Mike Bernabe & In-N-Out

Mike’s Favorite Sandwich: "I hate to be unimaginative here, but In-n-Out, mustard and ketchup instead of sauce, no onion, add pickle."

Mike B-10.jpg

My father is a retired rocket scientist.

A man of many words that span space, time, and everything in between. Everything.

It blows my mind that something has rendered him “unimaginative.”

The other day, he walked into the kitchen with a grin on his face. “I know this is fact,” he placed his coffee mug on the counter to free his hands. “But, it still amazes me that the sun and the moon aren’t on the same elliptical plane. I’m trying to align my telescope to time perfectly with the eclipse, and last night the moon was over there,” his left hand pointed to the upper left. “And today the sun is over there,” his right to the right. “In a perfect world, they would cross along the same path, but instead they go like this,” the hand illustrating the sun glided in a straight line and the moon arched like a rainbow. His eyes followed along intensely until the five-fingered planets met, and with a breathless pause he admired the celestial high five before bursting into laughter. “The world just isn’t perfect!” Without another word, he poured a second cup of coffee and left the room. His chuckle following quickly behind. 

Often times, including this particular one, I’m able to nod along with his monologues with a certain level of indulgence. I’m a career publicist and understand a soliloquy when I hear one. The difference is mine are in the form of long-winded press releases about food and booze and sandwiches, not the engineering wonders of the universe. Therefore, most other times, these complicated conversations cascade over my head like a shooting star of knowledge: a dissipating poof in the atmosphere, a "The More You Know" moment.

The gravity of the total eclipse has weighed this retired man down. He's road-tripping to Wyoming for the spectacle, along with the many gadgets he has collected in order to calibrate his telescope and camera to capture the two-minute passing of the planets.  Amazon boxes are scattered about his office like empty cardboard craters once filled with lens kits, stabilizers, variable filters, camping equipment, remotes, tripods, mounts, a book of mine I thought was lost, and adapters. “I’ve acquired so many things for this one event, I can’t find any of them anymore,” he dad jokes.

This cosmic curiosity is a once-in-a-lifetime event that Mike B. will not miss. But if you ask my mom what she thinks of it, she just hopes he cleans up the boxes before the cleaning lady arrives.

Mike B. is overwhelmed and stressed from his diligent training where he sets his telescope up nightly to track the moon, then again at lunch to filter his camera from the sun- testing, squinting, focusing, repeat. The cumbersome collection of gear compiling around him is suffocating (my mom). To help him decompress, I invite him to grab his favorite sandwich, one that I hoped he’d describe with a thorough scientific analysis because I truly thought the internet would go wild for a rocket scientist's description of In-N-Out so much so that Sandwich Project would lift off into stardom, but alas…

“Why would anyone get into the science of an In-N-Out burger?” His firm stance is a bit startling at first.  “There’s no chemistry involved. You pull ingredients out of the refrigerator and you cook a beef patty. Scientifically, you would need to talk about the DNA of things. You don’t care about that, do you? A burger’s a burger. A sandwich is a sandwich. Can we go now?” He needs to eat.

It’s 11 a.m. in Simi Valley and the drive-thru line has yet to begin its lunchtime orbit. In-N-Out is eerily quiet and so is my dad.

Circa 1997, Simi Valley acquired its In-N-Out and Mike B. joined the rest of the town in eager anticipation to partake in the SoCal culinary phenomenon. Back then, he ordered the standard menu burger and peeled the onions out. At first bite, a sense of nostalgia slightly pinged him. It tasted familiar. Over the next few visits, he learned the art of build-your-own and personalized it to replicate that of his childhood favorite, which cosmically sent him back in time.

His In-N-Out Hamburger- mound of iceberg lettuce, a slather of mustard and ketchup, a layer of crisp, jagged-edged pickles, and a juicy fresh-beef patty, all cushioned between two toasty buns. Accompanied by an order of fries, two paper cups filled with glossy ketchup, and a medium Diet Coke, this lunch ($5.95) hearkens back to the 1950s when he was a spry Wile E. Coyote playing below the dusty red sandstone cliffs of Gallup, New Mexico.

Mike B-6.jpg

“This is exactly like the Willie’s Hamburger I used to eat when I was a kid,” he’s 67-years-old now and remembers his 8-year-old self, living along a main thoroughfare of Route 66. During the summers, his mom, brother, and sister piled into the heavy family Ford station wagon to meet his dad at Willie’s Hamburger. “Willie was larger-than-life; looked and sounded like Louis Armstrong. He’d deliver the burgers and tell us stories about the customers he just served or how the sun looked when it came up that morning.”  Young Mike B. sat at the counter observing Willie flip burgers with one hand and greet patrons with the other. Willie's patty juggling and get-to-know-you hospitality made for a whimsical lunchtime affair that ingrained a wistful memory In-N-Out served him later on. 

Part of the déjà vu is the pairing of CocaCola and fries. “In the 50s, CocaCola was a big deal. We’d drink it up like it was water because no one knew the super sugar content was bad for you. At Willie’s, we all had our own bottle of CocaCola with our burger and fries, and today I still have to get a coke when I eat a burger. And Willie’s fries were also exactly like In-N-Out,” he laughs while I begin to wonder where In-N-Out got its inspiration. “Then you got the mustard and ketchup, condiments USA, and that was the deal. That was the experience. I grew up with it on the table, with a mother who was an excellent cook, with a father who loved her excellent cooking, yet he always put ketchup on everything. It’s so America. When it’s on a sandwich, mainly a hamburger sandwich, it’s just right. It’s just correct.”

When he perfected his In-N-Out order back in 1997 to match that of his childhood favorite, it evoked his memories of a bygone era when burger joints were a cultural staple and commonplace for American families. The phenomenon of In-N-Out is a tasty reflection of that pastime.  

Now that he’s fed, I beg him this time to scientifically describe a sandwich. “You take two pieces of bread, no matter what kind, what shape. And you put stuff between the two pieces of bread. For me, that means meat.” I surrender. This isn’t a galactic marvel. The simplicity of In-N-Out is totally eclipsed by my attempt to pressure my dad into dissecting it the way he does almost everything else. The simplicity is its greatness.

And that’s what a hamburger is all about.