It saddens me, but it’s true: for years, when met with a new experience, I always compared it to Disneyland. And I’m not talking about being ten years old, bored somewhere, and saying, “I wish I could be at Disneyland.” No, I mean when I was 30 years old, I stood under the Washington Monument for the first time, the wind whipping past my ears, the sky enormous above my eyes. And what was my first thought? “It looks just like it did in the 360* film at Disneyland!” Ah, the simulacrum becomes the authentic. (I’m sorry, did I just go into post-modern mode? Excuse me. But in graduate school at NYU, I did once write a tremendously long paper about the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland as a simulacrum of the psychoanalytical understanding of proceeding from the mirror stage through adolescence. And now, you understand why I didn’t enjoy graduate school.)
I loved Disneyland when I was a kid. We lived only 35 miles from it, a mere two-hour drive (depending on Southern California traffic). For my brother and me, Disneyland was nirvana. The happy place. The eye-popping, dance-jangling, thrill-riding place of our dreams. For weeks in advance, we referred to the day we would be visiting as D-Day. Twice a year, on each of our birthdays, we went to Disneyland. August and January—two eerily different experiences of the place. Packed lines, people thronging in horrid heat, having to sit down just to find some shade—my birthday gave us Disneyland at its fullest. Walking right into Pirates of the Caribbean, no waiting, wearing coats—my brother’s birthday was like going to the secret Disneyland. But why can I only remember the August visits? A map of Disneyland hung on my bedroom wall when I was twelve, and Mike Kelly and I stood under it, pointing to our favorite places, when he tentatively gave me my first kiss. A rushed little peck, inspired by Tomorrowland. And later, he reached the apex of both of our dreams by working at Disneyland.
Stop me before this becomes a long, rambling paen to Disneyland. I’ve been back as an adult, several times. And I saw how grossly commercial it was, how the streets have grown littered, how it’s all part of the Disney machine. I’m not saying everyone should go to Disneyland. But you know what? Within ten minutes of being back and feeling horrified at the place, the little kid in me kicked in again, and I delighted at the place. It will always be Disneyland to me.
But this morning, I woke up thinking about it. Maybe it showed up in my dreams. I don’t know. But I do know that I have a dozen memories of food associated with it, and suddenly I knew what to do. That childhood memory meme has been with me for over a month. Instead of writing about the entirety of my childhood palate, welcome to my five favorite memories of food at Disneyland.
CASA DE FRITOS
When I was small, my parents didn’t have the money for us to eat all of our meals in Disneyland. After all, each sandwich cost about $40 each. (Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating, but not by much.) So for me, the most aggravating part of D-Day was after we spotted the Matterhorn from the freeway, poking up above the other rides, after we took the clogged exit (my brother and I always assumed that every other car was driving to Disneyland, and they were all going to beat us there, Dad), and when we pulled to within a few streets from the magic entrance—————and stopped at Carl’s Jr. Can you imagine, as a kid, the utter desperation, of having to eat bad fast food while Disneyland loomed a few blocks away? And somehow, I felt like we were even eating at the second-rate fast food. Why couldn’t we eat at McDonald’s? My poor parents—they were doing their best. Two teachers with two kids, two cranky kids in the back seat, craking to go. And they were just trying to give us enough food to make it through the last day at Disneyland.
But when I was about eight, or ten, we suddenly had the money to eat all our meals within the sancitifed space. And where did we head first? Casa de Fritos. In a little faux-wooden shack, made to look like an authentic Mexican beach place, lay the lunch of our dreams. We snaked along the line of people, held apart by plasticized-wood poles, hungering for it. Now, part of the reason we hungered, my brother and I, is that we were not allowed to go on our first ride until our bellies were filled. The Pirates of the Caribbean waited for us across the park, and we could hear its clarion call. But over the years, the taste of that food became part of the ritual, and I grew to love it for itself.
And what did we eat? Cheese enchiladas, with thick corn tortillas, glurby cheddar cheese, and a dark red sauce. Little tacos, with hard shells, a smattering of ground beef, and some hint of spice. A soda pop from a fountain dispenser, in pebbly plastic glasses. And for everyone, in piles by the cash register, little bags of Fritos corn chips. When I was a kid, that was a big wow.
Now, of course, I wouldn’t eat a bit of it. Not only because it’s full of gluten (how do celiacs eat at Disneyland?), but also because it was so damned mass-commercial bad. Everything at Casa de Fritos was pre-made, manufactured, and not even that hot. I know authentic Mexican food now, and I hunger for that instead. But the fact is, pulling my little plates off the green plastic trays, and setting them down on the plastic table under the striped-yellow sun umbrella, made me more excited than most activities in my life. I was sitting in the shadow of Big Thunder Mountain. We were headed for the Pirates of the Caribbean and an entire day of rides. And I was about to eat food that, at the time, I absolutely loved.
FRITTERS AND MINT JULEPS IN NEW ORLEANS SQUARE
After screaming WHEE down the water coaster of the Pirates of the Caribbean, every smell of the ride deeply familiar and inspiring glee, we’d run to the Haunted Mansion. Then Tom Sawyer’s island, sometimes. And the boring old steamboat my mother insisted on visiting. Each one had a horrendously long line (except for the steamboat). And strangely, hours had passed, and it was time for more food.
We made our way to New Orleans Square, a little island of corny jazz musicians and iron railings. Half-sized buildings created a fake, languid neighborhood, with shops selling straw hats and tourists knick-knacks. My brother and I wanted to go back to rides, and my mother wanted to shop. (Poor dear: I’m sure she just wanted a break from the melee of rides and childhood excitement. And the crowds.) But we all agreed on one stop: the Mint Julep Bar for apple fritters and mint juleps.
Now that I know the world more, I recognize these “apple fritters” as imitations of beignets. And when I had my first real mint julep, at my friend Tita’s house, I was shocked to find it didn’t taste like sweet soda pop, and wasn’t as green as brackish water. But at the time, I didn’t know there was anything different. We ordered them from a little window, then waited. An agonizing few minutes of waiting. And then, while my father handed over piles of dollar bills, we grabbed the plastic glasses filled with unnaturally green liquid and the piping-hot pastries. Sprinkled liberally with sugar, airy and high, and fried to light brown—these wonderful delicacies melted on my tongue. I remember forcing myself to slow down, trying not to tear the pastry with my hands and stuff the sweet pieces in my mouth, to really pause and taste them. But they disappeared far too soon. And then, I’d have to wait another half a year for another one.
DILL PICKLES FROM THE GENERAL STORE
Hours passed. Happy hours stuffed with tea cup rides, missions to Mars, jungle cruises, rattling jolts through Space Mountain, drives on the autopia, submarine plunges, trips on the Matterhorn, and even the dreaded slow cruise through the small world. (Great, now the song’s stuck in my head again.) Even my brother and I, besotted with every spectacle and eager for more, were willing to admit we could use a little break. And my parents? They needed some shade. In fact, my mother always liked to make it sound as though it would be fun for us: “We’ll sit on a porch and watch people go by!” We didn’t buy it for a minute. That sounded boring. (I’d love to do it now, of course.) We just didn’t have the energy to protest.
So we meandered over to Main Street, the replica of small-town America near the entrance of the park. Houses with white-picket fences, little theatres with a marquis from 1910, and stores with soda fountains—everything geared to make us believe that World War Two never happened. In fact, we had never been at war. We lived in the perfect America, for three blocks. (As long as you paid the $50 to be invited in.)
And my favorite place of all on Main Street was the General Store. Decked out like a frontier-town store, with all the supplies, it was a child’s paradise. A checkerboard laid out near the woodstove (thankfully, not working in August), a player piano in the back room with dozens of yellowing rolls just waiting to be inserted into the piano, and all manner of fudge for sale within the display cases. But my favorite, my absolute favorite of it all, was the giant wooden barrel filled with enormous, briny pickles. They floated in the light-green water, just waiting to be chosen. I loved to reach in and grab a fat one. My parents would dole out another dollar, and I’d suck and nibble and contemplate the mouth-puckering taste. It took me awhile to finish, so I’d wander through the store, lifting the receivers of old-fashioned telephones. Those thick, black ones, made of bakelite, like the ones families used on party lines in the Midwest around the turn of the century. And I’d pick one up and listen in on the pre-recorded conversations, which usually involved bossy housewives listening in on each other’s conversations. It was hilarious! And I’d stand at the boxy telephone on the wall, listening in, pickle juice dripping down my arm, and the sour, wonderful taste still lingering in my mouth.
FROZEN CHOCOLATE-COVERED BANANAS
Late in the afternoon, perhaps into the evening, after several more hours of ride-filled escapades, we’d stop at the stand, down by the Mississippi River. Simple, no great complications. Just frozen, chocolate-covered bananas, pulled from a vendor cart. Sometimes, I’d order one with peanuts sprinkled on top of the chocolate. But mostly, smooth, dark chocolate, with no blemish of anything else. It took far too long for the banana to thaw into something approaching chewable. But I was impatient and bit into it anyway. OW! Freeze headache.
ICE-CREAM SUNDAES AT THE SODA FOUNTAIN
The last hurrah of the day, every summer night of my childhood, a magic time after a glorious day: the Main Street Electrical Parade. As the dusky sky turned to dark, we gathered with hundreds of other people, mostly eager children under ten. We sat along the curbs, listening to the crowd murmur and burble, waiting for the Disney characters to frolic in front of us. And then that music began. I wish I could put it into words. Anyone who has ever been there knows what I mean: the building crescendoes, and the sythnesized sounds of happiness, cranked up, pumped through the speakers nestled in the trees. All the children began to bounce. I can hear it in my head right now (and on this website), and I’m growing antsy with happiness just thinking about it. Floats began to pass, covered in dozens of enormous light bulbs. And of course, I see now that it was all just an advertisement for Disney, but still. When I was a kid, I couldn’t help but clap my hands and bounce my feet, and turn around with a wide-open smile to my brother or mother or father, and say, “Do you see it?”
And afterwards, as the entire park full of people milled toward the exits, my family always took the slow route home. We stopped in the Carnation Ice Cream ParlorCarnation Ice Cream Parlor and ate ice cream sundaes. Probably, we didn’t need any more food, but we needed the crowds in the parking lot to thin. I didn’t care. I didn’t want to leave. And the shop was filled with happily chatting people, still buzzing after the parade. And the enormous hot fudge sundae, with the fudge truly hot (it arrived in a little metal cup and I poured it over the ice cream myself), seemed like the perfect way to end my eternally happy day.
So we straggled out to the parking lot, my brother growing tired. Someone carried him to the car. I held my mother’s hand, my eyes threatening to close. And we always slept on the way back home, dreaming of the day we’d eat fritters and sundaes, bad enchiladas and frozen bananas, and a big fat pickle at the General Store, once again.