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A taste of childhood

They said it was crazy—no, unconscionable—that I, born and raised in Wisconsin, had never been to a Culver’s Restaurant.

Nikita, who grew up in Sauk City with one of the Culver kids, used to go there all the time. Amanda travels a lot between Madison and Sparta to visit her parents, and she noted that there are at least eight Culver’s along the way. But Bethany, born and raised in Pennsylvania, stunned us all when she said she had never even had a fast food hamburger. So it was that my three work friends and I, seeing the big blue sign as we were driving home from a meeting in Sheboygan, came to an agreement about where to have lunch.

We ordered from the front counter and took a little blue placard with the number sixteen to our table. Why had I never come here before? I thought. I knew that Culver’s was a Wisconsin-based chain, but I winced at the word: chain. Were they putting smaller Mom-and-Pop places out of business, did they offer a living wage? I had a sudden urge to Google the carbon footprint of my impending meal. How many plastic straws does this place go through, anyway? These thoughts were wiped away by the baskets of burgers and fries placed before us by a woman named Karen, her gray hair pulled back in a neat bun.

Sitting in our booth, silently dunking French fries into little plastic cups of ketchup, we all seemed content with the simple pleasure of a shared meal. The crinkly fries reminded me of a restaurant near the pool I used to go to in Weyauwega when I was a kid. No more than a shack with a canopy covering six parking spaces and a picnic table, the Wega Drive Inn was a favorite destination for my brother and me after summertime swim lessons. A cheeseburger and swirl cone—one half chocolate and the other vanilla—was our reward for the especially teeth-chattering lessons on cool June mornings. We would eat at the picnic table, the late-morning sun warming the tops of our legs and drying our suits.

It’s funny how food can conjure specific memories of a certain moment in a person’s life. As I bit into that Culver’s cheeseburger, I felt transported back to a time when every decision—what to eat, where to live, who to love—hadn’t yet accrued the weight of political, environmental, and cultural consequence.

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Jason A. Smith is the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of the organization's quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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