At The Table On The Road


The United States owes two large debts to the fourth Earl of Sandwich. It owes its independence, at least in part, to his incompetence as First Lord of the Admiralty during the Revolutionary War. And one day (and night) in 1762 the Earl, a live wire with the ladies and an indefatigable gambler, spent 24 hours at a gaming table, where he solved the problem of sustenance by eating meats placed between slices of bread, a form of food subsequently named for him.

Time passed. In 1908 Henry Ford produced the first Model T and William Durant founded General Motors, and Americans started driving around, looking for what eventually became America's great contribution to world cuisine: fast food. So with summer upon us, and a Stuckey's or Steak 'N Shake just over the next rise in the road, let us now praise the fast-food pioneers, and those who are still, like Chuck Yeagers of the griddle, trying to push the envelope of speed.

From the Johns Hopkins University Press, which has previously produced thumping tomes on "The Motel in America" and "The Gas Station in America," now comes "Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age" by John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle, two Illinois professors. Jakle, a geographer, and Sculle, a historian, coauthored the gas station volume and, with a third author, wrote the motel book. All three books are part of "The Road and American Culture" series. It makes you want to wave Old Glory.

The word "restaurant" is another import from 18th-century Europe. (It derives from a French word for a soup of sheep's foot in white sauce.) And America actually had fast-food "restaurants," loosely speaking, before the automobile. Nineteenth-century railroad stations had food services for passengers who fueled up quickly during stops. There were carts on city streets selling oysters preserved in brine. And there was saloon food, which became scarce because of Prohibition, which thus stimulated the growth of quick-service restaurants for people who no longer could drink lunch.

At Chicago's Columbian Exhibition in 1893, Anton Ludwig Feuchtwanger sold Bavarian sausages and provided customers with white gloves to prevent them from burning their fingers. However, so many customers walked away with the gloves as souvenirs, he started serving the sausages in rolls. Thus was the bun born and the world made ready for hot dog stands, such as Dog 'N' Suds, which was launched in 1953 by two Champaign, Ill., high school teachers, one of whom was weary of trying to teach a future NEWSWEEK columnist to play the violin.

Fast food, like everything else, has been shaped by war. Doughnuts have recently fallen somewhat out of favor with a health-conscious nation that feels guilty about enjoying fried dough, but doughnuts became as American as, well, French fries and pizza because, during the First World War, they were a finger food the Red Cross could serve to "doughboys." For the Second World War America developed paper dishes and cartons that were to help make the 1950s the golden age of fast food.

America's first roadside restaurants were rather sedate "tearooms" catering to the gentry, who owned most of the cars. Tea also reflected the baneful influence of the temperance movement. But it never takes Americans long to conquer sedateness, and soon roadside restaurants were being built in the shapes of giant oranges and milk cartons and upside-down ice cream cones. And there were girls, sometimes on roller skates, called carhops, so Americans could eat where they did so much else--in their cars. Nowadays half of all food is consumed outside the home, and the average American eats 11 meals a year in a car.

And the drive-through line has become the new frontier in the quest to go where none has gone before. The great goal of human striving, akin to past attempts to fly through the sound barrier and run a four-minute mile, is to get to 90. To, that is, an average of 90 seconds from the moment a driver places an order at the menu board to the moment when the food is handed out of the takeout window. Some will say 90 is unattainable. But they all laughed at Rockefeller Center...

The Wall Street Journal reports that Wendy's is setting the pace, with an average of 150.3 seconds--16.7 seconds (don't you love the tenths of seconds?) better than dawdling McDonald's chains. But McDonald's is testing technology that would gain many seconds by skipping the time-consuming business of having customers pay. The technology, like the windshield transponders that allow drivers to pay highway tolls without stopping, would be scanned when the hungry driver passes the restaurant's menu board, and the charge for the meal would be added to the driver's monthly toll road bill.

Karl Marx, who managed to get almost everything wrong, said people are what they eat. Actually, Americans are the way they eat: fast. And yet capable of a strange nostalgia.

You might think that memory would fix on unique things. But not in America, land of the endlessly replicated experience. Restaurant chains strive for a coast-to-coast sameness to reassure travelers who worry about unpleasant surprises. But Jakle and Sculle say the chains nevertheless instill a "sense of place." Americans are forever "on the road" or intending to be soon, yet they are in some way rooted when they see, down the road, golden arches. Or the orange roof and turquoise trim on a Howard Johnson restaurant, built--and to think that some people say America only has a tradition of the new--in a neocolonial style.