Do you want fries with that? It’s complicated.
Americans have a torturous relationship with fast food. We often vilify it for expanding our waistlines, yet we also look at it as a way to treat ourselves. And part of the reason we seek the guilty pleasures to be found in burgers, shakes and fries is the familiarity such foods evoke, says writer Adam Chandler.
“Even for people who haven’t had fast food in 5 or 10 years, they still have fond memories of sneaking out of high school with their friends and going to Taco Bell during their lunch breaks, or going to McDonald’s for a birthday party when they were kids,” says Chandler, author of Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom.
In his book, Chandler describes the unshakable bond between Americans and fast food — which he explored during his travels across the country, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes. This bond is defined by fast food’s connection to American history, as well as its ability to adapt to different times, palates, and cultures.
NPR spoke to Adam Chandler about the role of fast food in American culture, and the issues that the industry faces today.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I had no idea that fast food had such cool history behind it. I have a newfound appreciation for fast food after reading your book. Were you hoping to change the way people look at fast food when you were writing it?
I was definitely hoping to nuance the conversation about fast food. I grew up in Texas, where it’s not controversial or polarizing to eat fast food. Part of that has to do with car culture and part of that has to do with politics, but it’s just kind of enmeshed in life there. And I now live in Brooklyn, New York, where one could definitely say there absolutely is some controversy and some division about fast food. I think that the book initially started off as kind of hoping to have a conversation with the people who may reflexively dismiss it out of hand, and say that maybe there’s a little bit more here. I was surprised to learn all the things that I did too, so I didn’t fully know going in what I was getting myself into, other than a lot of really highly caloric food.
Do you think fast food is unfairly vilified?
I think a lot of criticism of fast food can be applied to the entire food or restaurant industry. I was a bartender in New York for six years, and I worked at dive bars and I worked at fine dining restaurants. And what you see in terms of wages, health, and broader issues that face fast food, are things that you also see wherever you go. Even the rise of fast casual has sort of been hailed as this alternative to fast food, but when you look deep down into the calories, it doesn’t quite do as good as you think it should. So, I do think you should criticize fast food, but I also think if you’re making a conscious decision to not eat it, and you’re going to other restaurants thinking that you are sort of absolving yourself of these major issues that face fast food, you might be disappointed to find out what else is really out there in terms of people who are working for the tipped wage, the number of undocumented workers who live in very vulnerable work situations at restaurants, and the discrimination in terms of gender. [These] are all major issues that are part of the whole restaurant industry. And I think some attention is starting to come to that. I think it’s easy to scapegoat fast food for things that exist in the entire [food] system.
In the book, you talk about how fast food businesses were once a way for entrepreneurs to achieve the American dream. What changed between then and now?
It’s really wild when you look back at the history of the people who came up through fast food. Jeff Bezos is a prime example. He’s the richest person in the world, and he used to work the Saturday shift at McDonald’s. And there are so many other famous people in politics, and music, and entertainment, and in business who have these similar stories. I think it’s kind of an old- fashioned way of looking at American opportunity. What was possible in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s seems less possible now because of wage stagnation, and because social mobility has been limited in the last few decades as education becomes more expensive. Those are all huge parts that contribute to the failure for Americans to really transcend and build a really steady middle-class life. Paul Ryan, who was the [Republican] vice-presidential candidate [in 2012], still talks about his time at McDonald’s as a moment where he felt like his future was in front of him, and he doesn’t understand why people don’t believe that today. And so, there is this kind of bygone longing of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps America that I don’t think really exists in the same way that it did before.
The average fast food worker now, depending on who you ask, is anywhere between 26 and 29 years old. So, it’s not really about teenagers working for pocket money anymore. It’s really about people who are working a few jobs to try and make ends meet. And that’s much different from the ideal of American teens really doing character-building work on their way to somewhere else. … Now, you can work really, really hard and still not make it all work, and that really contradicts everything we’re taught from a very young age.
Fast food wasn’t always perceived as unhealthy. You write about how the first sliders sold at White Castle were pretty small compared to what you can get now. How and when did fast food start to be perceived as junk food?
It probably started in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It was when I think America realized more broadly that there was an obesity epidemic underway. Kentucky Fried Chicken actually shortened its name to KFC because the word ‘fried’ set up such an alarm bell in the early 1990s, and there were concerted efforts to make some changes. But ultimately the people who eat fast food mostly didn’t want that. And that’s sort of how people view fast food in a lot of circles — as sort of “this is what I have when I don’t want to think about what I’m eating.”
We [now] have these canonical sort of tomes talking about how terrible fast food is for you, and with good reason. There are some really problematic aspects to it. But at the same time, 80% of Americans eat it every single month and 96% of Americans eat it every single year. So, across all demographic bounds, it still has this loyalty —even among people who may say they don’t [eat it], but actually probably at some point still do.
How do you think fast food is going to evolve as people are increasingly worried about their health and eating well?
I think we’re actually right now at a really important inflection point when you talk about American health and fast food and how it all relates to bigger issues, [such as] wages, the economy, and the environment. … We’re seeing White Castle, which initially created the American hamburger as a national meal through intense marketing, offering Impossible [Burger] sliders and plant-based burgers on their menus. And they were kind of the first to really do it. And now Burger King is rolling out Impossible Whoppers nationally.
A number of other chains are hosting plant-based burgers or are trying new things to speak to that growing demographic. Those things aren’t necessarily healthier, which is important to note. But moving to sort of open up some meat-free alternatives is kind of a broader shift that I think does speak to health.
Cage-free eggs are an example. Think of the millions of people who are going to have their first cage-free egg by way of an egg McMuffin at McDonald’s. There is this progressive push that’s led by activism, and by eating trends, and by consumers that does affect the fast food industry and what they produce. We think of fast food as powerful and monolithic, and in a lot of ways it certainly is, but it also reflects the sort of whims and earnest desires of consumers. It moves a bit slowly to get there, but it does ultimately follow through because it has to survive.
You write about a survey that shows that the top reasons for people eating fast food are speed of service and convenience. But convenience comes at a cost for the environment, particularly with the use of single-use plastics. What do you think the responsibility of fast food restaurants should be in that regard?
I think fast food has a lot of work to do as an industry when it comes to changing or even nudging consumer habits. It’s been fascinating to sort of see when McDonald’s, for example, decided to stop using palm oil that is linked to deforestation, which I think is a good step. I don’t know if they followed through on that, but they pledged to do it, which is good…
There’s a big kind of controversy with a couple of chains, particularly in the South (Whataburger is one of them), that still use Styrofoam for their cups. And I think a couple of chains have tried to switch. But there’s been a customer uproar about it, because they don’t necessarily keep temperatures as cool for drinks or people just kind of prefer what they prefer. And if you’re in an industry where you operate on thin margins, especially if you’re a franchisee who owns maybe one or two locations of a place, if you lose a certain percentage of your customers trying to switch cups, it can make a huge difference in how you operate. So, there’s a bind there for sure, and I don’t know if legislation is the answer or if more customer pressure is the answer, but it’s a real problem.
There are American fast food restaurants all over the world. I’ve always found that interesting because people from other countries are very proud of their own food. What makes American fast food successful globally?
Well, I think there’s a curiosity about fast food wherever you go outside of the United States. I think this is such a quintessentially American industry and the history reflects that. … The rise of the roads after World War II, the building of car culture, but also just what you think of as America. The McDonald’s logo is more familiar and recognizable than the Christian Cross, according to studies. … Much to the chagrin of people I travel with, especially my partner, when we go to new places, I definitely drag her to fast food restaurants to check out what’s different. And the way that fast food adapts in different places is unique. I think it’s really interesting to go into a McDonald’s in Jerusalem and get a kosher Big Mac [or] to go to a Burger King in Japan and get a breakfast sandwich with spam. That speaks to the culinary talent of the world reflected through this American sort of lens. It’s a reflection of globalization for sure, but it’s also kind of personal.
It exists in the United States too. … There are so many different regional breakdowns of what a hamburger is supposed to look like. In the Midwest, there are steak burgers and they’re smashed flat and they’re crisp up on the edges. … In the Northeast you can get a lobster roll out of McDonald’s. And if you head north, you can find poutine in Canada at a lot of fast food restaurants. So, it’s not just a gimmick, it’s part of how these places adapt to reflect the local tastes. … And it’s funny because you think of fast food places in globalization terms as these sort of hectoring, enormous corporations foisting their values on places, but when you go inside, you do see that [some of] what the average person would eat in most countries is reflected on the menu. And I think that’s really cool.
Luisa Torres is a AAAS Mass Media Fellow on NPR’s science desk. She’s on Twitter at @luisatorresduq.