I used to eat out only once a year.

In my last post, I connected my past to the silly memories of McDonald’s restaurants throughout the course of my life. Those nostalgic Big Mac memories made me think of another fast-food chain which I loved for a very special reason. It’s name was Winky’s, and I ate there once a year. Here’s the story:

My parents always had a huge garden. When all of us kids were young, our big yard, where we played baseball, was only half the size of the garden, which my parents, especially my dad, cultivated to perfection. I always loved the years he would line the whole bottom side of it with tall majestic sunflowers. It was always in the running as garden of the year in our little neighborhood.

By mid-July the corn would be chest high and a mere few weeks away from harvest. By that time we already had many other vegetable seasons which had come and gone. My mother would spend mid-summer to early autumn canning everything from tomatoes to pickles to beets to beans. She would freeze corn and berries and would make loads of jam and sandwich spread. We had a fruit cellar stocked year round with home grown produce including onions and potatoes that would last until spring.

With home production at this scale, it is little wonder that we never ate out at a restaurant. I mean never. Ever. Except once a year. That’s it. Once a year. Are my kids reading this? Remember this the next time you are less than enthusiastic about heading out to eat, OK?

Once a year. What a magical day it was – the last day of school.

On that early June day, we would rush home with a summer’s worth of expectations in our heads. I couldn’t wait to ride bikes through the woods, play army with my friends, hit the ball, play in the creek, and just be a boy.

And the kickoff to each summer was when my dad would pile us in the car after leaving all books at school and drive us to the promised land – Winky’s!

Winky’s was a fast-food hamburger joint only in the Pittsburgh area. It was modeled after McDonald’s back in the 1960s and grew to be a popular local brand until it went bankrupt in 1982.

All six of us would trudge up to the counter and order our burgers, and since we didn’t do eating out very well, we would take our burgers to go and sit in the car and eat them down. I can still smell the food – especially the steamed buns and the glistening hot fries. It was magic in my hand and went down much too easily.

When finished, I would crumble the wrapper in my hand and say goodbye to my precious evening out that would come again in 365 days.

Once Winky’s was gone, we migrated to McDonald’s but for some reason it was never the same. I had grown up. I had a little income from working here and there. I had friends who had cars. We would go out and stop at McDonald’s or other places to eat. I got my driver’s license which enabled me to have more freedom on my own. Frequency lessens the special nature of things which touch us, and so too I became a mindless teen not really understanding how fortunate I was when I could only eat out once a year.

Now that I’m a father, I realize how different a life my kids have had compared to how I was raised. They have eaten out thousands of times in their young lives, a thousand times more than my parents have eaten out in their entire lives.

Times change, but I do wish I could have a large garden full of vegetables and a yearly trip to Winky’s. Now that would be something.

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