A month or two ago, Cameron mentioned to me how much he enjoyed a chicken burger.
He said, in fact, it was one of the best burgers he’s ever eaten. High praise from a guy who enjoys a great burger. He takes his burgers seriously. He’s a quality over quantity guy, for instance, when it comes to the atrociously-successful Burger Love madness that descends upon PEI every April.
But, you know, it was a chicken burger. How great could it really be? I have no scientific statistics (are there any other kind, really?) to back this up, but he belongs to a generation that is prone to extreme exaggeration to make a point. Every single one of them, far as I can tell, has no ability to gauge a median quality. Everything is either “the best ever” or “the worst possible”. That’s probably why they don’t vote.
He had it, he said, at Sneaky Cheats, a pop-up restaurant that, well, pops up here and there around Charlottetown (and the Island, I presume?). I was, of course, aware of Sneaky Cheats, because of social media I am aware of things. It’s also how I became aware of the Lobster Fetishists Group, PEI Chapter, on Facebook. But I had never tried Sneaky Cheats, nor many of the new crop of food offerings around the city, because a) I am set in my ways, and b) it’s taken me far too long to accept that I have to pay $12 for a food item that doesn’t even include a side.
So, yeah, a good chicken burger. (See, I wrote “good” – my generation is, if nothing else, attuned to always seek the median in things.) Big deal.
Here is a short explanation of my experiences with chicken burgers, just so you know where I’m coming from. I’ve eaten more Junior Chickens from McDonald’s than any other type of chicken burger. I think they’re okay. A good (see, not “great”), quick piece of heated meat to gobble into my belly, without causing me too much upset. I’ve bought and cooked a fair share of frozen breaded chicken burgers to know I do not like them very much. I mean, they are no Junior Chicken. And I have always assumed that I will likely cook my fair share of frozen breaded chicken burgers in the future and I’ve been okay with that. I’ve had – I’m going to say fewer than the number of fingers on both my hands – a few grilled chicken burger type dealies, from all the types of food places – fast, medium, and slow – and, honestly, none of them really thrilled me. None that were too memorable, most that were okay. I am not going to say they were either the best or the worst things ever, because that’s not the way my generation rolls.
So, Monday past, Cameron texts me and says Sneaky Cheats is having a pop-up above the fire-hall downtown, and they are offering a chicken burger similar to the one he dubbed the best ever, and would we like to accompany him. Catching me in a youthful mood, I agree, and we all three – Cameron, me, and Karyn – head off to the popped up Sneaky Cheats. We each order the chicken burger and an order of potato salad each. Catching me in a paternal mood, I pay. And then we go and wait for our names to be called, to come and get our food.
While we wait, Cameron cannot help but be of his generation, and goes to great lengths to describe his experience with the last Sneaky Cheats chicken burger he had. It’s a dangerous story he weaves, in that every expression of amazement in the food he utters only works to tamp down my expectations about the assumed slightly-above-good chicken burger I’m about to eat. Still, he does know good food, and so, as he went on, more and more of me was, admittedly, hoping for something special.
First surprise is this: We didn’t have to go up and get our food. The lady who takes the orders brought it to us. Second surprise is this: she also brought us an order of the kale salad, for all of us, because, she said, the chef noticed this was our first time at Sneaky Cheats. I’m not sure how he knew this. Speculation by the other two at the table was that he recognized me as an entity that sometimes gets noticed as an entity. I don’t know if that is so, but So, yeah, and yeah, that was nice!
The burger was there, in front of me. Because of Cameron’s exhortations, I was won over to his side, now brain-washed into believing this was going to be something generationally-special. The first thing I noticed was how dark and crispy the breading on the chicken looked. The whole burger looked great (I know!) and I especially liked the fact that it didn’t look like one of those Burger Love monstrosities that include all the sides on top of the burger, including soup. It looked like a burger. A chicken burger.
I did not take a picture of it. I don’t do that. I tend not to photographically document the moments, people and foods in my life very much.
I saw a part of the breading that was jutting out a bit, begging to be picked off. It was perhaps the size of a newborn baby’s baby-finger fingernail. Very small. I picked it off and put it in my mouth.
And with that baby’s fingernail of deep-fried breadcrumb, my whole world changed forever.
I can only describe it as a Big Bang sized explosion of flavour. With that one small breadcrumb entering my mouth, I am sure that whole universes have now been created in my insides. Where once there was nothing, now, somewhere inside me, there is a microscopic planet its inhabitants call Earth, and somewhere on that planet inside me there is a man of a certain generation who has yet to experience that planet’s version of a Sneaky Cheats Chicken Burger. I both pity that man for what he doesn’t know, and am envious for the enjoyment of that life-changing experience hopefully still to come for him.
I forget what philosopher said “For it is the entirety of human existence that is contained within one tiny morsel of breaded chicken burger that awaits those who choose to see it”, but I now know what he was getting at.
Words cannot do justice to just how damn great that small crumb was. Not even poetical words like “ere” or “forsooth” or “wheelbarrow” can approach.
I was instantly a changed man, I knew that. An eternity of happiness experienced in that crumb. I will always have that. I will. However, just as instantly, I became aware of a tragic truth: from that pinnacle of pleasure I experienced, every moment afterwards would only mean I am that moment farther from it. I suddenly understood just how cruel the dissipation of pleasure can be. Already, micro-seconds after that initial flavour burst, I had already forgotten what that experience was like. I knew I would never get that moment back. And, therefore, I could never be truly, ultimately, happy again.
Not even with an almost complete Sneaky Cheats Chicken Burger sitting in front of me, would I experience the utopia of taste – what copywriters from any generation might call a “tastetopia” – that I had just experienced. With the burger in front of me, I knew I would come close, but I also knew that close might as well be universes of taste away. What copywriters might call “tastieverses” away. I became aware at a quantum level, that I was dealing in instantaneous half-lives of taste – whatever the smallest intervals of time that exist, between each instance the memory of the exquisiteness of that initial taste was being halved. I would never get it back.
I had to think. I spent maybe 30 seconds, just staring at the table in front of me. Part of me was still enjoying – oh, how I was enjoying – the flavour. I concentrated so hard on experiencing that enjoyment, half-lifing as it was away from memory, moment to moment. Part of me was in a sort of ecstasy of anticipation at the wonderful flavours and experiences I was about to engage with. And yet, part of me, was in mourning. And it was this mourning that I was afraid would take over.
Then, a wonderful thing happened. Perhaps, in those 30 seconds or so, I motored through all the stages of grief. I can’t say for sure what it was, but I am thankful, beyond thankful, that it happened. What did happen was this:
I accepted it.
I accepted that I would never get to that place again. Once accepted, I became fine with it. I came to understand peace.
It was only then that I dared to look at the Sneaky Cheats Chicken Burger again. A calmness washed over me, and joy took over. Not the ultimate joy, I understood, but a wondrous joy nonetheless. The joy was this: I had, but for that perfect baby fingernail sized crumb, an entire chicken burger that I knew I as going to enjoy so very much.
And so, I dug in. Bite after bite, the tsunami-sized waves of pleasure washed over me. Even as I came to the last few bites, knowing this all was soon to end, and that memories would not do it justice, I was able to experience nothing but this amazing chicken burger.
It was life-changing, it was that good. It allowed me to discover Absolute Truths. I will forever be indebted to that first Sneaky Cheats Chicken Burger for what it gave me.
After I was done, and after I finished the potato salad, which was also amazing – more like mashed potatoes than potato salad – and my portion of the kale salad, which was also terrific, I sat there contemplating things.
One thing I contemplated is one of which I am not proud. I noticed that Cameron had, smartly, left a final, bite-sized portion of chicken burger to finish with. As I pondered my empty dish, my contentedness, my peace with never again experiencing perfection… I looked at Cameron’s last bite of chicken burger, I looked at Cameron, then back to the burger, and realized, without doubt, that I would kill him just to take that final piece.
But I didn’t kill him. What happened instead, I think, is that the little man on the little Earth in the little universe that was just created inside me, finished his Sneaky Cheats Chicken Burger, and HE killed the little Cameron that was sitting with him. I don’t know what happened to the little Karyn, but I hope she’s doing well.
So, what I’m saying, I guess, is: I liked the Sneaky Cheats Chicken Burger. It was good.
What a good read.