Drive in and pig out

Fast Food
April 7, 2000

This is a book ostensibly about eating on the move in the United States. Food for the traveller, say John Jakle and Keith Sculle, is concerned with aspirations and service. The architecture of the eating place and the presentation of what is to be eaten offer a promise of a new identity. The roadside restaurant has a special place in modern US mythology. Part homestead, part frontier; regular, standardised and controlled, yet also expansive. So this book is really about who fast-fed the myth of the road movie. It lovingly documents the growth and idiosyncrasies of car-based eating throughout the 20th century, the American century. There were 8 million US cars in 1920 and 150 million by 2000. That means a helluva lot of daily eating on the move.

For the British or any non-American reader, the experience is anthropological. Nothing in the British way of life quite carries the depth of emotion of the authors for eating on the move. They begin the book with their personal experience of roadside eating and end with this homespun homily: "An open-handed acceptance of fellow travellers is in order for the road ahead."

The 333 pages in between tell tales: of Captain Kidd's Fish 'n' Chips in Phoenix, Arizona, and giant chains such as Burger Chef (and King); of small mom-and-pop joints and family dining chains; and of food packagers that faded away, such as Sambo's (short for Sam and partner Bohnett), which closed not because of racism but because its franchise accountancy was irregular. The diversity is lovingly detailed with pictures, maps and plans.

The authors argue that "through two related processes, the American roadside has been substantially homogenised - roadside selling thoroughly rationalized through standardization".

The first process is what they call "place-product-packing", for example, the "co-ordination of architecture, decor, product, service and operating routine". The second is "corporate territoriality (which) refers to the trade territories created as the different corporations compete with each other for market share using place-product-packaging". The argument is a bit circular, but I think I see what the authors mean. Apparently to reassure us, they add: "We consider the restaurant to be a kind of place." Theory is not the strong point of this otherwise appealing book.

Here in Europe, there are deep culinary roots that both accommodate and resist creeping Americanisation. Britain perhaps accommodates more than resists. Everywhere is now burgerised, but then Britain since the industrial revolution has had weak culinary and food traditions. Travellers' food in 21st-century Britain is based on income and mode and is fragmented by social reality. No one provides drop-in cafes expressly for bicyclists: they are so flexible they can go anywhere they like. Ditto for British bus users: few special food outlets exist except at the biggest bus terminuses and stations. And as for trains, despite the old jokes about the British Rail sandwich, the reality was always class-based. First, second and third-class passengers became first and standard customers; and today there are so many varieties - "standard plus", and so on - that in the crowd you are almost lonely. The microwave rules. But these travelling diversities are the side-show. The car is king, in aspiration if not always in reality. US-style fast-food joints sprout in big towns and cities in Britain and throughout the world, but traffic snarls prevent people from getting there fast. The love affair with the car has sown the seeds of what every environmentalist fervently hopes will be its own undoing. If this happens, Fast Food will be a doubly valuable book, as a record of a century's love affair with four wheels and nosh.

I now travel by bike and go more quickly in a Britain where the car lobby has created a culture so powerful that a prime minister with an electoral landslide quakes before Mondeo Man. One wonders what will happen as China takes up the motor car. A British government chief economist assured me a few years ago that this would be a wonderful opportunity for the West. Chinese food has already proved itself fast, cheap and nutritious. Look forward to the Chinese-food road movie. It will be different.

Tim Lang is professor of food policy, Thames Valley University.

Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age

Author - John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle
ISBN - 0 8018 6109 8
Publisher - Johns Hopkins University Press
Price - £.00
Pages - 383

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