Earlier this month, White Castle started serving the “Impossible Burger,” vegan patties that have been applauded for successfully mimicking the juicy, savory, and, well, meaty taste of beef. At a celebrity-studded event at the White Castle in Bushwick, Brooklyn, featuring the likes of comedian Eric Wareheim (the often bearded half of the comedy duo Tim & Eric), Questlove, and Ghostface Killah, Impossible Foods and White Castle execs explained how the plant-based sliders help to save land and water, and produce an eighth of the greenhouse gases of a regular burger. Now available in 140 White Castle locations across New York, New Jersey, and Chicagoland, the Impossible Burger’s presence at the 97-year old burger chain offers diners a healthier and more environmentally friendly alternative to meat.
But eight years ago, the only “impossible” White Castle offering that I had on my mind was attempting the epic meal shared by the titular heroes of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.
My friends had joked about it for years. None of us were particularly fervent fans of the film, but we appreciated the sentiment of driving an hour or longer just to reach a favorite restaurant. We also shared the belief that not all burgers are created equal; when you’re hungry for a White Castle slider, a Big Mac or a Whopper just isn’t going to cut it.
In the days before YouTube, my friends Adam and Avery went out and bought a DVD of the movie just so they could figure out the exact order: 30 sliders, five boxes of fries, and five cherry (and diet) Cokes. Per person. The three of us were determined to embody Harold and Kumar by consuming the exact same combo they ordered (and plowed through) in the film. Like climbing Everest or racing the Iditarod, this was a crusade that we had to attempt.
There were some serious obstacles. None of us lived on the East Coast, so reaching the burgers wasn’t as easy as a walk down the block to the neighborhood White Castle. We used an excuse—two friends’ upcoming college graduations in Chicago and Massachusetts—to make a road trip of it.
Throughout the drive, our minds were racing: Was it even humanly possible? Can your average twentysomething sit and physically eat 30 burgers (plus fries) in one sitting? White Castle sliders are small, but not that small; would we have to dunk them in the cherry Cokes, Kobayashi-style, to help break down the starch? My mind went to the movie Cool Hand Luke: Nobody can eat 50 eggs.
Billboards and TV ads heralded the latest beefy, cheesy, bacon-y food atrocity that one franchise or another had invented, each seemingly to try and top each other in a race to create the worst meal imaginable.
One of us suggested an alternative: How about we devour the KFC Double Down, instead? (This was the summer of that hideous Kentucky Fried Chicken “sandwich” that featured two pieces of fried chicken in place of bread buns.) Or we could try the Ultimate Grilled Cheese Burger Melt from Friendly’s—a cheeseburger with mayo, lettuce, and tomato packed between two grilled cheese sandwiches. Or, there was a 2,500-calorie “pizza burger” made by a Burger King in New York that featured four quarter-pound patties topped with mozzarella, pepperoni, and marinara sauce between two 9-and-a-half-inch wide sesame seed buns and cut into slices.
There was no shortage of gut-busting fast food creations; they seemed to be the only thing worth advertising and getting excited about amid the recession. Billboards and TV ads heralded the latest beefy, cheesy, bacon-y food atrocity that one franchise or another had invented, each seemingly to try and top each other in a race to create the worst meal imaginable. We had arrived in flavor country.
Yet for every Burger King or Chick-Fil-A or Hardee’s we passed on the road, there was a shuttered strip mall or going-out-of-business sale or car dealership lot packed with unsold cars. In 2004, Harold and Kumar may have encountered an escaped cheetah and Neil Patrick Harris on their trip to White Castle. But all around us on that trip in 2010, what we saw were the effects of a diminished America.
When we finally arrived at my friend’s college graduation in Massachusetts, former Ohio governor Dick Celeste delivered the commencement address, warning the graduates that there would likely be zero jobs available for them—but plenty of work ahead. “You are graduating into a world in which traditional jobs may be scarce, but work is not,” he said to the crowd. After the ceremony, we went to Wendy’s and ordered double cheeseburgers and Frosties.
A single White Castle cheese slider contains 160 calories, 500 milligrams of sodium, and nine grams of fat. So for 30 cheese sliders, you can make that 4,800 calories, 15,000 milligrams of sodium—and 270 grams of fat.
Our road trip ended in New York City, where we selected a Midtown Manhattan White Castle to attempt the challenge. Ordering the 100-slider “Crave Crate” offered three of us 30 burgers each (with ten burgers extra for the two friends who just wanted lunch), plus fries and sodas. In Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Neil Patrick Harris shells out about $50 for this burger cornucopia, but in 2010, it all came out to about $130, an inordinate amount of money that could’ve bought us a pretty good spread at a steakhouse. Ultimately, the price was irrelevant—at this point, we were locked in.
It took the hard-working staff about 20 minutes to prep all 100 sliders. Despite our hesitation with the challenge, we had still been thinking about White Castle for three days straight and those first few bites did not disappoint. When they brought out the microwave-sized box, my friends and I spent a solid 20 minutes tearing through the tender, savory beef topped with melted cheese, pickles, and those tiny diced onions nestled between two soft bread buns.
We were thrilled at first, but after eating 12 sliders and five boxes of fries each, we began to enter the same slow-motion state that befell Harold and Kumar. But while theirs was of blissful nirvana, our enthusiasm was replaced by heavy breathing as we arduously munched our way towards oblivion. I did the math later: a single White Castle cheese slider contains 160 calories, 500 milligrams of sodium, and nine grams of fat. So for 30 cheese sliders, you can make that 4,800 calories, 15,000 milligrams of sodium—and 270 grams of fat. (The Mayo Clinic recommends a daily total fat intake of between 44 to 78 grams of fat, but they clearly don’t understand that sometimes, duty calls beyond the numbers.)
Avery tapped out at 14 sliders. I made it to 16, and Adam reached 17 before we declared a break. We’ll keep eating, we said, but we’ve gotta stretch our legs.
Our original plan was to get White Castle out of the way in the morning, which would leave us the afternoon to walk it off and enjoy the rest of the day as tourists in New York. But now we were stuck with the ungodly Crave Crate, still mostly full with 50-plus sliders. We decided to go sightseeing anyway, taking the box with us to the top of Rockefeller Plaza, along on a bus tour, and aboard the Staten Island Ferry. Everywhere we went, homeless people and gutter punks saw our box, clearly marked as being “packed with 100 tasty burgers” and hit us up for sliders.
“No! I’m sorry,” my friend holding the box replied. “We have to finish the challenge!” The hungry homeless people were confused. I was mortified.
We didn’t get back to the hotel until that evening but luckily, our room had a microwave. I nuked three burgers, then three more, chomping my way through “America’s favorite slider” from the oldest fast food franchise in the United States. White Castle has survived until now—so could we, I thought.
After his 17-slider rally, Adam told me he couldn’t emotionally handle another. Avery managed one more before calling it a night. But I couldn’t give up.
There was no telling how long Harold and Kumar sat at White Castle eating their burgers in the film. Maybe it took them eight hours, too. I heated up my eight remaining burgers, their soggy boxes stacked upon one another in the microwave. Sitting on the bed in a hotel room in Jersey and hating myself, I finished the challenge. The next morning, Adam heated up 13 more sliders and finished, too. Avery left his remaining burgers out for another day until they went bad and he had to throw them away. His entire hotel room smelled like hamburgers for the rest of the trip.
Despite feeling like complete garbage, I had a pretty good time. But eating the way I did back then was unsustainable; not just with the White Castle challenge, but for all the meat-as-bread sandwiches and double grilled cheese hamburger buns and “cheeseburger pizzas” out there. Maybe as a nation, we needed all that high-velocity comfort food at a time when our jobs were vanishing and we couldn’t find work or pay our mortgage or afford our loans. But those times have (mostly) changed.
White Castle seems to know this. In 1921, founder Billy Ingram had the foresight to offer what the American people needed: cheap, quick-to-prepare, easy-to-eat, tiny hamburgers. Nearly a century later, maybe the answer isn’t to try and eat 30 of them in one sitting. But if people like my friends and I are willing to attempt something as crazy as that, maybe the idea of people going to White Castle for meat-free burgers (that supposedly taste just like meat) isn’t so strange, either.