American Nostalgia on a Bun

The burger, shake, and fries—“enduring icons of American cuisine”— are used to symbolize abundance, accessibility, and dominance while ignoring the dark side of those values.

A table at a diner with a hamburger, french fries, milkshakes, and ketchup
Photo 24 / Getty

The series Riverdale owes its ratings success to a number of factors, not least of which is its appeal to a relentless and sometimes revisionist nostalgia. The characters are lifted from the classic Archie comics, for one, which are synonymous with the wholesome, mid-century aesthetic they retained from the late ’50s through the 21st century. But the show’s nostalgia for a supposedly simpler time is most evident in the food the characters eat.

Betty, Veronica, and the rest of the gang often gather at their local diner, Pop’s Chock’lit Shoppe, where they favor the greasy, calorie-laden stuff of American folklore: burgers, fries, and milkshakes. So integral is the food to the iconography of the show that the cast shared a milkshake on a Jimmy Fallon segment in reference to their characters’ heroic consumption of thick malts. In a Netflix promotional video, the show’s breakout star, Cole Sprouse, stared into a camera doing nothing but sloppily eating a hamburger.

When I binged the show last year, I was struck not just by its aptitude for the dark parables of small-town America (selfish elders who disappoint, local businesses that fail, and a drug crisis), but by the acute homesickness it made me feel. I became nostalgic for the adolescent years when I could eat like the kids on the show do, devouring burgers, fries, and shakes with abandon and little concern for bodily or environmental consequences. I remembered a recent past when things were vaguely better and easier than they are now. I remembered the comfort of fast food.

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.

The study, which has now run for 70 years, effectively killed the illusion of fast food’s nutritional integrity and debunked the myth of its purity. The American cuisine that once encapsulated all-important values—abundance, accessibility, dominance—took on a sinister tinge.

Even those unfamiliar with the Framingham study could not deny its implications when faced with the facts of postwar glut: Americans started dying less from bacterial infections and more from illnesses of excess, such as heart disease, which only brought the imperfection of American food, however sanitary, cheap, and plentiful, into sharper relief. In his 1986 book Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies, and Fat, Hillel Schwartz reports that the proportion of Americans thought to be overweight ballooned from one-fifth in 1933 to one-quarter in 1949 to one-third in 1973.

Though diet culture existed in the United States prior to the Framingham Heart Study, afterward, it exploded. According to Schwartz, 7 percent of men and 14 percent of women were on a diet in 1950, compared to 34 and 49 percent, respectively, in 1973. That same year, he writes, the psychiatrist Albert J. Stunkard deemed weight loss a “national neurosis.” Stunkard wrote that over the course of 25 years, “interest in weight reduction in our country has grown from a mild concern to an overriding preoccupation.”

Dieting and reducing—rather than blissfully consuming—became the new baseline for Americans. In Schwartz’s words: “Dieting was a way of life. A perfectly normal way of life. A national way of life.”

The arc of the United States’ ongoing national reckoning with the way its people eat is not dissimilar to the frustrating psychodramas grown adults experience when negotiating between familiar comfort foods, new flavors and diet trends, nutritional information, and what is actually accessible to them. “When dieters look back,” Schwartz writes. “It is through the agency of nostalgia for a body that once was.”

As people’s bodies age and become less forgiving, as they are inundated with (mis)information and unending new food and diet trends, a burger and fries can come to seem as simple and quaint as childhood itself. (Though of course, the idea of an “innocent” past is as wishful as the idea of a healthy milkshake.) It’s easy to fall into a trap of wistful nostalgia for some distant, delicious time, though; the current cultural confusion about how to eat for one’s health makes consequence-free eating an appealing memory.

The truth is that it takes monetary investment, open-mindedness, bad-habit breaking, good-habit forming, and a commitment to metabolizing new—and sometimes disappointing—information to eat healthily. Healthy eating is not as easy or accessible as a Big Mac. It discriminates. It is, some would say, “elitist.”

But recently, the man receiving the most attention for his unhealthy eating habits is anything but disadvantaged—he is the president of the United States. Unlike those for whom geography and poverty make healthful eating impossible, Donald Trump’s propensity for fast food is not born out of want. Perhaps it is a willful rejection of facts about food and nutrition that made Kentucky Fried Chicken, Diet Coke, McDonald’s, and pizza what his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski called the “four major food groups” on his campaign trail.

Or perhaps it’s nostalgia. Trump did grow up in the postwar era, after all, and earned the Oval Office in part by relentlessly appealing to nostalgia for a bygone time when America was “great.” As the writer Helen Rosner pointed out in a column for Eater, even when he is not eating fast food, his dining choices remain unadventurous and unvaried. Trump prefers the meat loaf at Mar-a-Lago that’s based off his mother’s recipe, Rosner writes, and well-done steaks covered in ketchup when he dines out. Rosner posits that his two favorite meals—one he’s relied on since childhood, one he makes familiar and common with ketchup, and both of which he eats regularly instead of trying new dishes—signal “an aversion to risk ... an unwillingness to trust the validity and goodwill of any experiences beyond the limited sphere of one’s own.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a gastronomic trip down memory lane at a McDonald’s or White Castle, just like there’s nothing wrong with the occasional pang of nostalgia for the past. But both feelings ignore ugly truths in favor of a moment’s comfort. When overindulged, they can prop up a flimsy myth of a time when things were more wholesome than they are now—when the American project was perfectly executed, and when your body was impenetrable to the effects of greasy, fatty food.

Paraphrasing a line from the philosopher Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living in Hamburgers and Fries, Edge asks: “What is patriotism, but nostalgia for the foods of our youth?” Neither fast food nor the American dream ever truly existed as people imagine them, but the folklore is irresistible, even if it’s unhealthy.