Happiest meal 

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It’s 4:29 p.m. on a Wednesday, somewhere in JFK Terminal 4. The woman a few seats over has removed her mask to hurriedly stuff crinkle cut fries in her mouth and swig down a chocolate milkshake. We’re boarding soon, so I unwrap my burger just enough to take the classic still-in-the-wrapper shot for Instagram, then dig in before we start lining up for the flight.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON.
I’m guilty of the same Shake Shack order every time: the ShackBurger, which is a single Angus beef patty, American cheese (the only one that melts right), lettuce, tomato, and ShackSauce on a toasted potato bun. The only thing I add is pickles for a little crunch. If I’m feeling particularly reckless, I add on an order of cheese fries—those same crinkle cuts my neighbor was eating, but topped with gooey, pale orange sauce. Usually I’m headed home from JFK to Rochester after a quick trip to New York City, but this time it’s a layover on my way to another city. As I sat there chewing my glorified happy meal, I wonder how many burgers I’ve eaten in airports—and how many times it’s been Shake Shack.

You see, I have this theory it’s the quintessential travel meal. Specifically Shake Shack, specifically a burger. Maybe that’s nostalgia talking, years of holding up this tradition – or maybe there’s some science to it, kind of like how you’re more likely to cry on an airplane (the lower air pressure in the cabin reduces oxygen levels in the brain, which can heighten emotions). High cortisol levels from stress increase cravings for sugary or fatty foods, and traveling can certainly be stressful sometimes. Nothing like a layover burger followed by a good cry while watching “Ticket to Paradise” with Julia Roberts and George Clooney (that may or may not be based on true events).

When I found out that Shake Shack was finally opening in upstate New York, it made perfect sense that it would be at Thruway exits (we won't get into the logistical nightmare of the rest stops themselves). Travel burgers—of course. It’s like I planned it myself.

On a recent trip to Geneva to shoot photos for the June issue of CITY, Creative Director Ryan Williamson and I stopped to test the travel burger theory (though he got a chicken sandwich, so he’s now fired). As I munched the burger (completely consistent with my airport orders, by the way) I wondered why I loved it so much. It’s not the best burger I’ve eaten; I have subcategories for that. This much food makes me feel sleepy and overly full.

But as I sat on the freshly constructed gray patio at the Junius Ponds rest stop, it hit me. It’s not cortisol cravings or carb loading. It’s that Shake Shack burgers are adjacent to many of my most treasured memories: travels solo and partnered, to nearby and distant cities. It’s forever linked to adventure, exploration, inspiration—and that truly makes it my happy meal.

Leah Stacy is the editor of CITY. She can be reached at [email protected].
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