Adam Chandler has a problem with the way much of the media covers fast food. “I grew up in Texas, in Houston. Even to this day, eating fast food is not controversial or polarizing there,” he tells The Takeout. “It’s just… that’s the way people eat.”
He didn’t see that appreciation or even that normality in many stories about drive-thrus and value meals, which he finds are generally sneered at from a “classist and elitist posture.” So he set out to write his book from a place of appreciation, curiosity, even affection. But his recently released Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom isn’t all sunshine, rainbows, and Frostys. With a sociologist’s eye, the former Atlantic reporter picks apart how America’s cultural shifts—the post-war economic boom, growing gender equality, changing race relations—shape fast food. After reading the book, I not only walked away with more fast-food trivia than my friends can stand, but a deeper understanding of why American society looks at a vat of fry grease and sees itself reflected back.
“On a descending spectrum of American certainty, it goes something like death, premarital sex, fast food, and income taxes,” Chandler writes in the first chapter. “The United States is and remains a fast-food nation.” Chandler was kind enough to speak to me by phone from his apartment in Brooklyn, New York, where he’s taking care of a recently adopted blue heeler named Arby.
[This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.]
The Takeout: How open and responsive were fast-food companies to your questions as you reported this book?
Adam Chandler: The bigger chains are a lot more resistant. There’s a lot of raised eyebrows, especially because people are in the habit of doing stunt journalism in terms of fast food, all the way back to Morgan Spurlock. The smaller chains were extremely open. I had my book release at an Arby’s in Manhattan which was a lot of fun.
Fortunately for me, there’s just a ton about McDonald’s out there in the world so I was able to work around their resistance to talk to me. On the whole, it’s a mixed bag. I couldn’t get Wendy’s to talk to me. I wrote a story in 2014 about Wendy’s having difficulties with their Russian stores because there was all this tension over Ukraine, and I wrote in the story about something like “frosty” relations, and they were upset about it. They called my editor, and I think they put me on a black list. They actually are kind of vindictive, if you write something bad about fast food. But I love Wendy’s, so it’s sort of sad for me.
TO: You write about how cultural and historical movements shape fast food. What type of moment are we in now, as a country, and how is that affecting fast food in 2019?
AC: What’s fascinating about fast food is how it’s reacting to certain consumer demands. Now, certain chains are never going to put a salad on their menu. Arby’s is creating a meat carrot and that’s sort of the hill they’re going to die on, but then you have plant based-burgers appearing at White Castle and Burger King. You have to imagine millions of people are going to have their first plant-based burger at Burger King, which is a really progressive thing. It’s wild to think about fast food chains at potential progressive institutions.
We’re also seeing fast food, which I can’t imagine being the best thing to have delivered, getting into deliver. Nachos BellGrande is my go-to meal at Taco Bell, but if that were delivered to my door, it would just be gruel. But it’s proved to be a huge boon to the [fast-food] business. The whole fast food world is going to have this Netflix-and-chill ethos.
TO: What does that say about why we crave fast food, even when it’s not going to arrive at our door in its optimal state?
AC: When you don’t really want to think too hard about it, there’s familiarity and comfort in that. That’s a huge part of why nine times out of 10 when I’m leaving to go on a flight, I’ll end up having fast food on my way to an airport. Or depending on where I land, I know I’m home in Houston because I stop at Whataburger on my way home from the airport. It’s that sense of place. When we want to channel our inner stoner or just our non-thinking self, our id, even if you’re getting a slightly greasy Big Mac delivered to your door that’s probably 10 minutes past its prime, you’re still going to love it.
TO: Is fast food still the democratizing concept it once was? You write that 96% of Americans eat fast food once a year, and yet there’s also a lot of criticism of fast food.
AC: I think that it is still a very democratic kind of institution. I think the experience you’d get going to a Wendy’s, Taco Bell, or Burger King, a place where everyone—all ages, families, semi-homeless people, extremely wealthy people in a hurry—all in one place, it’s something you rarely see in America. That’s probably going to change with fast-food delivery but I still think it’s extremely democratic.
TO: What has fast food not quite been able to accomplish thus far? Where has it fallen short?
AC: There is a fast-food messaging aspect that could be sharper. It’s easy to roll your eyes in thinking about fast food restaurants as authentic meeting spots, but they do capture something that’s hard to get in America especially at a time when people aren’t really talking to each other.
Taco Bell is doing a good job at leaning into what it feels like to absolutely love something that other people don’t like as much. Other companies could absolutely follow that lead and find a way to boost consumer confidence, to take the guilty aspect out of the guilty pleasure.
And in terms of the food, I wish fast-food tomatoes were better across the board.
TO: Whats your favorite fast food item?
AC: I will always say a Whataburger breakfast taquito, which are only served from 11 PM to 11 AM. The fact that they start serving it at 11 PM is itself brilliant. It’s a flour tortilla, egg, cheese, hash browns, and you can get bacon or chorizo. It’s delicious.
But since Whataburger is regional, I get a lot of blank stares. So nationally, I would have to say probably the Spicy Chicken sandwich at Wendy’s or a Crunchwrap at Taco Bell.