Fast Food Fantasia

By Frank Blechman

Fast-food favourites the year you were born | lovefood.comDespite my advanced age and vast experience, I was shocked (SHOCKED!, I say) this past week to hear one of my colleagues expressing disdain for fast food. He used terms such as “unpalatable” to describe cuisine of McDonalds and Chick-fil-A. Under intense questioning, he confessed that he had never actually eaten either. If I did not know him better, I would have taken this ignorance for either deprivation related to growing up in a big city, or snobbery. Being a man of strong opinions, but modest demeanor, I am prepared to believe the best of him, and chalk this up to simple misfortune.

Regardless, as a former competitive eater, and no trace of snobbery in me, I am obliged to defend a true American art form.

As usual, a little history: From the written record, it appears that people have been eating prepared food for at least 50,000 years. The shift from “found food” to “planned food” happened somewhere about 10,000 years ago, with the growth of agriculture, settlements, and trade. Still, most travelers packed food for the trip. They knew that you could never count on finding something to eat along the way. The biblical story of the Hebrews’ exit from Egypt is a familiar example. Even though they were in a hurry, the Israelites prepared bread dough. When that ran out, they were sure they would starve to death in the desert, until a miracle (manna from heaven) provided sustenance.

To mitigate this, about 2,500 years ago, major trade routes developed way-stations where those on the journey could resupply. Whether they were called caravanserai, inns, taverns, pubs or (later) road-houses, they were pretty tough joints. Still, they were better than nothing. Some travelers, uncertain about these places, still brought their own food, seeking friendly private support rather than public stops.

In the United States, that remained the dominant story until coaches and railroads began to crisscross the nation. Stage coaches needed fresh horses. Steam engines needed watering and fueling stations. Passengers took advantage of the stops to rest and refresh. Eventually, “railroad hotels” with cafes raised their standards from basic to refined.

I grew up with the next generation, the flagship of which was Howard Johnson’s (HoJo’s). Its trademark orange-peaked roofs and logo picturing “Simple Simon meeting the Pie-man” (going to the fair, according to the nursery rhyme) conjured comfortable images of childhood innocence in a roadside setting. Unlike poor Simon, who did not have a penny to buy some pie, a customer at Howard Johnson’s with a little money could choose from 28 flavors of ice cream, or a vast menu of options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for all ages, day or night.

But it wasn’t until the development of the automobile culture and the US highway system that real roadside standardized “fast food” as we know it appeared. Drivers had no good way to know if a given restaurant or diner was clean, much less its food tasty. The first chain, “White Castle,” emerged in the late 1920s with gleaming white ceramic tiles outside and completely standard food inside. I grew up with the next generation, the flagship of which was Howard Johnson’s (HoJo’s). Its trademark orange-peaked roofs and logo picturing “Simple Simon meeting the Pie-man” (going to the fair, according to the nursery rhyme) conjured comfortable images of childhood innocence in a roadside setting. Unlike poor Simon, who did not have a penny to buy some pie, a customer at Howard Johnson’s with a little money could choose from 28 flavors of ice cream, or a vast menu of options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for all ages, day or night.

Which brings us to the interstate highway age, and with it the more familiar national brands, McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and eventually, Chick-fil-A. (And, not to create hurt feelings among fans: Taco Bell, Steak & Shake, Subway, Popeyes, Hardees/Carl’s, Chipotle, Noodles & Company, Five Guys, and Panda Express.)

None of these chains offer, nor claim to offer, gourmet food. Most would admit that their offerings are higher in fat and salt than any nutritionist could approve. Personally, I know how to make a better burger, pizza, or cold-cut sandwich. I think I make competitive fried chicken. But, I know that I cannot make better offerings more quickly, consistently, or economically than they do. And while some items are mediocre, all of these chains have selections that I think taste pretty good. Not to eat every day, or even every week, but once in a while, there is nothing wrong with fries and a shake, or a burger and a coke.

If there is anyone reading this column who for moral or dietary reasons won’t enter fast-food establishments, I express my apologies. For anyone else who hasn’t sampled the fare in the last ten years, shame on you. If you are too timid to go alone, call me, I’ll take you there.

If there is anyone reading this column who for moral or dietary reasons won’t enter fast-food establishments, I express my apologies. For anyone else who hasn’t sampled the fare in the last ten years, shame on you. If you are too timid to go alone, call me, I’ll take you there. Fast food, along with jazz, the chocolate chip cookie, and the microchip, represent the triumph of American culture. It is a celebration you can eat, and enjoy, and then do again.

Don’t turn your nose up at that.

 

 



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