Fast food. The quintessential slice of Americana. It’s as synonymous with the American Experience as baseball, apple pie, for-profit health care, and stacked Federal courts. The very thought of a juicy Big Mac, ginormous bucket of KFC, or 10 sack of original White Castle sliders evokes a certain nostalgic charm in all of us, leaving little doubt that Americans, despite the expanding waste lines and shrinking gray matter, love their fast food.
But have you ever wondered why the obsession with fast food is so deeply woven into our cultural fabric? So much, in fact, that according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 3 American adults eat fast food every day. Holy Happy Meal, Batman! That’s about 85 million Americans chowing down. But before we explore the intersection between fast food and American history, let’s first take a look at the evolution of what is arguably humanity’s greatest convenience.
Believe it or not, the first fast food joints were not a product of American ingenuity but that of the Ancient Romans. They created rudimentary take out restaurants – thermopolia – which served baked cheese, grains, hot wine, and fish sauce out of a small room with a stone countertop and embedded earthenware jars (known as dolia). Thermopolia peppered Ancient Rome and attracted those looking for a quick bite or a place to drink and rabble rouse. In his book, “Food and Drink in Antiquity: A Sourcebook: Readings from the Graeco-Roman World,” author and historian John Donahue wrote that these little greasy spoons were the “ancient equivalent of modern fast food.” As if the Romans weren’t cool enough.
Of course, the earliest to-go establishments were created for people who couldn’t afford their own kitchens or for weary travelers just passing through. About a century or so later, fish and chips were sold on the streets of London in the early 1860s, although the exact origins of the dish are, well, fishy. Some say it originated in Portugal and migrated to Great Britain in the fifteenth century.
The Rise (and Fall) of the Automat
And that brings us to America where the origins of modern fast food can be traced to a self-service restaurant known as the Automat. The Automat was a cafeteria that served food out of coin operated vending machines.
Created by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, the first Automat called Horn & Hardart opened on July 7, 1912 in of all places New York City. Demand for quick service “take-out” food swept the nation along with their catchy advertising campaign, “Less work for Mother” (and by “catchy” I mean sexist and offensive).
While the Automat itself was considered revolutionary, it was soon eclipsed by what most historians consider the first fast food outlet – White Castle. In 1916, this little company headquartered in Wichita, Kansas started selling five cent hamburgers and pioneered the concept of the multi-state hamburger restaurant chain. The White Castle system was the first to provide meat, buns, paper goods, and condiments to their restaurants thus standardizing the look and construction of the buildings themselves.
The Dawn of the Golden Arches
The expansion of the American highway system, as well as the desire for low cost instant gratification paved the way for the proliferation of take out. With the automobile’s rising popularity, drive-in restaurants started popping up all over the country, serving food by roller-skating carhops.
Then in 1948, two brothers named McDonald started serving barbecue to wealthy teens off of Route 66 in San Bernardino, California and created a restaurant chain that would become synonymous with fast food.
As drive-in competition grew in the years after World War 11, the brothers realized that 80 percent of their sales came from hamburgers, not brisket. The McDonalds closed their doors for a few months and transformed it into a true self-service restaurant where patrons placed orders at the windows. They ditched the silverware for disposable wrappings and cups, fired the carhops, and simplified the menu to nine items – hamburgers, cheeseburgers, three flavors of soda, coffee, milk, potato chips, and of course, pie.
Production was based on the Speedee Service System – a concept taken from Henry Ford’s automobile assembly-line which is based on speed, lower prices, and volume. The burgers sold for a whopping 15-cents and each crew member specialized in specific task. Much of the food was preassembled allowing McDonald’s to prepare food quickly. Side note: Thankfully, brothers wised up and switched out the chips for fries. Because, hello…McDonald’s fries?
With food and labor costs increasing, the brothers decided to franchise their enterprise. The first franchise was sold to Ray Kroc in 1954. Kroc happened upon McDonald’s while selling the Multimixer – a device that could mix five shakes at a time. Kroc asked the brothers to allow him to franchise outside of California and eventually opened the first outlet in Des Plaines, Illinois – a suburb of Chicago. Kroc eventually bought the restaurant chain and the rest is, well, McHistory.
The success of McDonald’s mechanized food service spurred the evolution of a plethora of other fast food chains including Burger King, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dominos, and Taco Bell. Today, annual fast food revenue is roughly a $110 billion and with the exception of Vatican City, North Korea, Montenegro, fast food establishments can be found in nearly every country around the world.
Of course, you can’t discuss the history of fast food in America without acknowledging it’s dark past – specifically its contribution to obesity, diabetes, climate change, and systemic racism. But that’s another post.
And now here’s something I think you’ll really like →
Homestyle Big Mac
- 1 lb ground beef – ground chuck is best
- 4 slices american cheese
- 1 Tbs white onion – minced
- 12 slices of dill pickles
- Shredded lettuce – iceberg for purists
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 6 Sesame Seed Buns – sliced
- Butter or margerine
- Special Sauce – recipe below
Special Sauce * see below
- Shape the beef into 8 thin patties (about 1/4” thick) and season with salt and pepper. Heat a griddle to medium or 350° and cook the burgers for roughly 4 minutes per side (8 minutes total) until thoroughly cooked through – a good way to tell they’re cooked is the juices will run clear.
- Butter the cut side of the buns and place on the griddle until golden brown on both sides.
- Starting at the bottom and working your way up, spread some Special Sauce on the bottom bun, add onions, lettuce, cheese, patty, then middle bun. You can cut the top of the middle bun so it lays evenly. Spread more Special Sauce, onion, lettuce, patty, and three pickles. Top it off with the top bun. Voila!
*Chef’s note: this is my version of the iconic accoutrement. Use it as a guideline or play around and make it your own.
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- 4 1/2 Tbs French dressing
- 1 tsp white vinegar
- 4 tsp pickle relish – sweet
- 1 tsp sugar
- Salt to taste
- Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and mix until blended.
- Refrigerate for at least one hour (longer is better so the flavors can get happy). Place in an airtight container. Stir before serving.