Fast food has become, for good or ill, one of the most dominant themes in American food culture. Its appeal and condemnation has spread to almost every corner of the globe. Fast-food operations generally emphasize a low price per meal ($4.00-$7.00) with a limited menu and minimal table service. Fast-casual restaurants tend to be a little more up-scale with higher prices, more items and some table service. Fast food satisfied American demand for a hot lunch quick and an inexpensive family meal. Such restaurants line Interstate-highway exits, perfect for minimizing travel times across the vast spaces of the country. Fast food has a terrible reputation but still commands a large clientele among the American population and continues to spread world-wide, particularly in urban, tourist-inhabited shopping areas. Unfortunately, fast-food culture has adversely affected regional cuisines.
The two pillars of fast food in America are McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken (now known as merely KFC). I will not go into the history of how fast food developed, but I refer the books Devoured and Fast Food for some insight. Also, I highly recommend the movie The Founder* to show how the McDonald brothers tapped a perceived need in the soul of post-WWII America and how Ray Kroc turned the concept into a national enterprise. When the Interstate missed Corbin, Kentucky, the hometown of Harlan Sanders, he moved his restaurant to the nearest highway exit. Sanders took his personal recipe for a regional specialty and a special cooking technique to spread his treasure around the world. His understudy, Dave Thomas, learned the art and created a franchise operation of his own, Wendy’s.
What the McDonald brothers captured and Kroc exploited was a culture of convenience and a desire for quick sustenance among a people who valued their time over other cultural aspects of eating. Note that many American workplaces still provide only 30 minutes for lunch and that company lunchrooms or desktop meals in front of a screen are not exactly great cultural experiences either. Fast food is also an attraction for a quick foray off the Interstate on the proverbial road trip or that convenient late-night snack on college campuses. Contrast these experiences with travelers in 19th Century novels by Dickens or Hardy.
Regional cuisines are threatened by those living distracted lives and seeking convenience. As described in The Potlikker Papers, regional chains, such as those that have sprung up in the South like Bojangles and Popeye’s, are based on regional cuisines. More upscale offerings that fuse regional dishes with cooking techniques from other styles provide different gustatory experiences. Do such efforts help preserve cultural heritage or destroy it piece by piece? A distinction can be made between a traveler and a tourist. When visiting an unfamiliar region or foreign land, travelers seek out a true cultural experience including authentic sampling of its cuisine. Tourists are satisfied with reasonable facsimiles of traditional dishes in their travels. They quickly resort to fast food, however, when long meals interfere with the ability to see the sights they read about online, in glitzy pamphlets or their tour book. Restaurants can provide tourists and travelers with a cultural experience, but restaurants are rarely the source of a cuisine.
Regional cuisines grow and develop in homes. Traditional meals and preferences for specific dishes come from exposure on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis. As Rachel Laudan notes, it is the combination of outside influences and the exodus of native people to other regions or countries that eats away at the preservation of a cuisine. Our modern, multicultural environment can both help us appreciate other cuisines while at the same time depreciate our connection to our personal heritage with food. It was John Steinbeck who identified the homogenization of American culture, particularly with regard to food, in Travels with Charley in Search of America. Whether the book really described a trip across the country or merely a commentary on the times, Steinbeck tapped into a trend that we live with today in a day before fast food and other megatrends changed the American foodscape.
Thus, fast food is part of the problem of the disappearance of regional cuisines, but inauthentic restaurant food is also partially responsible. Processed ingredients can cut both ways as they can decrease authenticity of specific dishes, but they may keep alive some offerings without which the tradition might die. Ultimately, regardless of the reason, a regional cuisine cannot survive unless the characteristic dishes are passed on from the older generation to a younger one who can appreciate their merits.
In defense of fast food
While I love true Southern cuisine, I confess to also being a fan of fast food. Burger Chef was my favorite fast-food place when I was growing up. It was where the high-school band would stop to eat on our way back from an away football game. On long trips our family loved to stop at A&W restaurants for the Papa and Mama Burgers. The limited menu options of burgers and fries or fried chicken and slaw, however, is a thing of the past. Most chains offer salad and other menu options unheard of during my childhood. I continue to enjoy a fast-food meal once a week as a treat before working at the local food pantry and at other times when away from home. During my working life, I found my experiences with fast food to be much more satisfying and nutritious than many of the mom & pop food bars scattered throughout rural Georgia. Of course, fast food is not nearly as good as authentic Southern cuisine when I can find it, such as Wilson’s Soul Food in Athens, Buckners in Jackson, and Mrs. Wilkes in Savannah.
I do not believe that fast food fully deserves the terrible reputation that it has. It is my understanding from food microbiologists who have worked with the chains, that these companies place a premium on food safety. It may not be altruism as much as protection of the bottom line that is at work in their rigid adherence to safety. Outbreaks had devastating consequences for Jack-in-the-Box in 1993 and Burger King in 1997.
Safety is associated with a chain by the number of customers who become ill or die from food poisoning and the negative publicity in the national press. Chipotle learned this lesson the hard way with three unrelated incidents in 2015 and a more recent one last month. One issue that has affected them was a lack of strict control over the supply chain. A large number of small, local growers can provide a positive image in marketing, but it can also make it very difficult to control the safety of incoming raw materials. A more recent case involving the supply chain was associated with salads at McDonald’s. Here, supplying massive amounts of raw ingredients that will not be cooked presents a difficult challenge to a large chain with many outlets.
I also believe that fast food does not represent the nutritional nightmare that many in the food movement would have us believe. Yes, it is easy to pile up the calories eating fast food, but I tend to consume more food and calories at restaurants with table service. I challenge any sketics to compare calorie counts for a fast-food meal with one from a full-service operation now that we have calorie counts at all chain restaurants. Morgan Spurlock created a sensation with Super-Size Me. In a more balanced, less polished, and much less viewed video, Portion Size Me, Dr. James Painter showed that careful selection of fast-food items could be part of a healthy diet. Major disadvantages of this venture was the lack of variety on a fast-food diet and the inconvenience of driving to get fast food instead of preparing a quick meal at home. One of the advantages fast food has over many slower-food restaurants is that of better portion control. Fortunately, more eating places are offering reduced potions as part of their menus.
Next week: Will a return to home cooking bring the salt problem under control?
*CAUTION: The Founder was one the last films released by the Weinstein Company before Harvey Weinstein was publicly accused of gross sexual impropriety and crimes. My recommendation of this film does not condone any of the crimes for which he has been accused. The movie itself, however, provides a window into the origin of fast food in America.