"This fun, argumentative, and frequently surprising pop history of American fast food will thrill and educate food lovers of all speeds."
Most any honest person can own up to harboring at least one fast-food guilty pleasure. In Drive-Thru Dreams, Adam Chandler explores the inseparable link between fast food and American life for the past century. The dark underbelly of the industry’s largest players has long been scrutinized and gutted, characterized as impersonal, greedy, corporate, and worse. But, in unexpected ways, fast food is also deeply personal and emblematic of a larger than life image of America.
With wit and nuance, Chandler reveals the complexities of this industry through heartfelt anecdotes and fascinating trivia as well as interviews with fans, executives, and workers. He traces the industry from its roots in Wichita, where White Castle became the first fast food chain in 1921 and successfully branded the hamburger as the official all-American meal, to a teenager's 2017 plea for a year’s supply of Wendy’s chicken nuggets, which united the internet to generate the most viral tweet of all time.
Drive-Thru Dreams by Adam Chandler tells an intimate and contemporary story of Americaits humble beginning, its innovations and failures, its international charisma, and its regional identitiesthrough its beloved roadside fare.
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THE NATIONAL MEAL
Proud Wichita! vain Wichita / cast the first stone!
— ALLEN GINSBERG
One day not long ago, a man named Pete Saari picked up his phone and cold-dialed 1-800-THE-CRAVE, the toll-free number for White Castle's headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. Saari, the CEO of a 3-D printing company based in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, had been commissioned to create a personalized urn to host the eternal remains of Mel Burrows, a fifty-seven-year-old mother and motorcycle enthusiast who had lived in New Jersey. The concept for the urn included a replica of a White Castle slider — the fast-food chain's iconic and diminutive onion and bepickled hamburger. The slider would be nestled inside a rendering of a branded White Castle paper holster that would be set atop a model of a typical White Castle store, perching above the regal-looking decorative crenellated walls. To head off any potential legal catastrophes, Saari needed to get some permissions from White Castle.
The request eventually channeled its way up from the hotline to Jamie Richardson, the company's vice president, whose two decades at White Castle have not diminished his boyish, irrepressible devotion to the code of "the crave." "Literally, you hear some of these things and you can't dream it up," Richardson explained of Saari's proposal. "The first thought is, 'Is that real?'"
It turned out to be very real indeed. Richardson, after calling Saari back, ran the request over to White Castle's general counsel, who approved it right away. "We did not go through three weeks of wringing our hands and asking, 'Oh, does that send the right message? Will people think we're saying that fast food causes early demise? Think of the jokes,'" Richardson said. "No, we said, 'This is about celebrating someone's life.'"
It seems fair to say that, given the choice, many people would rather go directly to hell for eternity than spend their corporeal afterlife in the confines of a White Castle–themed urn. However, when Mel Burrows was diagnosed with her terminal illness, the burger joint became an unexpected fixture in her life. Following Mel's treatments, her sister Stacey would sneak her out of the hospital and, in the perfect act of sororal mischief, the two would steal away to the nearby White Castle. This intimate convention would include conversation and the ceremonial eating of sliders — objects that are themselves physically designed to be tiny reprieves from the world. The motto of their outings until Mel's death became "Let's treat ourselves," which would eventually be featured in large script on the memorial urn produced by Saari. "It might seem a bit silly to some people, but White Castle provided a sense of normalcy during Mel's treatments," her sister explained. "And that was a true gift."
Millions of people eat hamburgers each day, most of the time for much less significant reasons than did Mel and Stacey, but the experiences of these millions are all improbably linked to White Castle and a fry cook named Walt Anderson. And the story of fast food itself also begins with White Castle, in Wichita, Kansas.
* * *
Wichita is an unsung, uniquely American city that should hold Mount Rushmore–esque significance in the national imagination. It's the city that gave the world Cessna and Boeing, the Koch brothers, Hattie McDaniel, James Reeb, and Barack Obama's mother, Ann Dunham. Hank Ketcham, the creator of Dennis the Menace, lived his life on the West Coast but set his comic strip about anodyne mischief in Wichita because it embodies a wholesome American idyll, the place for Jack White to disappear, one of the few US cities where the water isn't fluoridated and where it's illegal to serve cherry pie à la mode on a Sunday.
But none of that is why Wichita truly deserves prime billing in our collective whimsy. Wichita effectively endowed the United States with its secular wafer — the hamburger. Americans might think of the burger as a national birthright, but a century ago, the only thing less popular than ground beef in the United States was the Irish. In 1906, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a novel about the trials of an immigrant worker, partially set in the waste-filled animal stockyards of Chicago. That might not sound like a page-turner, but as your high school English teacher probably told you, the book was a crucial catalyst for the reforms and regulations of the Progressive Era. Sinclair's lurid and all-but-unprintable descriptions of factories with spoiling meat pushed the public to think about food safety and meat and pressured the government to act.* And, as a result, US consumers would be wary of ground beef for many years to come with authorities on food and dining like Duncan Hines warning their readers about the perils of hamburgers in particular well into the 1930s.
Against this queasy backdrop, in 1916, Walt Anderson first performed the magical, calculated act of crafting tiny ground beef patties and then smashing them flat onto a steaming, onion-laced griddle. Anderson had found meatballs not only stuck to the griddle, but took too long to make; his variation was small, juicy, greasy, quickly made to order, thoroughly cooked through, and came encased in specialty buns instead of bread. They were eventually called sliders; they were delicious, and Anderson sold them cheaply for a nickel a pop at his three-stool hamburger stand in Wichita, buying his first day's provisions of beef and bread on credit and walking away with $3.75 in profits.
What helped Anderson quickly make converts wasn't just his innovative food. To quell the stubborn meta-beefs of the time and to reassure customers that the meat was fresh, Anderson made a public display of grinding fresh meat and then griddling it in a clean cooking space, all in full view of everyone. "Buy 'em by the sack," his slogan implored. Like Thomas Edison crooning "Mary Had a Little Lamb" into his phonograph forty years earlier, Anderson's undersized invention would lay the foundation for an entire industry and create the standard for a product that would become synonymous worldwide with the United States.
Though many a grillman from Texas to Wisconsin to Connecticut has passionately claimed authorship of the invention, in many ways Wichita is the most spiritually sound point of origin for the American hamburger and its world-conquering legacy. In the years following the Civil War, the surrounding Great Plains spawned countless national mythologies of noble, rough-hewn cowboys and happy yeomen settling the wild frontier in the name of American progress, Manifest Destiny, intermittent ethnic cleansing, and rugged self-reliance. As we know from westerns, the enduring images of this era are incomplete without their associations to beef; after all, the men heroically gunning up the trails weren't just pioneers, but often mercenaries driving cattle from Texas ranches to Kansas cow towns. From there, the cattle would be shipped north to the very Chicago stockyards that The Jungle later decried and then sent east in newly invented refrigerated railroad cars to cheaply feed the growing country as it undertook the Industrial Revolution. Both the meat and the folk tales of heroic exploits undertaken in the Great American Desert were devoured with equal enthusiasm wherever they went.
Following the end of World War I though, new tech-centric fascinations emerged. Industrialization and urbanization reinforced each other across the United States as electricity grew more commonplace, buildings grew taller, and lighting incandesced with greater sophistication. Higher-paying manufacturing jobs brought masses into the cities, which themselves were full of new excitement — burgeoning culture and cheap entertainment, lunchrooms and diners. While out on the farms, mules and horses were being replaced by tractors and steam engines, the smirking sentiments of the famous 1919 vaudeville jam "How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree?)" would be confirmed by the 1920 US Census, which showed more Americans living in urban areas than rural ones for the first time ever.
The city of Wichita in particular grew, and Anderson's nickel sliders drew a working-class clientele, often from nearby factories, and his expansion to two more stands would dovetail with a Kansas oil boom that swelled the city's population. Anderson's culinary innovation might have remained a Wichita-specific specialty had he not crossed paths while opening his fourth stand with a real-estate broker named Billy Ingram in 1921. Ingram, a natural-born marketeer in the hyperbolic booster mold of the 1920s, immediately fell in love with Anderson's operation. Ingram became Anderson's partner, personally guaranteeing the loan on the new stand. To combat the persisting stigmas associated with ground beef and gain ground on Wichita's sudden herd of multiplying burger stands, Ingram suggested that the name of the next outpost convey both stateliness and cleanliness: White Castle. (Of course, it helped that the building they found already looked like a small castle.)
In his book Orange Roofs, Golden Arches, Philip Langdon credits White Castle with being the first chain to standardize the look and feel of its stores as they opened and blossomed within Kansas and without. White Castles spread to Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis, and, eventually, Detroit, Chicago, Newark, and New York City. In each store, the walls and interiors were painted and maintained a spotless, sparkling white, and the counters were outfitted in shiny Allegheny metal, later known as stainless steel. A White Castle brochure from 1932 conveys how this credo extended to the customer experience:
When you sit in a White Castle, remember that you are one of several thousands; you are sitting on the same kind of stool; you are being served on the same kind of counter; the coffee you drink is made in accordance with a certain formula; the hamburger you eat is prepared in exactly the same way over a gas flame of the same intensity; the cups you drink from are identical with thousands of cups that thousands of other people are using at the same moment; the same standard of cleanliness protects your food. ... Even the men who serve you are guided by standards of precision which have been thought out from beginning to end. They dress alike; they are motivated by the same principles of courtesy.
Today, this patriarchal call for conformity would read like Soviet agitprop or a passage from a dystopian novel. But for consumers that had been scarred by The Jungle's depictions of boil-covered steers and for a country with no uniform health code, the consistency and sameness offered by White Castle signaled virtue and trustworthiness. In the ways that seasonal fare and organic provenance have become largely cosmetic lures nearly a hundred years later, the blueprint of the fast-food industry was set on the premise of predictability and technical precision. And so, decades before McDonald's and the hulking burger chains would arrive on the scene, White Castle offered comfort and reassurance by committing itself to the then-revolutionary task of delivering customers the exact same experience every single time. This extended from the shape and layout of stores across the Plains, the Midwest, and the Northeast down to the size and preparation of the sliders, which were delivered by servers in the same sharp, spotless white uniforms and who conformed to the standards of a rigorous twenty-four-point checklist that included exhortations like "correct bad breath," "have clean shave," and "be prepared to speak pleasantly."
White Castle's neurotic quest to provide identical experiences wasn't just a strategic gambit. It embodied the zeitgeist of the 1920s Machine Age, in which many cherished ideals centered around business and the novelties of technology and efficiency. Even more celebrated than his bigotry was Henry Ford's assembly line, which whet the national appetite for mass-produced products in a decade remembered well for its conspicuous consumption. A Model T cost a prohibitive $825 in 1909. By 1921, aided by the speedier, progressive assembly process, the price had dropped to a more approachable-to-the-masses $310. The country was high on haste, illegal whiskey, efficiency, and the cost-effectiveness of regimented sameness.
White Castle nickel sliders were both of the people and innovative, too. Early on, Walt Anderson discovered that shaping his burger patties in tiny squares and mashing them flat with a spatula would allow them to cook quicker and more evenly while locking in flavor. The process also made effective use of every possible inch of the griddle. No less groundbreaking was the choice of a bun, which, unlike bread, absorbed the juiciness of the beef and allowed the center to hold. Like the high axles on a lightweight Tin Lizzie, the specialty bun made the burger portable and sturdy at the very moment the country began to move around for leisure. Between 1915 and 1920, as the hamburger was just starting its journey into the mainstream, the number of cars on American roads jumped from 2.5 million to 9 million. By 1931, 23 million cars would be on the roads. As the country further oriented itself around its cars, a roadside culinary movement fashioned on speed coalesced along with it, but more on that later.
* * *
In countless ways, White Castle lowered the drawbridge for American fast food. It had an operations playbook, an assembly-line system, and quickly inspired a shameless slew of regal- and sterile-sounding imitators across the United States — Royal Castle, Blue Castle, Silver Castle, Krystal (as in clear), White Clock, White Tower, White Mana, White Cabin, White Turret, White Fortress, White Rose, White Diamond, and so on and so forth. Led by Ingram, who later bought out Anderson, White Castle would experiment with newspaper coupons and bring facets of its production — from food to construction materials to paper goods — in-house to maintain control and reduce costs. Eventually, in the most basic pursuit of uniformity, the burgers would shift from fresh beef to frozen pucks. But by then, the country would already be hooked.
Ingram also shrewdly understood that to flourish meant luring middle-class families into the ranks of the White Castle faithful, particularly after the Great Depression diminished his working-class clientele. In 1932, around the time Aunt Sammy, the USDA-devised matronly better half of Uncle Sam, was dishing out questionable nutritional advice and recipes to homemakers on the radio five days a week on hundreds of stations across the country, Ingram hired a dynamic saleswoman named Ella Louise Agniel to play "Julia Joyce," a corporate hostess who would preach the gospel of White Castle to the same demographic.
In his 1997 book, Selling 'Em by the Sack, David Gerard Hogan details how Joyce, forged partially in the image of General Mills' own fictitious shill, Betty Crocker, would appear at women's groups around the country as a White Castle emissary armed with bags of sliders along with talking points about the nutritional merits of hamburgers and the time and effort they'd save in the kitchen. Inevitably, Joyce would drag her guests to drop in on a nearby White Castle restaurant, where they would marvel at its clean, orderly, and high-tech operation. As Agniel's efforts proved out, she quickly rose to become a trusted voice and high-level figure in the White Castle hierarchy. "By the end of the decade it was not unusual to see businessmen and housewives standing in line next to construction workers, policemen, and taxi drivers," notes Hogan. And so, White Castle managed to sell nearly twice as many burgers in 1937 as it did in 1930.
But as dazzling as all these feats were, White Castle's greatest contribution remains the rise and redemption of the hamburger, which forever changed the country and the world. Prior to World War I, with its bloodthirsty nationalist chanteys, the United States was a physically and spiritually disconnected land. Little, if anything, would qualify as quintessentially American in a country where different languages, cuisines, and forms of entertainment held the knit of ethnic enclaves and immigrant communities. Without a drop of legal booze, the gaze was nationalized during the Roaring Twenties and made this tribalism seem provincial. Americans started to see the same films and tuned in to the same radio shows, drove their Model Ts, and lived in cities as a majority for the first time ever. Soon they wanted the same gyrating washing machines and the same electric refrigerators and Radiolas from the same national department stores. They wanted to load their pantries with national brands like Wonder Bread, Cream of Wheat, and Minute tapioca from the very same grocery aisles. And they wanted the hamburger, a thoroughly modern sandwich that came enciphered with humankind's evolutionary longing for fire-cooked meat.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Drive-Thru Dreams"
Copyright © 2019 Adam Chandler.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Fries That Bind,
1. The National Meal,
2. The Colonel,
3. Soft Market,
4. Freedom from Want,
5. Are We There Yet?,
6. Big Business,
7. Into the Cities,
8. "Yes, It Can Be Done",
9. Drive-Thru America,
11. The Culinary Consciousness,
12. Crisp Digital Nuggets,
14. The Fast-Casual Frontier,
15. The Lonesome Hours,
About the Author,