My hometown of Evansville, a small city on the Ohio River in Southern Indiana, isn’t known for much. Johnny Depp was born in a podunk Kentucky town about a 30 minutes drive away and our IHOP was raided by the FBI. One time a lady fell off a roller coaster at the local amusement park because she took off her safety belt and stood up. The house on the opening credits of Roseanne is only a few streets over from my grandma’s and in 1992, Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna, and Tom Hanks shacked up across town to film “A League of Their Own.” We also have a lot of meth labs, which means that we have a lot of frequent explosions. These are the most exciting things to happen in the area up until 2011 when a Gallup poll ranked my hometown as the most obese metropolitan area in America, which is kind of exciting and not all that surprising. It’s as normal to see a morbidly obese person using a wheelchair because they’re unable to walk as it is to see a broken down pick-up truck.
Even in the well-off and educated household I lived in, I was not immune to the Honey Boo Boo clan’s wet dream. Wendy’s 5 piece chicken nuggets were seen as a perfectly suitable after school snack and the Olive Garden is considered fine dining, driving some residents to steal napkins and salt and pepper shakers as souvenirs. Panera Bread, Pop Tarts, and Ramen Noodles all run the gamut of what I saw as “healthy” until I moved off to New York. I had never heard of Whole Foods until I saw one in person at the age of 19, and I had never tasted sushi, guacamole, or humus until the same age. I had never heard of falafel and if I ever ate breakfast, the chef’s name was Little Debbie. Stopping at the gas station to get a 48-ounce soft drink in the morning wasn’t unusual and it was perfectly normal to be late to school to pick up some fresh donuts.
For whatever reason, be it genetics, a fast metabolism, youth, or exercise, I never put on the weight that I undoutedly deserved for my atrocious appetite. Everyone I know from home has family members with health problems due to their weight, which we most likely discussed over chicken nuggets and milk shakes at McDonald’s or mozzarella sticks at Sonic or a burger from Arby’s or a $5 pizza from Little Caesar’s.
While New Yorkers obsess over the latest restaurant openings, researching a new spot in every publication they can get their manicured fingers on, making reservations weeks in advance, Mid-Westerners think of fast food and inexpensive “sit-down” restaurants in a similar fashion. Every new food vendor that opens around town is greeted with the same amount of fervor, whether it’s an Amish Buffet, Waffle House, Hardee’s, or Dairy Queen. “Have you tried that new Pizza and Donuts place?” we would ask each other as we sit in the drive-thru at another one of our favorite restaurants.
The pinnacle of my town’s diabetic coma is simply known as the Fall Festival, where you can find “chicken fried bacon, fried cheesecake on a stick, and deep-fried Kool Aid.” Vice has the lowdown on the lovingly named “Festival of Fat” that will cause your computer screen to start hemorrhaging frying grease and possibly print out a chocolate covered cricket.
Even though I no longer live in my hometown and only go back to visit a couple of times a year, I still feel a sense of culture shock every time I go out to eat in Manhattan. I secretly look up menu items on my iPhone and try to wrap my head around how spending $50 on a dinner date can be seen as normal. I wish I still lived in the land of $5 meals, where the most complex ingredient on the menu was a difficult to pronounce chemical. Instead, I now live in the land where a $10 or $15 meal is a good deal and I have to decide whether I want risk sounding stupid for asking a waiter what something on the menu means. I wish I could suggest McDonald’s as the site of a second dinner date, but I know that is never going to happen, unless I find a Hoosier companion with whom I can fall in love with over a large order of fries.
Usually when I’m asked where I’m from I say “Indiana…nowhere interesting” and try to awkwardly laugh it off and move the conversation along. The person who asked me, who was most likely from a city where pretentiousness is a required course in high school would greet me with a blank stare or mild look of disappointment. “Wow…what’s it like living in Iowa?” they all ask. “Indiana,” I always correct them. I think I’ll start proclaiming that I’m from the fattest city in America, giving them a shock to their system and hopefully causing them to be unsurprised when I ask them to join me on a road trip to Jersey to go to Sonic.
Image via Flickr user StaceyHuggins
More from Alex Hughes: