the burgers would be gone before we made it onto the highway to head back to Arlington Heights, leaving only the smell of onions and pickles a stack of folded White Castle boxes in a bag. 
How famous are the boxes?  In Kindergarten, I brought a back of empty White Castle boxes to preschool.  My teacher, Mrs. Corday, sent a note home to my parents thanking me after she smelled the inside of the boxes.  She was a White Castle fan.

The Next Generation
My mom tells me sliders were my fist solid food, although they are barely solid.  All three of my children ate White Castles at an early age.  And they like them.  My daughter especially.

One night after we had returned home from a family party on the south side where neither kid at much, they both complained about being hungry.  We found a box of frozen White Castles from the grocery store.  My son asked for those.  Then so did my daughter.  But there were only two left.  She started to whine.  She gets cranky when she is hungry.  We call it being hangry.  You don’t want to make her hangry.  You wouldn’t like it if she was hangry.
We ate these
“I want White Castles, too,” I said.  “Let’s go get some.”
There are three White Castles within two miles of our house, My daughter and I climbed in the car and drove to the nearest one.  On the way there, we figured out how many we wanted.  I ordered.  We went to the window and I lifted her up so she could watch them cook on the grill.  First the onions, then the patties, then the buns steaming on top.  We watched them put them together, slide them in to the boxes then they handed us the bag.  We each ate one on the short drive home.  We brought them in the house and shared them with everyone.
The next morning when I opened my car door the smell was still there.  It reminds me of everything good about being younger.  Looking forward to family events, not just to see my cousins but knowing that on the way home I was going to get White Castles. Hell, it was probably the reason my parents looked forward to going to the south side.

Thanks for reading.