Dear, dear In-n-Out Burger, I love you. I love your unique Californian announcement of yourself, your little cinderblock buildings painted glossy white and gussied up with red trim, your yellow dash of an arrow hanging a hard left in your sign, and white letters on a red field. In-n-Out. Normally I disapprove of text speak, but you put the n in your name long before cell phones, or even button phones. Born in the age of rotary, you suggest soda fountains, though you never had a soda fountain, did you, and sometimes not even a place to sit. Just a drive-through, and those lines out the parking lot and into the busy California boulevards, two lanes one way minimum, that we have the nerve to call streets. I love your cheerful teenaged workers, with their little paper hats and like old-fashioned soda jerks and their white uniforms and their little red tags. They are uniformly cute, and uniformly sweet, and uniformly ask every single time if I want the onion, and I always wonder if so many people complained about onion that someone decided they’d better ask. I love the ritual of these kids coming out to meet me at the end of the long line of cars, and I roll down the window and give my order, and there’s something friendly about it, like a neighbor come out to say hello. Can a non-Californian understand? Just last spring, my husband and I stopped with the kids at In-n-Out. There we were, with the palm trees outside and the sweet breeze in the parking lot, and in walked a full Quinceañera party. Can anyone from Toronto, my husband’s hometown, understand a Quinceañera? It’s a fifteenth birthday party. The birthday girl wears a full white dress, like a wedding dress, and her girlfriends wear matching dresses, like bridesmaids (in this case full and pink and sequined). And the boys, a matching number, wear their black tuxedoes. So, on this special day, the whole party had stopped at In-n-Out. And I thought, Is there anything more Californian than this? Palm trees, and I’m in shorts in April, and the Quinceañera party lounging by the soda machine waiting for the burgers and their fries, maybe some chocolate shakes, or sodas, because that’s it; that’s the menu. There are no cones, no sundaes, not even onion rings. Burger, fries, a coke. Maybe a shake. But what a burger! Locally sourced, ground in the little white building, the fries from farms only a few miles away. You can watch the kids in white pants and shirts put the taters in the French fry maker, and manually, as they probably did at the start, bring down a handle that pushes the potatoes through the slots to make the fries. Right there, from potatoes dug from the California soil. Yes, I know, I romanticize. It’s not a gourmet burger. Just a bun, big slab of white onion (yes, please), 4 ounces of hamburger, lettuce, pickle, tomato. Special sauce, although I substitute ketchup and mustard. But I love you. I’m obsessed with you. And sitting there in Santa Monica with the palm trees swaying in the light breeze, I remembered April in Toronto, the ice storm that froze like Formica on top of the snow, so my dogs slid into the gutters and stopped only against the ice-encased cars. I watched the fifteen year old girl in her almost-wedding dress bite into a burger, and I realized that I love In-n-Out for their food, yes, but mostly because I get it, finally, after all these years. I used to think it was just another burger too. And now I understand that it is California, that sitting here is proof that I am California too.
Goldberry Long was born in the Rockies, lived for almost 5 years in Canada, and now lives in Southern California, where she eats In-n-Out at least once a week. Her novel, Juniper Tree Burning, can be found in most remainder bins. Her essays have appeared in Brain, Child and The Rumpus, and she has stories in The New Orleans Review, Colorado Review, and Los Angeles Review.