How Fast Food Began: The History of This Thoroughly American (and Now Global) Form of Dining

What is the most Amer­i­can insti­tu­tion of all? The mind first goes in the direc­tions of church, of the mil­i­tary, of foot­ball. But if we con­sid­er only the sys­tems of mod­ern life devel­oped on Unit­ed States soil, the most influ­en­tial must sure­ly be fast food. That influ­ence man­i­fests in not just the home­land but the rest of the world as well, and like every robust Amer­i­can cre­ation, fast food both changes and adapts to the for­eign lands in which it takes root. Though unknown in the U.S., the yel­low motor­cy­cles of McDon­ald’s deliv­ery­men are an every­day sight in the cap­i­tal of South Korea, where I live. That could hard­ly have fig­ured in even the far­thest-reach­ing visions Richard and Mau­rice McDon­ald had for the entire­ly new mod­el of ham­burg­er stand they launched in San Bernardi­no, Cal­i­for­nia, in 1948.

Back in post­war Amer­i­ca, “car cul­ture reigns supreme. Dri­ve-in movies and dri­ve-in restau­rants become all the rage, tak­ing con­ve­nience to anoth­er lev­el.” So says the nar­ra­tor of the clip above, from the fast-food episode of the Net­flix series His­to­ry 101. But before long, dri­ve-ins would be rel­e­gat­ed to the sta­tus of his­tor­i­cal curios­i­ty, and fast food on the McDon­ald’s mod­el would become near­ly omnipresent.

As with much else in Amer­i­can indus­tri­al his­to­ry, the key was effi­cien­cy. Hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly run a dri­ve-in, the McDon­ald broth­ers under­stood well how cum­ber­some such oper­a­tions could be, and how they encour­aged cus­tomers to linger rather than spend their mon­ey and be on their way. The stripped-down menu, the stream­lined cook­ing process: every ele­ment was now engi­neered for speed above all.

McDon­ald’s did not, how­ev­er, invent the dri­ve-through. That hon­or goes to a Texas estab­lish­ment called Pig Stand, which first erect­ed that pil­lar of the Amer­i­can way of life back in 1921. In Fast Food: The Fast Lane of Life, the His­to­ry Chanel doc­u­men­tary above, the pres­i­dent of Texas Pig Stands says that the chain’s founder Jessie G. Kir­by “was famous for his quote of say­ing that peo­ple with cars are so lazy that they don’t want to get out of them to go eat. That prophe­cy proved to be very true.” Even as the spread of car own­er­ship across Amer­i­ca and then the world made dri­ve-through fast food into a viable propo­si­tion, it put (and con­tin­ues to put) greater and greater pres­sure on the busi­ness­es to deliv­er their prod­uct in short­er and short­er times.

“Beyond the chal­lenges of tech­ni­cal hard­ware that deliv­ered things fast, the indus­try had to deliv­er a pipeline to deliv­er the food,” says the doc­u­men­tary’s nar­ra­tor. “Through­out the eight­ies, the burg­er giants set about design­ing a net­work of sup­pli­ers that could deliv­er mil­lions of tons of foods to thou­sands of restau­rants at exact­ing stan­dards of uni­for­mi­ty.” This uni­for­mi­ty — ham­burg­ers that cost and taste exact­ly the same, every­where — enchant­ed Andy Warhol, that maven of Amer­i­can mass cul­ture. It has also, arguably, done its part to triv­i­al­ize the rit­u­als of prepar­ing and con­sum­ing food, to say noth­ing of the health dan­gers posed by fre­quent indul­gence in salty, sug­ary, oily meals, espe­cial­ly in the con­text of a seden­tary auto­mo­tive lifestyle. But if you don’t under­stand fast food — and all the tech­no­log­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and social fac­tors that have made it not just pos­si­ble but world-dom­i­nant — can you claim under­stand Amer­i­ca?

Relat­ed con­tent:

Watch Andy Warhol Eat an Entire Burg­er King Whop­per — While Wish­ing the Burg­er Came from McDonald’s (1981)

30,000 Peo­ple Line Up for the First McDonald’s in Moscow, While Gro­cery Store Shelves Run Emp­ty (1990)

How Eat­ing Ken­tucky Fried Chick­en Became a Christ­mas Tra­di­tion in Japan

The Hertel­la Cof­fee Machine Mount­ed on a Volk­swa­gen Dash­board (1959): The Most Euro­pean Car Acces­so­ry Ever Made

A Brief His­to­ry of the Great Amer­i­can Road Trip

McDonald’s Opens a Tiny Restau­rant — and It’s Only for Bees

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.