“But not too hot?” I asked as she leaned into the window of the DoubleBurger truck and sniffed.
“No such thing,” she replied. “Hot fries cool down. Cold fries never warm up. Let’s keep walking; I’m not liking the grease smell here today.”
The guy behind the counter just looked at her as she turned, continuing on. I gave him an apologetic shrug and followed. “What about fast food ones?” I asked. “They’re pretty much all the same, right?”
She stopped dead in her tracks. I almost crashed into her. “Sydney,” she said, turning to face me. “That is not true. The next time I do a Trifecta, you’re coming. I’ll show you how wrong you are.”
“That’s when I get fries from the Big Three,” she explained. She held up her fingers, counting off. “Littles, Bradbury Burger, and Pamlico Grill. None of them are perfect. But if you mix them together, it’s like the paradise of fries. It’s time-consuming, so I only do it on special occasions or when I’m super depressed.”
Hearing this, I had that feeling again, like the conversation was a pack of wild horses pounding out ahead of me, leaving nothing but dust behind. Trifecta? Depression? Grease smell? She was already talking again.
“These trucks aren’t the best for fries, because mobile fryers just taste different from ones in brick-and-mortar stores. But they do have some cool flavors you can’t get in the traditional places. There’s one place that I really like . . . Oh, they’re here today! Come on.”
In my pocket, I felt my phone buzz. I pulled it out and glanced at the screen. JENN, it said, with a picture of her from her last birthday party, a cheap plastic tiara on her head. I reached for the IGNORE button, feeling a pang of guilt. But not enough to not press it. I’d call her later.
Layla, meanwhile, had walked up to a truck I’d never tried before called Bim Bim Slim’s, which sold some kind of Asian-Creole fusion. The smells coming from it were like nothing I’d ever experienced before. She didn’t even glance at the menu.
“Regular bim fry,” she told the guy. “Actually, make it two orders. No sauce. Just extra ketchup packets.”
“You got it.”
Moments later, he handed over a white bag that smelled heavenly and was already sprouting grease stains. Layla smiled, satisfied. “Perfect. Come on.”
Back at the benches, she nudged Eric off his seat—“Move, I need to set up!”—then sat down, opening the bag and putting her face over the opening. As we all watched, she took a deep breath, eyes closed. Then silence.
“Are we waiting for something?” I whispered to Irv, who was gnawing on a turkey leg.
“The verdict,” he replied, voice equally low.
Finally, Layla opened her eyes. “Okay. These will do.”
What followed was an intricate multistep process that began with the flattening and placement of the bag to turn it into a proper eating surface and ended with three identically sized pools of ketchup, each on its own napkin. To one, she added pepper. The next, salt. And the third, some unidentified substance she pulled from her purse, housed in a test tube.
“I know just what you’re thinking,” Irv said to me. “This has all been a little intense, but now it’s getting weird. I felt the same way my first time.”
“That’s because it is weird to carry your own personalized spice blend around,” Mac said, his eyes still on his history textbook. He was always studying at lunch, I’d noticed, but still listening to everything as well.
Layla ignored them, picking up a fry and dipping an end in one of the ketchups. She took a bite, chewing thoughtfully, then repeated the process with the other two options. When the fry was gone, she wiped her fingers on a napkin, then looked at me.
“Okay. Try one.”
“Me?” I had assumed this was an individual sport.
She nodded, gesturing for me to come over. I did, taking a seat next to one of the ketchup stations, and she pushed the bag/plate toward me. “Take one from the middle. Those are the best. I always eat from the inside out.”
I did as I was told, selecting a thick-but-not-overly-so one. Then I realized that, although I’d been eating fries since before I could talk, this was the first time I’d not been sure how to do it. This was made more awkward by the fact I had an audience.
“One, two, three,” Layla said, pointing at each of the ketchups. “Triple dunk. Then eat half, flip it over, and repeat with other side. That way you avoid the double dip.”
“What’s in that last one?” I asked, still hesitant.
“My own creation. Don’t worry, it’s not spicy or gross. I promise.”
In every friendship, at some point comes a test. Never before in my experience, however, had it involved food. First time for everything, I thought, and followed directions.
I’m not sure what I’d been anticipating. A good fry? Some tangy sauce? It was not, however, the perfection that subsequently unfolded inside my mouth. Considering the intricacy of preparation, maybe this is what I should have been expecting. But the crispness of the outer shell, the mushy, hot softness of the potato within, suddenly tinged with the sweetness of the ketchup mix, was a total surprise. Wow.
“See?” Layla said, smiling at me. “Great, right?”
“It’s amazing,” I said, already turning it over and prepping the next bite.
She clapped her hands, clearly thrilled. “I love a new convert to my process.”
“Welcome to the illness,” Mac said.