Fast food chains logos on the street in the United States

Anthropology: Exploration of the Fast Food Culture in the United States

Countries around the world manifest their culture in a variety of ways. Languages, art, architecture, social standards, customs, and traditions are all examples of cultural elements. But food plays one of the key roles in influencing culture and cultural identity. People from different backgrounds eat different foods associated with where they are from. It reflects our cultural backgrounds and heritage. America’s food culture is very diverse, with culinary traditions from various cultures. However, fast food is one of America’s biggest “cultural exports” (Dewees, 2015). This article will explore the American fast-food culture, its spread across other continents, and its cultural significance in anthropology.

Food Culture in America

According to Cristina De Rossi, an anthropologist at Barnet and Southgate College in London, “culture encompasses religion, food, what we wear, how we wear it, our language, marriage, music, what we believe is right or wrong, how we sit at the table, how we greet visitors, how we behave with loved ones, and a million other things” (De Rossi in Zimmermann and McKelvie, 2021).

Food culture consists of the collective practices, attitudes, beliefs, production, disruption, and consumption of food. It reflects how people use food to express their cultural identity, socialize and establish community, express creativity, and celebrate. The American food culture, like in most countries around the world, has evolved over time. Globalization, migration of people, and technology are only some of the factors contributing to this change. Making the food that Americans buy, grow, cook, and enjoy has evolved over the years (Stump & Associates, 2022).

colored image of a table full with American dishes enjoyed by people
(bridgesinternational.com)

Origins and the Diversity of American food

American cuisine originated in Europe and has been significantly influenced by indigenous Native Americans, African Americans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and many other cultures and traditions. This influence reflects the diverse culture and history of the United States. Therefore, much of American cuisine is fusion cuisine. This means that it combines elements of various culinary traditions that are originally from different countries, regions, or cultures. Thus, lots of American dishes come in different forms.

The diversity of American culinary traditions is rooted in the influx of immigrants from many different countries during the 19th and 20th centuries. This has led to the fusion of multiple ethnic or regional approaches into cooking styles. For example, in America, a popular meal for children is spaghetti with hot dog slices. This combines a fusion of Italian (spaghetti) and German (hot dogs) approaches.  The last half of the 20th century saw the development of technological innovations that intended to lower the cost of, improve the quality of, or increase the safety of commercial food.  In addition to this, the new concept of ready-cooked food for sale has started to become more popular over time. 

colored image of spaghetti with hot dog slices on a white plate
Spaghetti with hot dog slices is an example of fusion food (cutoutandkeep.net)

A Brief History of Fast Food

Fast food is food that is made and presented to customers in a short time. Often made with preheated or precooked ingredients. It is prepared in bulk and then sold in packages for take-away.

However, ready-cooked food for sale has already existed during the times of Ancient Rome. People who lived in urban locations would live in apartment blocks known as “insulae” and often had no kitchens due to fire hazards. Thus, they would buy food from street vendors called “tabernae” (Silver, 2020).

According to archeological records, tabernae was a “simple L-shaped marble counter, six to eight feet long, with a simmering pot of water and shelves of other food on the back wall of a tiny room.” (Baxter and Scott in Silver, 2o20).

Food vendors sold food that was ready to eat for those who could not cook their own food (for example, the poor or travelers) and those with less money. An example of food offered at the time was bread soaked with wine, stews, and cooked vegetables. Street vendors also offered pies, pasties, flans, waffles, wafers, pancakes, and cooked meats. In locations near the coast, local shellfish or seafood was sold as street food. According to a Han Dynasty text from the 2nd century, noodle stands were fast food places of the time that stayed open all night (historyoffastfood.com, 2022).

Colored image of a painting of a street scene in Ancient Rome
“Roman Street Scene” by Ettore Forti, late 19th century (daily.jstor.org)

Fast Food in the United States

Some sources suggest that the fast food that is more closely associated with today’s standards began with the first fish and chip shop in Britain in the 1860s. The chip shop opened at Tommyfield Market in Oldham and began to sell Britain’s favorite food. In 1896, Max Silelaff introduced “automats” in Berlin, Germany. Automats were vending machine restaurants. However, today, fast food and ready-made food are mostly associated with American culture.

In the United States, the beginning of fast food was marked by an automat in New York City opened by Joseph Horn and James Hardart.  During the 1950s, the first drive-through restaurants started to popularize in the United States. In 1951, the term “fast food” was recognized in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

The first hamburger chain in the United States was White Castle, opened in 1921 by Billy Ingram and Walter Anderson. In the 1940s, drive-in restaurants started to become increasingly popular in the United States, due to technological developments and the popularization of cars. In drive-in restaurants, customers were served in their cars by carhops who at the time started wearing roller skates.

American Fast-Food Statistics

Fast food in the United States is extremely popular, and American families are familiar with the majority of fast-food restaurants and the specific food they offer in America. The average American household spends 10% of its yearly income on fast food. According to data, regular fast food consumption increases every year by 2.2%. Most Americans eat fast food 1-3 times a week and a third of Americans eat fast food on any given day.

Reasons Why Fast Food is So Popular in America

The American culture is known for the desire for things that are quick to prepare, convenient, and easy. Many working families in America do not have the time to prepare food or even sit down and eat, because of how busy they are. Therefore, most families in America (83%) eat fast food at least once a week. Meanwhile, 20% of meals are eaten in the car or on the go (thebarbecuelab.com).

The cost-effectiveness of fast food is another reason why it is so popular in America. When compared with other restaurants, fast food restaurant chains are relatively inexpensive. Thus, 32% of people eat it because they believe that it is cheap. However, this is actually not true, and eating at a fast-food restaurant is in fact more expensive than preparing food at home (thebarbecuelab.com).

Thirdly, fast food is considered very convenient and easy to find. Fast food restaurants can be found in pretty much any town in America. People do not need to leave their cars if they use a drive-in, and nowadays, they can order food with very little personal contact, as many fast-food restaurants offer digital food ordering.

Finally, Americans like fast food because it simply tastes good. It is high in calories, fat, sugar, salt. It is a highly processed food that is stripped of nutrition, so additives are often present to make the food taste good. The food is usually combined with a soft drink that is also loaded with sugar and caffeine (thebarbecuelab.com). Therefore, fast food is clearly unhealthy. However, it energizes people for work and allows them to fill full for the day.

Fast Foods and Cultural Change

When fast foods were becoming increasingly popularized, they represented a cultural change. The food culture started to shift from the traditional cuisine of the United States (or any other nation in that matter), towards a vision for the future, focusing more on the immediate consumption of cheap food with a modern feel.

McDonaldization, Americanization, and Westernization of society

As fast food started to become more popular in America, it simultaneously began to influence other countries across the globe and began the American mania of rationalization of every sphere of life. “McDonaldization” is a term coined by sociologist George Ritzer in his book, “The McDonaldization of Society”. The term is a by-product of Americanization or Westernization. According to Ritzer, the McDonaldization of society is a phenomenon that happens when society, its institutions, and its organizations are adapted to have the same characteristics that are found in fast-food restaurant chains. Ritzer highlights that these characteristics include efficiency, calculability, predictability and standardization, and control.

According to his theory, McDonaldization occurs because of changes in science, economy, and culture (Crossman, 2020). American ideas, values, and beliefs that fast food is a quick, easy and cool option for those who need to eat a filling meal at a low cost have been adopted by almost every household in the world (Dasgupta, 2015). Ritzer defines four key aspects of this new economic and social order:

  1. Efficiency – focus on minimizing the time required to complete tasks and the process of production and distribution.
  2. Calculability – focus on quantifiable objects rather than the evaluation of quality.
  3. Predictability and standardization – predictability of the consumer experience is found in repetitive service delivery processes.
  4. Control – exerted by the management to ensure that workers act the same on a moment-to-moment and daily basis. This also refers to the use of robots and digital technology which attempts to reduce or replace human employees (Crossman, 2020).
Colored image of a book cover titled "The McDonaldization of Society"
Cover of the book “The McDonaldization of Society” by George Ritzer (2000) (amazon.co.uk)

McDonald’s – Fast-Food Chain as a Symbol of American Culture

The most famous fast-food restaurant in the United States is the American multinational fast-food restaurant chain – McDonald’s. This world’s largest restaurant chain is serving over 69 million customers a day in over 100 countries across 37,855 outlets as of 2018. McDonald’s was founded in 1940 in San Bernardino, California. The rise of McDonald’s symbolizes rich American values, such as equality, integration, as well as American culture and capitalism. Meanwhile, McDonald’s restaurants built in other developing countries reflect “Americanization” and modernization.

The chain sells products offered as either “dine-in” (where the customers can eat in the restaurant and socialize) or “take-out”. In sociology, gathering spots outside of work and homes are referred to as “third places”. Such places are accessible and provide a sense of community. Third places are considered essential for civil society and civic engagement. Thus, fast food restaurants are third places serving food with integrity and offering a variety of fast-food options that can be ordered without even stepping out of the car. Fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s are places for fast and filling meals that require minimal personal or economic sacrifice. Americans value food that is quick, convenient, and cheap. Therefore, McDonald’s reflects the fact that a large majority of American society likes things that are fast and easy. The key features of America’s food culture are cost, convenience, and appearance.

colored image of the first McDonald's restaurant view from parkin lot
First McDonald’s restaurant (mcdonalds.com)

Cultural Significance of  American Fast-Food in Anthropology

Food is culture and an integral part of who we are. It has the ability to bring back memories through the sense of taste and smell. It is also one of the main factors that distinguish cultures and nations and their cooking traditions that have been developed over thousands of years.

Despite the fact that fast food as we know it today is a relatively new phenomenon in the United States, it is a significant part of American culture as a whole and represents American society and its core values and beliefs. The fast-food culture in America reflects an overworked society that values food that is quick, easy, convenient, and cheap. Meanwhile, fast-food restaurant chains in the United States allow Americans to be served fast while they can socialize or work. American fast-food culture is significant in anthropology because it provides an insight into the key, rich, diverse, and deeply rooted values of American culture, that are constantly shifting and changing.

For example, nowadays, there is a significant emergence of new American food culture and ethics that challenge the dominant American values discussed in this article. There is a significant increase in demand for organic food. Farmer’s markets, community-supported agricultural organizations, and similar direct food marketing have been evidenced to experience an increase in growth rates for organic foods. According to John Ikerd, a Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics at the University of Missouri, this shows the new values in American culture, such as “a desire to build relationships with farmers, and through farmers, with the earth”. As Ikerd highlights, this new food culture is only one dimension of the whole new American culture (missouri.edu).

 

References:

Crossman, A. (2020) McDonaldization: Definition and Overview of the Concept. Available: thoughtco.com

Dasgupta, S. (2015) “Globalization and McDonaldization of Society”. Available: LexQuest Foundation

Dewees, N. (2015) “What Is America’s Food Culture?”. Available: middlebury.edu

Thebarbecuelab.com (2022) “Fast Food Statistics”. Available: The Barbecue Lab

Historyoffastfood.com (2022) “The History of Fast Food”. Available: History of Fast Food – Development of Fast Food Industry

Ikerd, J. “The New American Food Culture”. Available: missouri.edu

Silver, C. (2020) “Everyone in Pompeii Got Takeout, Too”. Available: JSTOR Daily

Stump & Associates (2022) “American Food and the Flavors of Diversity”. Available: usvisagroup.com

Zimmermann, K., A., and McKelvie, C. (2021) “American Culture: Traditions and Customs of the United States”. Available: Live Science

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