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.

‘The restauranteur’, Jakle and Sculle assert, has become ‘the creator of place’. This may always have been so, but with the fracturing of the institutions of family and neighbourhood, and the growth of urban sprawl, the restaurant is now one of the few spaces left that can provide a ‘sense of place’:

As social beings we are a function of the things that we consume which, in turn, depend substantially on the ‘whereness’ of that consumption. Thus, sense of place is used to sell things. Places are packaged as advertising devices and linked through the media to the consumer’s pursuit of a particular lifestyle. Modernity is lived and felt through commodified place.

Jakle and Sculle argue that a relationship to place defines personal identity and social interaction. They do not, however, discuss the tendency of commodification to disrupt our sense of place. I watched the island in Maine where I grew up go from being my home, a place I felt I knew better than myself, to being a place overrun by people seeking a good view in the summer. The people who lived in Maine before my family felt the same way, of course. Long before talk of global capitalism became popular, the golden arches had spread around the world, with the goofy, red-nosed Ronald McDonald serving as chief ambassador of the American spirit. Fast Food extols the virtues of Ray Kroc, but says little about the woes of commercial culture, beyond a few passing observations about the dehumanising work conditions of the average fast-food employee. Jakle and Sculle pause briefly to make the fairly pedestrian observation that ‘Americans have long been a hurried people, a circumstance devolving, perhaps, from the nation’s preoccupation with business.’

The most interesting part of the book focuses on Springfield, Illinois, the authors’ hometown, where they illustrate the transformative effect of the automobile on the culture and landscape of the city. In Springfield, restaurants declined in direct proportion to the rise of ‘auto-convenient’ establishments, which have pulled much of the lucrative business away from the centre of town:

New restaurants were created to feed the now more thoroughly automobile-oriented public, leaving traditional storefront restaurants far behind in the competition. In a radical break with the past, chains seized the creative initiative. The shift was clearly obvious in 1975. While the number of restaurants declined by 23 between 1955 and 1975, automobile-convenient ones jumped by almost half, from 107 to 149, and traditional storefront restaurants (lunchrooms, cafés, and diners) plummeted by two-thirds from 100 to 32 ... Centrifugal dispersal to Springfield’s highway margins continued apace.

Springfield is a paradigm for what has happened throughout America since the Second World War: as the automobile and the big corporation swept through the country, the idiosyncratic small restaurant was replaced by the standardised chain. In the process, the commercial focus turned away from the resident to the person passing through on their way to somewhere else, presumably a place that had some meaning for them. Again, reservations about these changes are difficult to find in the text, which has such an upbeat tone that I found myself suspecting irony where there is none.

Jakle and Sculle spend a good deal of time reminiscing about a postwar wholesomeness that I thought never really existed, having been assured by the revisionists that the heyday of Dennis the Menace and ‘Father Knows Best’ was all about building a military economy, chasing pinkos and, of course, repression. I wasn’t there, and I’m glad I wasn’t. But there is nothing self-important about their earnestness, nor their nostalgia, and they take pains to justify the relevance of popular culture to academic study.

In a section called ‘Keith Sculle’s World of Eating Out’, Sculle describes getting to know Chicago through its fast food:

I had the advantage of periodically alighting in my travels from streetcars and buses, thus coming to understand ‘my’ city principally in places like quick-service restaurants. They mediated between the stony-cold landscape of man-made concrete, rails and skyscrapers and the alternative of small talk with strangers, or the satisfactions of closely watching people. Such self-affirming experiences proved essential to my early view of life. There was something fundamental in those restaurants, a tangible, knowledgeable, external dimension giving rise to my faith in a real world.

I’m inclined to ask more from reality than what roadside or mainstream culture provides. It often seems as if the manufacture of desire for fast food, automobiles and sex has all but extinguished other cultural concerns. Jakle and Sculle are more optimistic. ‘Roadside eateries,’ they write, ‘have substantially redefined opportunities for self-expression and exploration in consumer culture wherein preoccupation with one’s own development is a consequence of choice.’ Choice, however, has been all but abolished in the perpetual repetition of the same neon options from coast to coast. Jakle and Sculle claim that ‘the roadside is a place of negotiated transaction between producers and consumers, the former always constrained by the latter’s tastes.’ This is not entirely true in a culture where our desires and sense of what is possible are determined by what is sold to us.

In my generation – for whom, generally speaking, protest has been reduced to buying a jeep instead of a sports car and covering it with too many stickers, surfing on parental funds instead of going to business school right away, and refusing, on weekends, to eat one’s vegetables – fast food is a fact of life. It is now a mark of sophistication to live in places like warehouses or factories that were once used for some ‘real’ purpose. Similarly, we reappropriate commodities once thought to be kitsch. It is usually in this mode that people I know wander into a McDonald’s after too many beers, for a Big Mac and a laugh at themselves. I’m waiting for the day when the 1970s McDonald’s and Burger King restaurants are colonised as artists’ lofts. The swing back and forth between irony and nostalgia with the occasional stop at disgust constitutes the search for self in a landscape of commodities.

True to his profession, Keith Sculle went into the field to research this book: ‘For several weeks in 1988 I worked at a fast-food restaurant in Springfield, and, accordingly, came away with a more balanced view of the fast-food business than academic pursuits alone allowed.’ After working a 12-hour shift because co-workers called in sick, he thought it ‘best to leave the restaurant’. My own reaction to this kind of study is clouded by having worked, by necessity, in several fast-food joints, of which Friendly’s was the most memorable because it was an incredibly unfriendly place. A waitress’s boyfriend kept roaring up in his Firebird and revving the engine outside the drive-through, preventing me from dispensing dripping ice-cream cones to the line of station wagons. I also worked at a place called the Cookie Mamma. I was fired for giving away the cookies, for doing illicit drugs on the job, for leaving the store empty and open while I did the drugs down the street, and for allowing the giant plastic welcome plant in front of the store to be stolen. The cookie mamma fired me personally and offered me the phone number of a health services professional. I lasted a month at Auntie Leonie’s Pizza before I was fired for writing poetry and for taking 25 minutes to make a sandwich. I worked at a place called Goodfella’s, which, it turned out, really was run by the Mafia, and featured an ex-middleweight boxing non-champion and ex-cocaine addict as head chef. When I was unable to distinguish between bolognese and marinara, the cook threw an iron pot at my head. Later I made the mistake of serving shrimp to the wife of the head of the Demilio Family. Apparently, she had ordered something else. One day I came to work and found my name wasn’t on the shift list.

The most depressing fast-food job I ever had, and the only one where I lasted long enough to quit, was as a breakfast server at a Holiday Inn. The day started at five in the morning; my co-workers were convicts on work release, with a smattering of religious fanatics. The convicts were extremely quiet and suspicious of loud noises. The religious fanatics, on the other hand, spent every free moment trying to convince me that Armageddon would strike on my lunch break. I sat in the smoky lounge, leaned on my polyester apron, and fell asleep to the voice of the most assiduous proselytiser filling my head with visions of burning souls.

I got out of the industry before it recognised that many customers no longer want prepackaged foods they fear might be substandard and that others have altered their diets for health reasons. As a result many restaurants, even if they are owned by big companies, try to recapture the ‘local colour’ and cater to neighbourhood dietary habits. The business world has been talking about a new capitalist panacea for the global mass marketing that brought Baywatch and Chicken McNuggets to the Amazon rain forest. This new economic strategy is supposed to care more about our souls. In San Francisco, where I live, you can now get a cup of liquid wheat-grass and a burger made of what looks like compacted yard clippings. Or at some of the wrap joints: fruit you would only find in the South China Sea swaddled in a burrito and served with a Diet Coke. Always a Diet Coke.