The latest Real Meals column from the New Statesman:
If the historian Oswald Spengler were alive today, Wimpy is the kind of fast-food joint he’d be eating in. Actually, given how cheap it is – and assuming yet more Möbius strips are torn in the space/time continuum – Giambattista Vico and Philip Toynbee might well join him for a Bender, fries and a foaming beaker of Coke. For Wimpy embodies the history of fast food conceived of with the circularity of a burger bun, rather than the linear progress of a machine-cut chip.
Wimpy’s origins seem lost in the mists of time but, by the early Fifties, there were 12 of them in the US; then stodgy old Lyons got wind of the newfangled burger phenomenon and bought the Wimpy name. The first UK branch was implanted in its Coventry Street Corner House in the West End of London – and the rest, as Spengler might say, is history.
But history of a Spenglerian kind; for while by the early Seventies there were more than 1,000 Wimpy Bars and restaurants in as many as 23 countries, then came the barbarians, swishing their savage golden arches. In response, Wimpy mutated through various takeovers, ceding a province here, losing a satrap there, until, in 1990, the remaining 200-odd counter-service restaurants (the “bars” having long since been lost) were sold off to a management consortium.
I’d like to say that the last 20 years have brought a resurgence of Wimpy, a revival of the ancient virtues that made it the only British burger joint of the imperial age. Sadly, this isn’t the case – true, Wimpys hang on, doling out counter service in Roadchef service centres and mega-bowling alleys (whatever they might be), but the restaurants are reduced to a mere rump, a Flavius Stilicho, exerting pitiful authority from some gastronomic Ravenna.
Yet still they soldier on! Since 2008, the restaurants have been retro-branded in their original red-and-white livery and the menu has been expanded. I took Family Self along to the Wimpy in Clapham Junction for a meal and I have to say it was a most deliciously nostalgic experience. For anyone over 45, the Wimpy Bar is synonymous with the burger. Back in that fabled time, a Wimpy burger had a distinctly beef burger-ish taste – quite different from the modern meat patty; and came also with a particular relish, ready-smeared.
My wife, who, like some latter-day Petrarch, takes pleasure in chronicling the battles of yore, reminded me that when this relish was swapped in favour of a mayonnaise-based gloop in the mid-Seventies, it caused great unrest among the proles. I couldn’t consciously recall being in a Wimpy since the Eighties, so whatever mutations the chain had been through passed me by: here I was, sitting once again at a melamine table, being served by an adolescent reassuringly mailed with retro-acne. I opted for a newfangled jalapeño burger, Mrs Self for a quarter-pounder. One of the boy-spawn essayed – at my urging – a Bender; the other had a chicken burger of uncompromising asperity: no salad, no sauce, just white bread and white chicken unnaturally compressed.
Although I couldn’t quite face one myself, I was keen to find out what the Bender was like. It’s one of the queer involutions of history that, back in the heyday of the Wimpy Bar, “bender” was the derogatory epithet most employed by adolescent boys to refer to homosexuals. I’m not sure when the Bender entered the Wimpy menu, but its presence there is a testimony to how we now live in a more tolerant and inclusive society. I think. Anyway, the Bender is quite simply a frankfurter bent and crenulated so that it resembles a porky laurel wreath that can
be inserted between buns. My boy had a bite and pronounced it “exactly like a hotdog”.
My jalapeño quarter-pounder was pretty feisty for the high street – not the bland madeleine I’d been hoping for: a sweet taste that would transport me back to a less tolerant but more innocent age, an era of Fair Isle tank tops, platform soles, a functioning mining industry and Butskellism. No, no, however much I yearned for a circular history, it was not to be found in the compass of a burger bun. Outside, the traffic groaned while overhead the blue sky yawned devoid of contrails – all aeroplanes were grounded; soon we would be running out of Ethiopian sugar snap peas. Truly, this was the real decline of the west, a cataclysm from which even Wimpy could not escape.