Fast Food and the American Dream

Book review: Drive-Thru Dreams, by Adam Chandler (Amazon / Book Depository)

Drive-Thru Dreams opens with an affecting story about how a prank inspired one of those benevolent gestures from a big company, leading to a feel-good video for social media and wins all-around for everyone involved — on the surface, at least. It establishes an interesting idea of what fast food restaurants and branding mean to America, and how they’ve been ingrained in our cultural consciousness for decades, even as the role changes.

Next come chapter-long portraits of fast food magnates: Harland Sanders, the oft-villainous Ray Kroc, Whataburger’s Harmon Dobson, White Castle that “lowered the drawbridge” for American fast food with an assembly-line process. Author Adam Chandler looks at these restaurants and their meaning in the American cultural landscape and connection to the American Dream concept in a readable, entertaining cultural history, but one that doesn’t always deliver its message so clearly.

The founders’ biographies are told in a way that emphasizes what they overcame before becoming household names, earning their own slice of the American Dream pie or place in “fries-to-fortune lore,” at least until total corporate takeover. Colonel Sanders has a particularly interesting backstory (it includes gunfights and delivering babies in impoverished communities in the Kentucky hills.) There’s also a decent focus on issues of race, class, poverty, and how these factored into various eras in American history through a lens of fast food.

Overwhelmingly, they came from hardscrabble roots, knew hunger as children, committed to some form of wartime service, worked countless blue-collar jobs, and generally didn’t triumph until well into middle age. They harbored prophetic visions, grand delusions, and Talmudic fixations. Admittedly, most of the ones that succeeded benefited from majority status in race, sex, and religion.

Later chapters detail recent milestones in fast food’s relation to modern culture. This includes the role of social media. He covers the “cult of belonging” fast food brands inspire among their fans, including that Taco Bell’s fan-sourced suggestion of the Doritos Locos taco became a hit menu item (although a sad story upon closer look.) “That the Doritos Locos Taco could be a national sensation and still hold a deeply intimate meaning reflects the degree to which our inherent American identity is intertwined with these products.”

Historical side stories were revealing, and a highlight. Like what Larry McMurty (author of Lonesome Dove) thought of Dairy Queen. In his “Texas-themed semiautobiography, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen,” he “regards the arrival of Dairy Queen stores in the late 1960s as an antiserum for a West Texas desert climate that wasn’t just physically parched, but socially arid.”

The Dairy Queens, by providing a comfortable setting that made possible hundreds of small, informal local forums, revived, for a time, the potential for storytelling.

This placing of fast-food restaurants into the cultural landscape and look at meaning in our collective identity is fascinating. It includes something about this effect abroad, and what fast food has represented, such as the significance of the Pushkin Square McDonald’s in Moscow, and what it signaled when it closed. He quotes Russian journalist Mitya Kushelevich as saying its 1990 opening offered a “window to the world,” and its closure two decades later sent a clear message “not aimed at Americans, it’s aimed at us: the window to the world is closing.”

But there’s a jokiness in the writing that often doesn’t land. They’re kind of winking, hipstery in-jokes, like about Wilco. I couldn’t care less about Wilco but their being a joke example of something lame white people like is so tired that I feel the need to defend them. The line itself is terrible: “And so, unlike Wilco and Lilly Pulitzer apparel, fast food successfully moved beyond the suburbs and highways and took root in American cities.” Groan.

Humor in this kind of book can be tricky to attempt, because the jokes appear sporadically in an info-packed text, meaning an uneven writing style, but when they work they’re amusing enough. My favorite, referring to Colonel Sanders during the “unfathomable fame” period of his seventies, that he looked “the part of a zany, old-fashioned Appalachian chicken genius.”

Now the most egregious. While discussing the new era of fast food social media, he makes a joke about the significance of Taco Bell’s channels hitting the right notes with a younger generation. He includes, in parentheses, “How do you do, fellow kids?” as an example, I guess, of the sort of tone other marketing accounts have. If it takes 10,000 hours to master something, I must be a PhD in 30 Rock. That’s a direct quote. It’s not attributed, which bothered me. This is a book with notes and sources, not a jokey blog post. It was weird. Was it supposed to be an in-joke to people who’d recognize it? Was it not even supposed to matter because it shouldn’t be unique enough to be recognizable? It doesn’t matter; Steve Buscemi is hurt.

Overall a fun, often enlightening read, I just don’t know that I felt the presence of a well-organized point. I kept wondering what the author was trying to tell, or make us take from these stories and data. Certainly there’s a strong link between the idea of the fabled American Dream and how it’s been achieved to some extent through various fast food kingdoms, and he makes that point well. Nevertheless, these feel more like slim biographies, portraits of the people and their enterprising, if voraciously capitalistic, attitudes and successes despite obstacles, now mostly forgotten after sleek corporate takeovers, without too much new to add. 3/5

Drive-Thru Dreams:
A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom

by Adam Chandler
published June 25, 2019 by Flatiron

Amazon / Book Depository

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14 thoughts on “Fast Food and the American Dream

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  1. Maybe the author took on too much, trying to cover too many angles. It’s an excellent undertaking. Every Thurs during school my older son and his schoolmates used to drive to the nearby motorway services to partake from the vast array of fast food available there – McDonalds, KFC etc etc. Does make me wonder why I bother cooking vegetables and reasonably healthy food at home..

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    1. That’s a good point, maybe it was a bit much for a relatively short book. I think it’s a losing battle with teens sometimes…I remember my mom and grandmother would cook amazing, healthy, balanced meals and if friends were making a trip to Taco Bell or Dairy Queen, I was much more interested in that than eating these actually quite impressive meals I took for granted at home. Now I appreciate it though and always prefer that, and lots of vegetables, etc. so maybe they’ll get there eventually!!!

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    1. Exactly, I’m surprised an editor didn’t cut them when they’re sure to go over some readers’ heads. I’m sure I missed the meaning of others. And they didn’t go together with the tone of the rest of it. Just weird.

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  2. I’m still trying to figure out what the heck it means that McDonald’s is doing this global food thing this summer. They’re changing their products to be inspired by other cultures, which is….weird. You don’t go to McDonald’s for global culture, and for them to bring in new food items is expensive and risky.

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    1. Aren’t they just a few limited-time menu items like they usually have going on? But from their international outposts this time? If you go to a McDonald’s in another country they always have special localized menu items only for that market, it sounded like they’re just bringing in a couple of popular ones for the promotion.

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    1. I think you might be interested in this one regardless of it not being totally outstanding. I definitely was glad I read it, it had a lot of interesting info and history that I hadn’t read elsewhere and it’s very readable. I share your interest in the historical and social aspects of food, and I have a weird fascination with reading about junk and fast food, and it hits all those spots. It just felt a bit loose in general, like I couldn’t quite put a finger on what exactly the overarching message was, and once the jokes started annoying me, I couldn’t get over it. I also love when a sense of humor works in something more academic, but they felt misplaced, I guess. It’s not that snappy Mary Roach or Jon Ronson style, they felt out of place and weren’t funny. The Wilco one made me groan. But ignore them and there’s still some worthwhile material in this one!

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  3. Thanks for the review. Sounds like the author had so much data he didn’t know what to do with it. I would have focused on the socioeconomic angle. I remember as a kid thinking there was something sinister about that ubiquitous image of Colonel Sanders and the omnipresence of the golden arches. They seemed even more sinister when I got older and realized fast-food service employees are overworked and underpaid. I recently saw a quotation attributed to Ray Kroc – “If there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean” — that sums up why the fast food moguls seem from a distance to be so repulsive.

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    1. It was a bit like that, just too much data and not really a coherent organization of it all. Socioeconomic angle is really interesting, I like things that explore how prevalent fast food is in poorer neighborhoods compared to places selling fresh produce.

      You’re so right, there is something a bit sinister about the ubiquitousness of this imagery! The marketing and brand recognition/loyalty is really interesting, and he did cover a good bit of that here.

      You might like this one, about the treatment of low-wage workers including at McDonald’s: https://whatsnonfiction.com/2019/07/24/an-expose-of-americas-low-wage-workplaces/
      I read it recently so I’ve just learned of the “time to lean, time to clean” quote there! Kroc was really a piece of work.

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