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When the American Dream Came With a Drive-Thru

The fast-food age began with scrappy entrepreneurship, but corporate concentration has made the chains dull and uninspiring.

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Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom, Adam Chandler, Flatiron Books, 288 pages.

Two stereotypes stalk a lot of our cultural commentary on food: a bearded hipster creaming his coffee with vegan “mylk,” and something like Ted Cruz frying bacon on the barrel of a black rifle. There is, of course, plenty of room in between, and Adam Chandler’s Drive-Thru Dreams fruitfully inhabits that space.

Chandler traces the history of fast food from the first “machine age” White Castle in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas, to the scrappy entrepreneurialism of KFC’s Colonel Sanders, all the way to the transnational corporations that are the successors of these upstarts today. There is a lot here, and it would be possible to write any number of reviews focused on various aspects of the book: advertising and marketing, environmental and sustainability issues, the American way of eating, and more. 

But some of the most interesting, and here the most relevant, portions of the book are those that deal with the history of fast food as an industry segment, and with the placemaking aspects of fast-food outlets, such as they are. And they are more than you might think.

Chandler’s overarching theme is that fast food need not be seen, or at least not only seen, as an exploitative industry but as a passable alternative to mom-and-pop establishments and a legitimate piece of American culture. For example, he explains that while the prevalence of fast food in poor black neighborhoods is often viewed as vaguely conspiratorial, it began as an honest way to promote black ownership and opportunity. (Franchisees are technically owners, not managers of a corporate-owned branch.) At least to some extent, the problem of poverty, race, and food deserts is emergent, not intentional.

In a similar vein, Ray Kroc of McDonald’s looked for ordinary franchisees who could “credibly serve their working-class customers.” Because fast-food restaurants have a very minimal financial barrier to entry, no dress code, and no expectation of proper etiquette, they are open to all and provide a “sense of affiliation” that is second only perhaps to religion (a long discourse on brand identity and social media drives that point uncomfortably home).

Chandler quotes one author who spoke thus of the midcentury arrival of Dairy Queen to America’s small towns: “Before the Dairy Queens appeared the people…had no place to meet and talk; and so they didn’t meet or talk.” Why not just go to the tea room or one of the fair-trade coffee shops? As much as it may surprise us, such establishments did not exist, and fast-food outlets were, aside perhaps from bars, the first “third places” in many towns.

These bland, identical, corporate buildings are places where genuine community takes place and unfolds; “customs can still be meaningful and intimate even in generic plastic booths and beneath generic fiberglass ceiling panels.” The fast-food restaurant is not an imposition upon some unspoiled urban fabric but is, sometimes more and sometimes less, an integral part of it. This may not be ideal, but it is true.

This overall point dovetails with a broader point about “soulless” and “placeless” suburbia: this environment is more flexible and adaptive than critics like to think, and in any case it has constituted many homes and communities for upwards of 70 years now. 

It is part of a real culture that has formed over those decades, a mix of the original corporate cookie-cutter junk and the ways that humans have dynamically interacted with it—and made it their own. This is true in terms of the overall suburban landscape, and it is also what goes on inside fast-food restaurants, as former banker, writer, and McDonald’s enthusiast Chris Arnade found in his recent book Dignity. Chandler is at his best when he grapples with this nuance and critiques the “coastal” tendency to look down on fast food and the downscale lifestyle that is sometimes supposed to go with it. 

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Of course, one thing that goes with it—cars—is not downscale but universal. In 1920, one year before that first White Castle opened up, more Americans lived in urban areas than in rural ones for the first time. The number of cars on the road approached 10 million. Perhaps surprisingly, the very first generation of fast-food outlets was not auto-oriented; the drive-thru came later.

Nonetheless, car dependence and the businesses that would grow in tandem with it were already in motion. In 1931, James Truslow Adams coined the term “American Dream” and noted that it was “not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely.” This is a good reminder that by the 1950s all of this was already well on its way. The 1920s were probably the last decade when something other than auto-centricity was still possible.

There isn’t too much here, sadly, on fast-food architecture, a subject more interesting than it might first appear. It might seem obvious that its primary architectural feature is the drive-thru (or the walk-up window or drive-in bay). But, as noted, the drive-thru was a somewhat later innovation, and Chandler notes that today, as urban fast-food locations grow and Millennials ditch cars, that many new locations have only a stately front entrance. Fast food, once again like suburbia, is adaptable after all. 

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Stylistically, Drive-Thru Dreams is a somewhat disorienting mix of serious, anti-elitist analysis and a whole lot of flippant, left-wing parentheticals and asides that will irritate some readers. There are gratuitous references to “good old ready-to-melt goddamn American cheese” and to the hamburger as America’s “secular wafer.” Chandler refers to the idea of teaching teenagers the value of work ethic as a “fetish.” And during a long history of Colonel Sanders’ business career, he slams J.D. Vance and his focus on individual responsibility, despite the history of the fast-food founders seeming to confirm the utility of good old-fashioned hard work.

None of this—and there is much more of it—adds anything of substance, and very little of it is worth more than a strained chuckle. Nonetheless, Chandler’s views on work ethic and individual initiative are probably not far off from the truth.

Reading about Sanders and his string of odd jobs on boats and trains and his many ups and downs as he slowly perfected his iconic chicken recipe, one almost feels that it took place in a different country. That whole milieu—a freewheeling, chaotic, entrepreneurial era made possible by the sting of poverty and the absence of a social safety net—is a figment of a vanished economic and cultural era. Chandler describes Sanders’ career as tracing “America’s adolescence.” Perhaps countries, like people, go through phases of life, and one consequence of America growing up is that we no longer tolerate the chaos and lack of regulation that made these classic American stories possible. The Colonel’s jerry-rigged pressure cooker wouldn’t last long during a modern restaurant inspection, and perhaps that is for the better. (The tension between affluence and lively, productive chaos has also been noted by urban engineer Charles Marohn.)

There was another major development in midcentury America that pummeled hard work and business sense: the Interstate Highway System, which wiped out many scrappy, independent roadside businesses along the old state and U.S. highways. The post-Interstate motel and restaurant chains were not the first generation of auto-oriented businesses but at least the second, and from this point on those industries would become increasingly concentrated and corporatized. The first publicly traded fast-food companies emerged in the mid-1960s, right in tandem with the construction of the Interstates. The distinction between franchises and chains has increasingly become a distinction without a difference, allowing corporations to portray themselves as an incubator for entrepreneurs while not really being so.

Fast food continues to be a uniquely American idea and ritual, but its original quality, regionalism, and sense of place, such as it was, has mostly been lost. Chandler’s simple conclusion is that for better or worse, there will always be fast food. This is not the sort of conclusion we are inclined to like; many nuanced and thoughtful books end with crusading pie-in-the-sky jeremiads. But it is a truthful conclusion, and it is also a starting point.

about the author

Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor of The American Conservative.  He is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and writes on urbanism, place, and popular and cultural history. Follow him on Twitter at @ad_mastro.

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