In her book Why You Eat What You Eat, the neuroscientist Rachel Herz explains the science behind Americans’ food choices. Comfort foods, she says, are “usually foods that we ate as children because, when it comes to aromas and flavors, our first associations are the ones that stick most indelibly.”
Though identifying one defining national comfort food in a country as heterogeneous as the United States would be ahistorical bordering on irresponsible, the most enduring icon of American cuisine is the diner or local fast-food franchise, purveyors of Riverdale’s favorite foods: the burger, shake, and fries.
It’s no accident that fast foods tap so persistently into the national consciousness; cheap, efficient, and predictable, these foods satisfy deeply ingrained American values. They also speak to a collective memory of the good old days: The rise of the United States on the global stage coincided with the postwar ascendancy of fast-food franchises. Kima Cargill, a clinical psychologist who studies eating habits at the University of Washington at Tacoma, says, “At that point, there was a real sense of triumph about the American project, and food was a big part of that.”
Fast food was an exemplar of American exceptionalism and industriousness. The United States “came of age in the era of industrialization, and we became better than anyone at creating industrialized food,” says Amy Bentley, a professor of food studies at New York University. “Other countries have fast food, but we did it earlier and better than anyone else."
In 2005’s Hamburgers and Fries, John T. Edge went so far as to say that burgers are “modernity encapsulated, an entire meal stuffed into a streamlined vessel and ready for portage.”
Not only was this American fast food delicious, cheap, and fabled in its innovativeness, but it was also presumed to be wholesome. White Castle, for example, touted its high standards of cleanliness. According to Edge, the burger franchise sponsored a 1930 study that reported that “a normal, healthy child could eat nothing but [White Castle] burgers and water and fully develop all its physical and mental faculties” with the caveat that manufacturers need only add calcium to their buns (which they did). The shrewd marketing worked, and sales skyrocketed as other fast-food copycats like Steak ‘n’ Shake, Castle Blanca, Red Castle, White Turret, and White Tower started to follow the “White Castle System,” which prioritized a low price and the presentation of cleanliness and healthfulness even in the face of the Depression. This food reinforced a convenient myth that any and every American had easy access to a meal that was as balanced and cheap as it was ubiquitous and unique to the States.
Not long after the industrialization of and public faith in these foods solidified, though, came damnation in the form of the Framingham Heart Study. The groundbreaking report, first published in the early ’60s, made the dangers of the saturated fat found in foods like milkshakes and burgers into a public-health concern. Though few know it by name, Gerald M. Oppenheimer, a professor of clinical sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, calls the study the “most famous and influential investigation in cardiovascular-disease epidemiology” to date—no small designation in a country where one in four deaths is caused by heart disease and the adult obesity rate sits at just around 36 percent.