My life in food these days is not out of the ordinary for a suburban-born, city-dwelling thirty-something in 2016. I track new restaurants, and up-and-coming chefs. I watch food programs in which contestants churn out haute cuisine in the time it takes me to peel potatoes. I care about phrases on menus like locally-sourced, and house-made, and from-scratch. I shop at food co-ops and farmers markets.
This post, however, is not about any of that.
This post isn’t about where I am in food, or my food ethics, or my current food interests. It’s not about my Top Five Favorite Bites, or my Ten Favorite Restaurants, or about the places I take out-of-town visitors to show off. It’s about past, and memory, and summer, and youth – all words which mean the same thing to me these days.
This post is about Tastee Freez.
Being from Cleveland I didn’t grow up with this chain, but in a way we all probably had a Tastee Freez in our past. Simple food that likely arrived frozen in a box or a bag, cooked over a grill or a flat-top, or deep-fried, and sold cheaply. This, of course, followed up by soft-serve cones or sundaes, and if we were lucky concretes mixed with retail name-brand candy like Snickers or Oreos. Call it a Tastee Freez or a Dairy Queen or a Carvel or a local mom-and-pop across from the town square – whatever the name, it all means summer.
I love Tastee Freez. I love it as an adult; completely, purely, and unironically. Every pulled-from-a-box burger patty, every defrosted corndog, every iced-over ice cream sundae tastes like a million summer afternoons at the Dairy Queen or Shake Shoppe or Mr. Divots. Like countless cookouts, and Little League baseball games. The smokiness of the uncleaned-grill-char tastes like July and infinity, to me.
Is this love I have for Tastee Freez and its ilk nothing more than nostalgia? Is it just so much longing for something simpler than now? Probably. You’ll notice I haven’t spent much space writing about what the food actually tastes like outside of pretty metaphor. If the place were in a mall, or were it a newly opened and blogged about pop-up, I probably wouldn’t think twice about it. But set as it is, with its bare-bones interior, and communal picnic tables, immersed in the excitement of neighborhood children off from school it’s completely reasonable to taste more than the contents of that checkered paper tray.
Food is often more than just flavor. It’s memory, and it’s comfort. Sometimes the thing you need more than unctuousness or artisanality or umami is a reminder that your biggest worry as an adult can still be whether or not the sun will be shining tomorrow like it is right now. Or whether you can finish this ice cream cone before too much of it ends up dripping over your hand, and in a puddle on the asphalt.
In the summertime I still eat at Tastee Freez once or twice a month, when my slow adult metabolism and sporadic exercise schedule will allow it. A burger and a soft-serve sundae is as much of a treat for me now as it was when I was mainlining Pixie Stix and collecting basketball cards. Sure there are better burgers and better ice cream within easy walking distance. But I’ve been careless and care-free at places like this my whole life, and sometimes nothing tastes more like home cooking than the processed, thrown together, quick-serve fare served up at absolute holes in the wall. Restaurants that are not food-forward or avant-garde, but that remind you of the places that were the center of your universe back when the universe was just a couple of square miles.
Long live Tastee Freez, and its spiritual cousins across the country. Long may you reign, and protect us from forgetting that growing up doesn’t mean you have to take yourself too seriously.