We normally think of fast food as somehow uniquely American and of recent origin, but that is just not true. Certainly modern American fast food is different from what in the past qualified and in other places qualifies as fast food, but the concept is nothing new. Before we start, let us define fast food.
To me, fast food had the following characteristics:
- The serving establishment has a rather limited menu
- The food is prepared ahead of time, or is very quickly prepared and reaches the customer in only a few minutes, like ten or fewer
- The food can be eaten either with only the fingers or with minimal utensils, like plastic “silverware” and throw away plates, cups, and bowls (with some notable exceptions)
- The food is designed to be consumed quickly, in less than half an hour and often much less, also with some exceptions
- More often than not, fast food is relatively inexpensive
Note that nothing to do with nutritional value fits into my definition, nor does any specific type of food. I think that my definition is sound. By the way, when I mention brand names I am neither endorsing nor denigrating those brands. I do this simply as a matter of reference so that we are all on the same page.
The first thing that comes to mind for most Americans when fast food is mentioned is McDonald’s, the most successful restaurant chain in history. Indeed, many fast food establishments serve similar, semi-prepared food, ready to assemble at a moments notice into variations on a theme. For the most part, typical fast food restaurants have key ingredients that must be cooked already cooked and just assemble the ingredients at the point of the customer order. A notable exception is French fries, and you can always get just out of the fryer ones at almost any fast food place by ordering them unsalted.
Actually, having the cooked foods ready to go is not a problem at most fast food establishments IF there is enough turnover. At really busy places I suspect that the hamburger patties are used within just a few minutes of being cooked, so freshness is not really a concern. For outlets with less turnover, it can be a problem. Consumer sentiment is no longer in favor of places that assemble the entire cheeseburger and keep it under heat lamps until the point of sale, but some places still do that. At one time that was kind of the norm, but not so much now.
Let us consider types of fast food other than hamburger places. Pizza restaurants often have buffets, and it is possible to come in and select your own choices and be seated and eating within a few minutes. Those often have salad bars as well, often with real bowls and metal utensils. But it still fast food. In these cases it is important to find outlets with high turnover because the entire dishes are assembled, cooked, and kept hot (or cold) until the customer serves herself or himself.
The same can be said about Chinese buffets, with the exception of the Mongolian serving line where food is quick cooked to order. Once again, high food turnover is important to assure that the food is fresh. The same thing can be said for the “American” style buffets like Golden Corral. But these are still fast food, since you can get in and out essentially as quickly as you wish, queues allowing.
Let us look back at a little of the history of fast food. In Roman times, and likely in other early civilizations, there were street vendors that would serve food from a cart. The mom and pop hotdog stands Are sort of like the vendors of old, finding a favorable spot with high foot traffic and selling easy to eat food on the fly. Except for assembly, everything was (and is) already cooked, and the customer could (and can) choose from a rather limited list of ingredients, custom assembled on order.
This tradition sort of died out with the Dark Ages because only the aristocrats had money, and they had their own servants to cook whatever they wanted. The peasants were pretty much left to eat gruel cooked by their own hands, because they did not have the means to purchase food. But during and after the Renaissance the tradition was revived, at least in the great urban centers. Folks in the country were still pretty much left to their own devices, and preparing meals was usually drudge work for the women.
I am going to go sort of out on a limb and say that fast food, in the current understanding of it, originated in the United Kingdom around 1860. That is when the first fish and chips establishment opened, and fish and chips is the quintessential fast food. Both the fish and the chips (sort of a thick, wide French fry) were fried and served, originally to my understanding, in the previous day’s edition of The Times. That, and a pint of ale (no throwaway cups then, though) with some malt vinegar could be prepared ahead of time and, just like today, if the turnover is high enough, was quite fresh and hot when the customer was served. However, those establishments had a big difference from modern ones: they were quite dependent on foot traffic.
That is quite different, unless you are in downtown New York, these days. Fast food is almost totally dependent on automobile traffic. Whilst the drive through is comparatively recent, American fast food places did not really take off until the advent of the automobile, around the early 1920s. With more and more of the population being mobile, there were things to do away from home, and when not at home cooking was impossible.
Probably the first outfit to produce what we think of as the fast hamburger was White Castle, in 1921! Still in business today, White Castle is not the giant that McDonalds is, but is still pretty much confined to the midwestern part of the US. The founders came up with many of the practices that are common now, such as standardization of the food so that each establishment looked and tasted like all of the others. There is economy in scale, and this sort of intensive, centralized preparation of the foods bound for the restaurants is common. Materials that can be frozen, like hamburger patties and French fries, are prepared in a relative few central facilities, but the buns are more often produced locally by bakeries contracting to the fast food outlets and using standard recipes for a given outlet.
Most people do not realize it, but at one time Woolworth’s was the largest fast food retailer in the United States. While not quite like modern fast food outlets, every Woolworth’s store at one time had a lunch counter, and they were all over the country. They were more like short order outlets, but the distinction between fast food and short order food is not all that clear. For example, I think of places like Waffle House or IHOP as fast food, but they are sit down restaurants.
Much has been said about the healthfulness of fast food. Personally I do not think that a hamburger, French fries, and a soft drink are in of themselves evil, but as everyday fare they are right out. Such meals, on a regular basis, are way to high in carbohydrate and fat, much of the fat saturated, for healthy eating. One every week or two is fine, but not every day!
In all fairness to the fast food industry, the big chains are beginning to offer healthier choices. Salads are the norm for most chains, and so are choices that include fruit and fruit-based menu items. However, it is sort of a stretch to think that instead of nuggets or hamburgers people go to the typical fast food outlets for apples and salads. When I go to fast food stores, I always go inside and observe what people are ordering. I can assure you that in my experience for every salad that is sold, there must be at least ten hamburgers sold. That is not the fault of the restaurant, but rather that of the patron.
Now, please do not get me wrong. Every now and then I get a craving that only a Big Mac can relieve! I just do not eat them that often, maybe once or twice a month. I rarely stop at a fast food outlet for convenience (unless I am traveling and want something that I can eat in the car), but rather for the taste. Sometimes when I have been shopping for groceries my last stop is at McDonalds’s for a Big Mac, but I always carry it home and eat there since I live only a few minutes from the restaurant.
There is one fast food outlet nearby that I really like, but once again do go there a whole lot. It is a locally owned Chinese restaurant and on Sundays it has a really good brunch. They make a really good hot and sour soup, and I normally start with that. Their seafood choices are also excellent, with peel and eat shrimp, steamed mussels, futomaki, fresh melon, and lots of other minimally processed foods. I try to fill up with those first, then go to the more calorific food, with one exception. On Sundays they have fried frogs’ legs, one of my very favorite foods. I get two or three each trip to the buffet area, and by the time I am finished I often eat two dozen or more of them. I love them! I do appreciate the choices of healthy fare that they provide as well. I go there maybe once a month or six weeks purely for the enjoyment of it. On Sundays it is pretty crowded, so the food is always fresh.
My eating habits are slowly improving. For some time I just did not feel like cooking just for myself, but am doing so more often. For example, last night I had a rubbed and broiled chicken breast, home frozen purple hulled peas from my garden, a freshly baked dinner roll, and fresh fruit. I eat sweets rarely, and lately almost none except what The Woman and I cook together. I have a little pumpkin roll that we made last week left, but ate all of the pumpkin pie. Tonight the plan is to make peanut butter balls, and I shall bring the majority of them home with me so that The Little Girl does not eat them all in a day or two, not to mention The Woman. I can dole them out a few at a time over the next week or so.
I do not have a definite plan for dinner tonight, but suspect that I will have some ham and beans that I cooked a couple of weeks ago and froze the leftovers into individual packages. Corn bread is traditional with it, but I have some dinner rolls left over from last night that go well with ham and beans as well.
It is now 8:30 PM Eastern, and dinner took care of itself. The Woman and her mum asked me to go with them to a potluck dinner at her mum’s church, and I did. I had some good chowder, then some gumbo that was also good, then a piece of pecan pie, and finally a piece of chocolate cake! I was really surprised about the cake, because whoever made it topped it with nuts, and they were black walnuts! I just cleaned a bunch of those yesterday and have them in my shop to cure to use for holiday goodies.
Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith