By Taylor Mace
Armed with our new drivers’ licenses, a few girlfriends and I would meet in the parking lot of a certain McDonald’s early before the morning bell. The purpose of our visits was not the Egg McMuffins or bitter coffee, although I’d load up on plenty of deflated football hashbrowns. Our endgame was boys, something that our single-sex education decidedly lacked. The maturing males from the neighboring school frequented this location, and we would take any opportunity to bump into our crushes and linger until a tardy slip was imminent.
If this sounds like a quaint, mid-century anecdote, Adam Chandler, author of “Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom,” (Flatiron Books, 2019) would argue that despite the farm-to-table, free range phenomenon, fast food restaurants remain at the heart of America.
Part U.S. history lesson, part anthropological study, Chandler’s book traces the origins of the fast food industry and the threads it weaves through the fabric of our society. From White Castle’s invention of the slider, now a staple at every Edison bulb-lit bistro, to McDonald’s’ global takeover and status as the nation’s second largest employer, fast food restaurants are the manifestation of the American Dream, Chandler argues.
The fast food industry’s trajectory runs parallel to the economic growth of post-war America, with newly prosperous and mobile families enjoying the ability to dine out. What was once for the upper class turned into a pastime for all socioeconomic groups. Fast food personalities such as Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders (so designated not for his military tenure but for his midwifery service) erupted with television marketing, cementing the fast food industry as one of America’s most ubiquitous.
Sanders’s tale from roadside gas station owner to icon was a classic by-the-bootstraps tale that defines the American Dream, says Chandler. But Sanders’s sale of the KFC brand for a paltry $2 million marked the corporate takeover of literal mom-and-pop owned restaurants, and the industry’s downturn towards flash-frozen fish sticks and cheap ingredients to boost revenue. A few months after the sale, KFC would go public, become valued at $1 billion and Sanders’s famous spice mix would be altered for the sake of efficiency.
Despite corporatization and the industry backlash of the early aughts, those primary-colored buildings dotting interstates and nestled among urban office buildings offer predictable food and service that Americans crave, Chandler says.
While fast food companies have renovated their buildings into futuristic lounge-like spaces, wiped away supersized offerings and hired armies of social media strategists, they continue to offer the same promise: the Number 6 with fries you’re about to order may not be the best option, but it’s the easiest and you know exactly what you’re getting
After a particularly late and overserved night in college, a friend and I couldn’t decide what would cure us: fried food from Wendy’s or Jack in the Box. So after first rolling through Wendy’s for chicken nuggets, we drove half a football field away for Jack in the Box curly fries. Truly, what is more American than that?
Wryly written yet repetitive at times, “Drive-Thru Dreams” is a well-researched and quick, satiating read for history and food lovers.