Down-N-Out Burger
Eating your way through a midlife crisis

BEFORE I LEFT LA FOR MEXICO I FOUND MYSELF ALONE AT an In-N-Out Burger in the San Fernando Valley, sitting at a terrazzo table under an unseasonably hot January sun watching traffic rumble by on the Hollywood Freeway. I was thinking about what I wanted. Not sandwich-wise, that was easy (a double cheeseburger with onions, fries, iced tea); more about life in general. I had left Toronto with a backpack, an open-ended ticket to Mexico by way of California and the notion of taking some time to figure out exactly what it was about my previously charmed existence that was lacking. It was a good life by anyone’s estimation — an editor’s job people would kill for, great home, wonderful friends — but for some time now, years maybe, something had been weighing on me. Despite all of the things for which I was grateful, and there were many, I wasn’t able to get rid of one recurring thought: “Is this it?” I should be happy. What right did I have to feel unsatisfied?

 Throughout my depression, food remained one thing I consistently enjoyed. Sandwiches in particular. As far as I’m concerned, a well-executed sandwich is one of the highest forms of human achievement, culinary or otherwise. Like a haiku or a charcoal drawing, it is an exercise in creating transcendence from the fewest possible elements. It’s cheap, functional, ubiquitous nourishment. When executed with finesse, however, it can be a religious experience. Once in Paris, I bought a ham, cheese and butter on a baguette that was possibly the most incredible thing I've ever eaten. The fact that I tried in vain to find the sandwich shop again on subsequent days only serves to support my theory that it was, in fact, made by a wizard. I hold the experience as an example of the potential power of a simple, good thing.

The day before I left for Mexico I had lunch with an old friend at Langer’s Delicatessen, a downtown LA stalwart with a menu the size of a road map. I ordered the same thing I always do: the number 19 (pastrami, coleslaw, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing on double-baked rye with a pickle on the side.) The bread is chewy-crusty on the outside, pillowy within, the salt and fat of the pastrami and cheese tempered perfectly by the coleslaw and a wavy line of yellow mustard. I don’t know what Russian dressing is, but I’m sure it’s also vital to the experience.

As I made my way through the number 19, consumed as I had been of late with thoughts of life, career paths and The Meaning of It All, I had a kind of revelation. Stripped down to its barest elements, a sandwich is basically a thing between two other things. Suspended between my former life and whatever would come after this journey, the idea seemed deeply relevant. A sandwich, too, is all about symmetry: the before, the middle, the after. In the case of my life, I understood that the thing before had been fundamentally good, so that this exercise wasn't about blowing up my life and starting over, but giving myself the space and time to get perspective on what I had. The months ahead, I decided then, would be about working to discover what had been missing and bringing that to bear on the thing after. Simplifying. Getting rid of what didn’t work and adding things that did. Creating transcendence from the fewest possible ingredients. I was faintly aware that I might come home with a killer tan and even less idea of what to do with myself, but for the moment I pushed this thought aside. Hell, at the very least I’d get a few good stories out of it. Maybe do a magazine column about the journey — I have some connections in that area, after all. Perhaps leaving everything and everyone I knew for an indeterminate stretch was not as mad as it seemed. I was, I now understood, just using the best tools I had to fix my situation: I was editing my life. There might just be a couple of good sandwiches in it, too. 

I tried burying myself in my work. I tried smoking too much pot, watching too much TV, serial online dating, taking up a hobby, working out. None of this made much difference. It was like getting off the log ride on a not-quite-summer day, shirt sopping wet and heavy from the splash pool. Once it warmed to the temperature of my body I could mostly forget the weight of it and enjoy myself, but then the breeze would come up out of nowhere and leave me uncomfortable, shivering uncontrollably. It took a particularly bad six-month stretch of existential malaise to shock me into action. Eating a thesaurus-sized eggplant parmigiana sandwich in front of the same episode of I’m Alan Partridge I’d seen 18 times while browsing Tinder on my phone was fine as an evening’s entertainment, but as a long-term life plan it wasn’t working.

It sounds uncharacteristically earnest, but what I wanted, I realized, was a more authentic way of living. One that didn’t involve staring at a screen all day, scrolling through photos of beautiful things. I wanted to tear it all down and start again. Become an organic farmer. Maybe learn how to make artisanal goat cheese. Or just live like a nomad, roaming the world in search of…well, I didn’t quite know what. And Mexico? Well, I love both Mexican food and palm trees. It also wasn’t a coincidence that I was leaving in January. Because, seriously, fuck winter. Everyone I told about my plan seemed to get that part, but just as many responded with puzzled looks. “So you have no idea what you’re going to do when you come back?” They’d ask, concerned. “Nope,” I’d say, “I’m going to try and not think about that for a little while.” And then, of course, I would think about it and wonder again what the hell I thought I was doing. It had the vague feel of some kind of manic episode. Sure, a vacation is great, but taking a vacation at the expense of the life I’d spent years building seemed incredibly irresponsible. I was alternately exalted at the promise of the future and terrified that I’d made a huge mistake.

But back to that cheeseburger. It was good in the way that only cheese-upon-meat-upon-bread upon-cheese-upon-meat can be. Spongy bun, flattop-grilled patties, American cheese, special sauce, lettuce, pickles, onions. It yielded pleasingly to the bite, soft and moist and salty and tangy, with just enough dripping grease to make it feel like an indulgence. It may not be a perfect thing, but it’s as close as you’ll get for four bucks in the San Fernando Valley.