Fast Food (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
FAST FOOD. What is termed "fast food" in the United States today most commonly consists of hot, freshly prepared, and wrapped food items, served to customers across a counter or through a drive-up window. Known as both "fast food" and "quick-service food" in the restaurant industry, these items are routinely sold and delivered in an amount of time ranging from a few seconds to several minutes; they now vary widely in food type, encompassing virtually all kinds of meats, preparation methods, and ethnic cuisines. Inexpensive hamburgers and french fried potatoes are still the products most readily identified as fast food, but the list of items sold in the format continually increases. Fried fish and shellfish, hot dogs, chicken, pizza, roast beef, and pasta are commonly sold at quick-service outlets. In addition to these staples, many quick-service restaurants sell a broad menu of Americanized Mexican, Greek, and Chinese foods. Some fast-food outlets offer specialty items, such as sushi, clams, or ribs, and others even sell complete "home-cooked" meals over their counters. Though menus and delivery formats vary greatly, fast food's chief common denominators include immediate customer service, packaging "to go," and inexpensive pricing.
The precise origins of fast food are vague, probably predating written history. Hungry people are as old as civilization itself, as are entrepreneurs eager to satisfy their hunger. Food vendors in ancient cities sold prepared items to passersby on the street. The actual foods varied greatly, depending on period and culture, but they generally comprised simple, inexpensive fare sold to people of modest means.
Immigrants brought a variety of food styles to America, often preserving these for decades as a comforting connection with their ethnic past. Though many immigrant foodways were elaborate and ritualistic, most groups had one or two simple items that they consumed on a daily basis. As a rule, immigrant groups preferred their indigenous grains: corn from the Americas, rice from Asia, and wheat from Europe. Often these served as the basis for the "peasant" foods of their homelands. Pasta and flat breads came over with Italians; tortillas, beans, and tamales arrived with northbound Mexicans; and Germans brought dark breads, along with a variety of fatty sausages (which later mutated into the hot dog). Asian immigrants continued to eat rice as the basis of their diet.
In the early twentieth century fast food remained primarily the fare of the masses. Vendors wheeled their pushcarts daily to factory gates, selling their wares to hungry workers. Often catering to the tastes of the particular factory's dominant ethnic group, they charged customers pennies for basic items such as sausages, meatballs, or stew. Though popular among male industrial workers, this pushcart version of fast food never became mainstream cuisine.
The urban diner was the transitional phase between the vendor's pushcart and modern fast food. Most early diners were small restaurants, with limited seating, sometimes constructed out of converted railway carriages or streetcars. They served simple foods to working-class customers on a "short-order" basis, usually cooking each meal individually when ordered. Menus varied, but fried foods were common. Though diners often emphasized speed in delivering food, customers routinely lingered before and after eating.
The hamburger still stands out as the single most important American fast food, though the precise origin of this meat sandwich is the subject of historical disagreement. People have eaten chopped beef throughout the ages, and it was long a fixture in many world cultures. The lineage of the American hamburger seems to point directly, as its name indicates, back to the German city of Hamburg. First appearing on American restaurant menus in the mid-nineteenth century, ground beef patties bore the title "hamburg steak." By the century's close, vendors regularly sold meatballs wrapped in slices of bread at county fairs and summer festivals. Regional legends attribute the invention of this snack to several different individuals, but its true originator remains a mystery.
The Rise of Modern Fast FoodOur modern image of the fast-food restaurant dates back to 1916, when Walt Anderson began selling "hamburger sandwiches" from an outdoor stand on a Wichita street corner. Anderson simply flattened a meatball and placed it between two halves of a bun. His sandwich quickly became popular, attracting long lines of hungry buyers. By 1921, Anderson had joined local insurance broker Edgar "Billy" Ingram to form the White Castle System. After opening several identical restaurants in Wichita during their first year, the partners quickly spread their business to neighboring cities, then to nine major urban areas throughout the Midwest and on the East Coast. What separated the White Castle System from earlier short-order restaurants was its very streamlined menu, comprising only hamburgers, coffee, Coca-Cola, and pie; a uniform architectural style; and strict standardization of food quality, preparation methods, and employee performance. By the close of the 1920s, White Castle's
Other entrepreneurs soon noticed White Castle's success in the hamburger business. Very closely copying White Castle's products, architecture, and company name, competing new chains also thrived, carrying the hamburger craze across the nation to smaller cities and towns. The White Tower chain appeared in 1925, eventually challenging White Castle's dominance in several northern cities. Krystal's, opened in 1929 in Chattanooga, soon became the hamburger powerhouse of the southeastern states. White Castle's hamburger sandwich, along with its many imitators, became a daily staple for many working-class Americans. It proved so successful, in fact, that by 1930 the president of the American Restaurant Association identified the fast-food hamburger as the most important food item in the nation.
Hamburgers became even more a mainstream food during the 1930s. The larger restaurant chains began marketing their products to middle-class buyers, and even more Americans became burger lovers. Despite the harsh economy of the Great Depression, most fast-food chains continued to thrive, and in many cases grew considerably. Most continued selling the White Castletyle hamburger, but late in the decade the Big Boy chain spread east from California, introducing its new double-decker hamburger sandwich along the way. By the end of the Depression, America was a solidly hamburger-eating culture.
After prospering in the Depression, however, the fast-food industry suffered a serious setback during World War II. Shortages of necessary foodstuffs, such as meat, sugar, tomatoes, and coffee, meant limited menu offerings and often a significant loss of business. Attempting to continue providing meals to their customers, fast-food restaurants experimented with different items that were still in abundance, including soy patties, chili, and french fried potatoes. Even more damaging than commodity shortages was the very low unemployment rate, which meant that most workers bypassed the restaurant industry in favor of higher-paying work. Adjusting to this labor shortage, chains soon replaced their all-male workforce with women and teenagers, two groups who would become their most common employees. Despite attempts to find palatable alternative foods, and despite the shifts in workforce, much of the fast-food industry was a casualty of the war; by 1945, more than half of America's restaurants had closed down, including several of the major fast-food chains.
Rebuilding the fast-food industry after the war proved a slow process. No single chain emerged to claim dominance, and little innovation occurred. Individual companies struggled to restore their prewar prosperity, and new regional chains tried to gain a foothold. Suffering the effects of escalating costs and still under the threat of continued shortages due to unstable food supplies in war-torn countries, fast-food restaurants often had to double prices to remain in business.
As population shifted from America's cities to suburbia during the 1950s, the fast-food industry quickly followed. Early chains such as White Castle and White Tower, resisting moving to the suburbs, were quickly eclipsed by upstart franchised chains. Burger King and McDonald's outlets became common fixtures at suburban crossroads, selling burgers, fries, and shakes to hungry families. Burger King's Jim McLamore and McDonald's Ray Kroc each sought to build one of his restaurants in every American town, and they opened hundreds of new Burger Kings and McDonald's each year in the 1960s. To accomplish this rapid expansion, they relied heavily on franchise investors, enforced strict product uniformity throughout their chains, and aggressively advertised in every newly opened territory. With McDonald's and Burger King's success, Burger Chef outlets soon appeared nearby. Arby's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Taco Bell were not far behind. By the late 1960s, fast food no longer meant just hamburger restaurants, but had diversified to include quick-service pizza, roast beef, chicken, and tacos. To give an idea of the dimensions to which the fast-food industry has grown, in 1999 Americans consumed over 26 billion pounds of beef, much of it as hamburgers. In that year McDonald's alone had more than ten thousand restaurants in the United States, from which it grossed in excess of $13 billion in revenue.
Criticism of Fast Food
Despite the widespread popularity of fast food in modern American culture, critics abound. Since the 1930s, articles and books have condemned the industry, exposing allegedly poor sanitary conditions, unhealthy food products, related environmental problems, and unfair working conditions. Whether it warrants the attention or not, the fast-food industry is still regularly cited for exploiting young workers, polluting, and contributing to obesity and other serious health problems among American consumers. American beef consumption, and more specifically the fast-food hamburger industry, is often blamed for the burning of the Amazon rain forests to make way for more grazing lands for beef cattle. Early foes of fast food cited the deplorable filth of many hamburger stands, in addition to claiming that the beef ground for their sandwiches was either spoiled, diseased, or simply of low quality. In fact, many critics maintained that much of the meat used in fast-food hamburgers came from horse carcasses. The high fat content of fast food was also controversial. Despite deceptive industry claims about the high quality and the health benefits of their products, in the 1920s and 1930s concerned nutritionists warned the public about the medical dangers of regular burger consumption. This distrust and criticism of fast food continue today, extending even further to include dire warnings about the industry's use of genetically modified and antibiotic-laden beef products. Most major chains have responded to recent attacks by prominently posting calorie and nutritional charts in their restaurants, advertising fresh ingredients, and offering alternatives to their fried foods. Despite a few more health-conscious items on the menu, fast-food chains now aggressively advertise the concept that bigger is better, offering large "super-size" or "biggie" portions of french fries, soft drinks, and milkshakes. Critics point to this marketing emphasis as a reason for an excessive and greatly increasing per-capita caloric intake among fast-food consumers, resulting in fast-growing rates of obesity in the United States.
Increased litter is another problem that critics have blamed on the fast-food industry. Selling their products in paper wrappings and paper bags, early outlets created a source of litter that had not previously existed. Wrappers strewn about city streets, especially those close to fast-food restaurants, brought harsh criticism, and often inspired new local ordinances to address the problem. Some municipalities actually forced chains to clean up litter that was imprinted with their logos, but such sanctions were rare. Fast-food wrappers became part of the urban, and later suburban, landscape. Since bags and wrappers were crucial in the delivery of fast food, the industry as a whole continued to use disposable packaging, superficially assuaging public criticism by providing outside trash receptacles for the discarded paper. Years later, environmentalists again attacked the industry for excessive packaging litter, criticizing both the volume and the content of the refuse. By the early 1970s, the harshest criticisms focused more on the synthetic materials used in packaging, and less on the carelessly discarded paper. Critics derided the industry's use of styrofoam sandwich containers and soda cups, claiming that these products were not sufficiently biodegradable and were clogging landfills. Facing mounting opposition from a growing environmental movement, most of the major chains returned to packaging food in paper wrappings or small cardboard boxes.
Labor activists have criticized fast-food chains' tendency to employ inexpensive teenage workers. Usually offering the lowest possible wages, with no health or retirement benefits, these restaurants often find it difficult hiring adults for stressful, fast-paced jobs. Many critics claim that the industry preys on teenagers, who will work for less pay and are less likely to organize. Though these accusations may have merit, the industry's reliance on teenage labor also has inherent liabilities, such as a high employee turnover rate, which result in substantial recruiting and training costs. Companies have countered criticism about their use of teenage workers with the rationale that they offer young people entry-level work experience, teaching them: both skills and responsibility.
Despite the relentless attacks, hundreds of millions of hungry customers eat fast food daily. The media constantly remind American consumers about its supposed evils. Most are conscious of the health risks from fatty, greasy meals; most realize that they are being served by a poorly paid young worker; and if they choose to ponder it, most are aware that the excessive packaging causes millions of tons of trash each year. But they continue to purchase and eat fast food on a regular basis. Fast food remains central to the American diet because it is inexpensive, quick, convenient, and predictable, and because it tastes good. Even more important, Americans eat fast food because it is now a cultural norm. As American culture homogenized and became distinctively "American" in the second half of the twentieth century, fast food, and especially the hamburger, emerged as the primary American ethnic food. Just as the Chinese eat rice and Mexicans eat tamales, Americans eat burgers.
And fast food has grown even beyond being just a distinctive ethnic food. Since the 1960s, the concept has extended far beyond the food itself, with the term becoming a common descriptor for other quick-service operations, even a metaphor for many of the negative aspects of mainstream American life. Theorists and pundits sometimes use the term "fast food" to denigrate American habits, institutions, and values, referring to them as elements of a "fast-food society." In fact, "fast-food" has become a frequently used adjective, implying not only ready availability but also superficiality, mass-produced standardization, lack of authenticity, or just poor quality.
In the last two decades of the twentieth century, fast food gained additional economic and cultural significance, becoming a popular American export to nations around the world. Some detractors claim that it is even deliberately used by the United States, as a tool of cultural imperialism. The appearance of a McDonald's or Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant on the streets of a foreign city signals to many the demise of indigenous culture, replacing another country's traditional practices and values with American materialism. In fact, the rapid spread of American fast food is probably not an organized conspiracy, rather more the result of aggressive corporate marketing strategies. Consumers in other countries are willing and able to buy fast-food products, so chains are quick to accommodate demand. Thought of around the world as "American food," fast food continues its rapid international growth.
See also Cattle; Fish and Chips; Food Politics: United States; French Fries; Hamburger; Meat; Obesity; Packaging and Canning; Potato; Sandwich; Slow Food; Take-Out Food.
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David Gerard Hogan