What Is Fast Food?

Fast food explains who we are, inside and out.

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Editor’s note: This is the first entry in a new column from journalist and author Adam Chandler, who will be covering fast food in an attempt to make sense of the complexities of the industry as it evolves, adapts, and continues to inspire reactions positive and negative alike.

There has always been fast food. From the pizza booths of ancient Rome and the 12th-century markets along the Thames to the makeshift kitchens of the Chili Queens of 1800s San Antone, the culinary tradition of affordable, portable, quickly scarfable fare goes at least as far back as Exodus, when the ancient Israelites ate matzo while hurrying out of Egypt.

In spite of this millenia-spanning legacy, fast food has come to resemble a somewhat specific concept over the course of the past century. The phrase "fast food" generally brings to mind places that look the same everywhere and serve food on the fast and cheap. No waitstaff, no dishware, and little need for utensils. Other standard-issue amenities tend to include combo meals, value menus, drive-thru windows, and maybe an indoor playground featuring a ball pit aflame with bacterial pathogens.

But even with these (extremely) particular parameters, fast food is more than that. After taking a fast food tour across the United States for my book Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America's Fast-Food Kingdom, I’ve spent countless hours reflecting on the nature of fast food. Fast food is culture, it’s history, it’s nostalgia. It’s a McFlurry of kitschy Americana, jangly jingles, and sharp-elbowed American corporatism. It’s a meal you eat with your hands, oftentimes while navigating traffic on the open road. Fast food is the opposite of the counterculture; it’s the most mainstream thing imaginable. When honoring Mickey D’s strongman Ray Kroc as one of Time’s 100 most important figures of the 20th century, the famed chef Jacques Pépin delivered this revelatory truth that speaks spiritual volumes about the entire idea of fast food: “One goes to McDonald's to eat, not to dine.”

For all that, fast food remains surprisingly hard to define. For instance, despite their overwhelming similarities, there are reasons that Dunkin’ is fast food and Starbucks is not. We could start with the fact that Dunkin’ is a bit less expensive, but it has to do with much more than that. Unlike Starbucks, Dunkin’ offers no sense of ambient virtue, self-congratulation, exclusivity; you don’t get your name hand-written on a cup. Dunkin’ doesn’t promote carefully curated Spotify playlists and they’re not selling bottled water of questionable provenance that negligibly benefits humanitarian efforts. Dunkin’ would much rather you try out a Blue Raspberry Coolatta and dad-drum to some Top 40 on your way out.

Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts storefronts side by side on a city block.

Now, that’s not to say there isn’t goodwill at the humbler big chains. Unlike the highbrow grain-bowl dispensaries, fast-food restaurants (bluntly) deliver the all-important sense that you’re not that important. Or special. Or noble. In this way, fast food provides a safe haven free from judgment or pretension. Literally everyone is welcome and everyone goes. There’s no hierarchy. You can bumble in wearing pajamas and order seven small cheeseburgers at 10:30 in the morning and nobody bats an eye. You’re free to be the person you truly are, the most authentic version of yourself.

When I’m at Taco Bell or Wendy’s or Whataburger, I get to be the hungry, slightly grumpy person who’s going to skip the new climate-change documentary when he gets home and stream A League of Their Own for the 247th time instead. For others, it’s a destination for date night or Bible study or hangovers, where you go with your friends when you’re bored on a Friday night in the burbs or when you want to be blissfully alone. All in all, fast food is a first and last resort.

It’s this haphazard palette of attractions that separates fast food from its cousins and siblings. Dollar-slice joints, dumpling carts, indie food trucks, and hot dog stands might cover plenty of technical ground within the basic framework of fast food. But these places aren’t generally designed with the amenities required to sustain a community, even if that just means free wifi, a bathroom, or a late-night menu.

This gets us to what might be the clearest attribute of fast food as we know it—one of its biggest lures and points of controversy—its ubiquity. One reason McDonald’s and its ilk have come to embody such a specific image is because fast food is universally familiar. Inescapable, even. As a cultural force, fast food is often thought of in terms of large, hectoring, multinational franchise chains. In many circles, fast food is a pejorative. In others, though, fast food remains a source of comfort, a place that’s always within reach, where you know exactly what you’re going to get every single time. For better or worse, it explains who we are, inside and out.

What does fast food mean to you? Let us know in the comments!