Fast Food

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When I was ten, my brother was accepted into a college in Kansas. My parents decided to drive him out from New Jersey, using the opportunity to show both of us the countryside as we went. The year was 1963.

Because we were on a budget, we normally ate at Howard Johnson’s restaurants. This was fine with me. I was allowed to order the same thing at every meal: a turkey club sandwich with a strawberry milk shake. My brother, more adventurous, ate clams whenever he found them on the menu, never giving a thought to the fact that we were squarely in the center of the country, a thousand miles in either direction from salt water.

But those meals are indistinct in memory. The meal I recall most vividly from that trip was a lunch we had somewhere in eastern Kansas. My father, tearing along the highway at the approved speed of eighty miles an hour, spotted a pair of golden arches rising above one of the few hills we encountered in an entire day of driving.

Now the next thing he said may seem remarkable, but keep in mind that it was 1963. Tapping his foot on the brake to release our Buick’s Cruise-amatic, he veered off the highway and rocketed down the small ramp onto what would, I suppose, eventually become a strip of fast-food restaurants. Cutting off a slower-moving vehicle, he turned into a McDonald’s parking lot and switched off the engine. “Let’s try some regional food,” he said.

The outcome was predictable. My brother and I loved the food, my father enjoyed the price, and my mother knitted. Apparently she and my father held a conference out of our hearing sometime later in the day, because try as we might, we could never get my father to stop at McDonald’s again. We resumed eating at Howard Johnson’s, where the food was a little more expensive, but the quality was, according to my mother, “guaranteed.” Nevertheless, we believed for years afterward that we had discovered McDonald’s before any of our neighbors and that we had the inside dope on the chain springing up from Kansas, where the beef was doubtless cheaper.

I don’t mean to give the impression that we had never eaten a hamburger on the cheap before. For years we frequented a place called Hamburger Junction, where the menus, and meals, were sent around the counter on a Lionel train. The interior of Hamburger Junction was standard for its time: a Formica counter, orange stools, black metal napkin cartridges, and a jukebox selector, stationed between each pair of stools, with a small dial on top that turned the song lists. Although Hamburger Junction’s addition of a toy train was novel, the architecture and interior furnishings were not distinguishable from countless diners along other highways. Neither was its menu. The items were cleverly named—B&O Burgers, Choo-Choo Colas—but they were essentially what you could order in any other diner. It was possible to get eggs and French toast. It was possible to get pot roast and mashed potatoes, complete with gravy and string beans.

The differences, however, between our meal at McDonald’s and Hamburger Junction are more profound than one might think at first glance. Even the smallest details mark a change in the American conception of “fast food.” For example, it is important to note that typical diner fare of that period was served on plates. Milk shakes were blended in steel cups by machines with spindles, then poured into fountain glasses. Knives and forks, ridiculously supple, accompanied each order. Place mats describing attractions in the local countryside were slipped under each table setting. The result was a meal that vaguely resembled dinner at a family table. The food might be poorly prepared or erratic in quality, but the goal of many restaurants, even down to their advertising, was to make the dinner seem “home cooked.”

Fast food, as we have come to think of it, was anything but home-cooked. Fast food was, and is, designed for travel, for consumption out of the house, for people too busy to linger over a slower-paced restaurant meal. In many cases our cars became our restaurants. The homey touches, indeed even such amenities as indoor seating, were often conspicuously absent. What we now perceive as a normal fast-food serving system—paper cups, styrofoam hamburger containers, even paper bags—were a unique experiment in the McDonald brothers’ restaurant in 1948. Forty years later it is not even a matter of thought to eat french fries with our fingers, add ketchup from plastic capsules, pour milk shakes from quick-drawing machines.