The American Value Meal: Our Longstanding Relationship With Fast Food
With host Meghna Chakrabarti
America’s taste for fast food tells a story that’s bigger than expanding waistlines. There’s a story to tell about American values. Pass the fries and come for a ride.
Adam Chandler is a journalist and author of “ Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through The Heart of America’s Fast Food Kingdom.” ( @AllMyChandler)
From The Reading:
An excerpt from Adam Chandler’s book, “Drive-Thru Dreams”:
“THE FRIES THAT BIND
Nowhere special. I always wanted to go there.
—THE WACO KID”
“In the summer of 2012, bright yellow flyers were posted around Bethel, a remote town of six thousand unsuspecting souls on the bush of western Alaska, with some life-changing news: In a few short weeks, a brand-new Taco Bell would host its grand opening, just in time for the Fourth of July. In a historically dry town with one paved road, one measly Subway shop, and virtually no public transportation, the announcement was met with ecstasy and jubilation. Word whipped around town as quickly and enthusiastically as a subarctic breeze.”
“Tragically for the folks of Bethel, the news was fake. The signs directed anyone interested in working at the landmark Taco Bell to-be to call a number listed on the flyer. The number belonged to a local resident who was apparently embroiled in a seven-layer feud with a diabolical hoaxer. The besieged victim had to break the news dozens of times over: There would be no Taco Bell for the Fourth of July in Bethel, Alaska.”
“As swiftly as the joy had spread, dejection and low spirits followed. ‘That’s right. Officially, Bethel is not getting a Taco Bell,” went one local radio broadcast after a flood of calls. ‘I repeat: Bethel is not getting a Taco Bell.’ The hoax meant that the nearest Cheesy Gordita Crunch would remain a four-hundred-mile trek by plane to Anchorage. ‘We got excited because we don’t have any fast-food chains out here, and the idea of Taco Bell coming in?’ the despondent director for the local Chamber of Commerce told the Los Angeles Times. ‘And they were going to be here for the Fourth of July?’”
“Bethel is impossibly isolated, only accessible by either air or sea. So, when news of the cruel hoax reached Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, California, the company had no choice but to respond by dispatching a military helicopter to airlift a branded taco truck to Bethel right as the town’s Independence Day celebrations were getting underway. “Operation Alaska” included the dramatic transport of 950 pounds of beef, 500 pounds of sour cream, 300 pounds of tomatoes, 300 pounds of lettuce, and 150 pounds of cheddar cheese, followed by the assembly and goodwill distribution of ten thousand Doritos Locos Tacos to an exhilarated crowd. ‘If we can feed people in Afghanistan and Iraq, we can feed people in Bethel,’ said Taco Bell’s then-CEO, Greg Creed, adding to the semi-subtle militarism of the pre–Independence Day taco airlift.”
“Given Bethel’s size and remoteness, the opening of a permanent Taco Bell outpost was never viable. But on a cloudy, fifty-five-degree summer afternoon in a tundra town in western Alaska, the company conspired to create a brief and surreal sense of belonging through an unlikely combination of spectacle and preprepared food.”
“Of course, the story of Operation Alaska would be adapted into a touching national Taco Bell commercial. The ad had it all. Disappointment and then euphoria, the minor fall and the major lift. It features Bethel’s mayor along with some of the townsfolk glumly recounting their dashed hopes for tacos amid some choice B-roll of Alaskan wildflowers and a GONE MUSHING sign. Then, we see the redemptive image of a helicopter landing, its rotors whirring, with a taco truck swaying below like a serum for desolation. A happy, disbelieving crowd amasses and telegenic children blissfully chow into one of the brand’s newest and most fabled products, the Doritos Locos Taco. And just like that, America’s birthday had been saved.”
“Fast food occupies an outsize place in American culture. The grease runs through our national veins. But the food itself — the White Castle sliders, the KFC buckets, the Whoppers and Baconators and Egg McMuffins — is only part of the story. Because, as Adam Chandler argues in his new book, Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom, these are not simply restaurants. They are national institutions, roadside embodiments of the best of America, and the worst of it.”
“Critics frequently accuse McDonald’s and its ilk of being monoliths that throw around their influential purchasing and marketing power to public harm,” Chandler writes. In this column: unlivable wages, poor working conditions, poor treatment of animals, and food of questionable nutritional value, to start. All that, he agrees, is true. Yet it would be a mistake to write the whole thing off. There’s a reason fast food occupies such a distinct place in our hearts, and it’s not just that we’re all foolish and unhealthy.”
“Burger King’s latest promotion throws some shade at McDonald’s and its Happy Meals. The fast food chain rolled out a new Whopper meal box, called “Real Meals,” labeled with different moods and colors. The packaging comes in five moods: the Pissed in red, Blue for sad, Salty in teal, YAAAS in purple and DGAF (that’s don’t give a f— in internet speak) in black.”
“And, good eyes, there’s no “happy” option, like its competitor McDonald’s (MCD) has. ‘With the pervasive nature of social media, there is so much pressure to appear happy and perfect,’ Burger King said in a release. ‘With Real Meals, the Burger King brand celebrates being yourself and feeling however you want to feel.'”
“Burger King launched the meals Thursday, near the beginning of May, which is the start of Mental Health Awareness Month. The company partnered with the non-profit organization Mental Health America to promote the ‘overall mental health of all Americans.'”
“The boxes are different colors, but the meals are the same. Each has a Whopper, french fries and a drink. They’re a limited edition and are only available in Austin, Seattle, Miami, Los Angeles and New York City. Burger King also produced a commercial for the #FeelYourWay campaign featuring young people experiencing the promotion’s range of emotions. The nearly two-minute ad ends with ‘No one is happy all the time, and that’s OK.'” It’s not the first time Burger King has trolled McDonald’s. In December 2018, Burger King got people to download their app by sending them one-cent Whopper deals when they came within 600 feet of a McDonald’s restaurant.”
Allison Pohle produced this show for broadcast.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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