Always a Diet Coke

Jason Brown

  • Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age by John Jakle and Keith Sculle
    Johns Hopkins, 394 pp, £27.00, January 2000, ISBN 0 8018 6109 8

When I eat at McDonald’s, it’s because I’ve lapsed into a fugue state brought on by nostalgia for my 1970s childhood. Or simply resorted to an act of roadside desperation. Driving on the highway in America is like flying economy class: you take your own food or suffer the consequences. Fast food can easily stand for all that is wrong with America, but that is not the way John Jakle, a professor of geography, and Keith Sculle, a professor of history, see it. The trenchantly anti-ironic Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age is the third book in a trilogy that includes a volume on motels and another on gas stations. It is overwhelmed by nostalgia thinly disguised as scientific analysis, but this does not overshadow the authors’ achievement: a comprehensive account of the rise of fast food to its place as America’s third largest industry. ‘In a culture of automobile convenience,’ they conclude, ‘few lack fond memories of road trips taken with their refreshments, refuellings and lodgings along the way.’ I don’t know many middle-class people apart from combat veterans who can imagine anything worse than revisiting the forced marches of childhood family road trips. Even those who had a good time are now embarrassed to admit it.

My own family’s failed attempts at roadside bliss had little to do, directly, with the quality of the food we ate. Every December we drove from Augusta, Maine to Buffalo, New York to see my mother’s family for Christmas, a 12-hour journey, during which I told my little sister the world would end in two hours, she screamed until she took a bite out of the vinyl headrest and swallowed it, our dog Blondie, lying drugged in the far back of the station wagon, threw up, and my father’s hand left the steering wheel and flailed around the back seat looking for a target, any target. Sometimes I drove, even when I was 11. Once my sister jumped on the gas pedal in a parking lot and we sailed through the side of a liquor store. I have to admit that a cheeseburger and fries with a chocolate shake was the only relief, but even then the golden arches were no oasis. Now they remind me of everything but the food.

Fast food has become the stuff of manifest destiny, with its archetype of westward expansion and, later, its myth of ‘the road’. Reading accounts of fast-food operations and franchises that rose meteorically and crashed even faster, we see the indomitable and often amoral drive to ingest and expand which still characterises American entrepreneurial culture. Ray Kroc, the hamburger guru of McDonald’s and pre-eminent fast-food entrepreneur, emerges as the hero of Fast Food. I had no idea that he was a man so strangely obsessed with the perfect french fry. ‘I was looking for work that offered something more than money,’ Kroc recalls in his memoirs, ‘something I could really get involved in.’ Like many successful entrepreneurs, he became involved in education, and founded Hamburger University.

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