The U.S. is riven by politics and race and religion and foreign policy and the economy. But one constant unites nearly all warring demographics: fast food, America’s highly imperfect, deep-fried North Star.
Sociologists refer to gathering spots outside of work and home as “third places.” Ray Oldenburg famously coined the term in his 1989 book The Great Good Place. To make quick bouillon of it, a successful third place has to be accessible and playful, a neutral territory that fosters conversation, a sense of communal ownership, and a constituency of regulars. Not only are third places essential for civil society and civic engagement, they’ve become rare in a country grappling with inequality and at a time when social encounters have gone heavily digital. That’s where fast food comes in.
Now, when I talk about fast food, I’m not talking about places founded by potential centrist presidential candidates that serve iced venti white-chocolate mochas, or places claiming to serve food with integrity; I’m talking about places that offer combo meals and have drive-thrus and suspect-looking ball pits. Most of all, I’m talking about places with true mass appeal that are neither too expensive nor exclusive for the American mainstream.
According to Gallup, some 80 percent of Americans eat fast food on at least a monthly basis, and 96 percent of Americans annually. No other institution, not libraries or gyms or the collective houses of worship, is that popular. Not even the internet comes close to garnering that much loyalty or participation as fast food. On a descending spectrum of American certainty, it goes something like death, premarital sex, fast food, and income taxes. The United States is and remains a fast-food nation. And this isn’t simply because quick-service restaurants are purveyors of deliciously narcotic and obesogenic foodstuffs. It’s because it’s easy to build rituals in places where everyone is welcome.
In 2014, the management at a McDonald’s in Flushing, New York, sought to eject the elderly members of the Korean community who had made the store their regular meeting point for all-day chat sessions, apparently at the expense of seating for customers during peak hours. Police officers were summoned, boycotts were threatened. News of the spat went as far as Seoul before a local state assemblyman brokered a truce between the community and the franchise owner.
The episode triggered a host of skull sessions among urban sociologists about city resources, assimilation, demography, and the cultural differences between American and Korean treatment of the elderly. But, at heart, the story revealed that fast food fills a gap in our society. Nearly all of the McFlaneurs lived within two blocks of the store, while the local library was a mile away and the closest senior center was even farther, in the basement of a church. “It’s how we keep track of each other now,” one habitué told The New York Times of their hangout sessions. He added, “Everybody checks in at McDonald’s at least once a day, so we know they’re O.K.”
For America’s graying cohort, often sectioned off by age at places like senior centers, the dining room of a fast-food restaurant is a godsend. It’s a ready-made community center for intergenerational mingling. The cost of admission is low—the prices beckon those on fixed incomes—and crucially, the distance from home is often short. And that’s just one demographic.
In spite of the plastic seats, the harsh lighting, and in many cities, the semi-enforced time limits for diners, people of all sorts can sit and stay and stay and stay—at birthday parties, first dates, father-daughter breakfasts, Bible-study groups, teen hangs, and Shabbat dinners. Or at supervised visitations and meet-ups for recovering addicts. For those who crave the solace of a place to call home that is not home, a fast-food dining room offers it, with a side of fries.
On a moment’s notice, a restaurant can also become a low-stakes venue for high-stakes assembly. The McDonald’s on West Florissant in Ferguson, Missouri, is a typical-looking store. On a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 2015, it was offering respite from 97-degree Missouri heat and what must have been at least 95 percent Missouri humidity. About 30 people were inside, a mix of ages, mostly black, but also white, people in Cardinals hats, people talking on phones, people playing Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar from small speakers at tables. If the crowd was bigger than normal for the time of day, it was because that Sunday was the one-year anniversary of the shooting death of Michael Brown a few blocks away; memorials and protests were taking place just outside, on the street.
In the days following the 2014 shooting, the Ferguson McDonald’s had served as a safe harbor for cops on coffee breaks, for reporters needing tables and internet to write and file their dispatches, and for demonstrators escaping clashes with police. “When a protester blasted with tear gas comes moaning through the door,” Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times reported at the time, “there are bottles of soothing McDonald’s milk to pour over his or her eyes.” One worker had been a classmate of Michael Brown and knew his regular order: a McChicken, medium fries, medium drink. (Similarly, the Burger King and McDonald’s near New York City’s Zuccotti Park doubled as unexpected safe spaces for the mostly white demonstrators during the months-long Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011 to gather, organize, and snack.)
Despite the damage and tumult around it, the Ferguson McDonald’s itself had mostly been spared, becoming a drop-by destination for Jesse Jackson and a mishmash of community and national leaders, media personalities, and celebrities. One year later, groups of observers and organizers had returned there to hold court and listen to music, watching the crowds and the afternoon pass.
Fast-food restaurants are more than just culturally pluralistic social hubs for unremarkable meals, meaningful rituals, and uncommon encounters. And they are more than just community centers of first and last resort. They’re also places where people can set about building connections and performing the work of whatever their interpretation of repairing the world might be.
In recent years, law-enforcement agencies have (formally and informally) used fast-food restaurants as bases to step up their community-outreach efforts. One version of this effort is Coffee With a Cop, a national initiative started in California by law-enforcement officers. Funded in part by the U.S. Department of Justice, these meet-ups take place in scattered town halls, churches, and (naturally) coffee shops, but an overwhelming number happen at fast-food franchises. A Whataburger in northwest Florida; a Burger King in Pasco, Washington; six McDonald’s locations in New Orleans; Chick-fil-As in North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and Maine.
The officers buy the coffee and sometimes work the drive-thru, taking orders, answering questions, dispensing friendly hellos. In announcing its participation in the initiative, the City of Dayton, Ohio, promised “no speeches or agendas, just a chance to get to know the men and women who patrol your neighborhood.” Responding to a public Facebook comment from an irate citizen who asked why taxpayers were paying for cops to serve drinks instead of preventing crime, the police department of Albany, Oregon, explained: “When our officers engage people in different ways (like serving them coffee), it provides a unique opportunity for connection. It also gives people the chance to talk about issues on their minds which they may not have otherwise called us about.”
We already know why McDonald’s, Burger King, and its ilk are bad, ecologically, economically, and calorically. But fast food endures because of what it does well. As an institution, it offers convenience, value, the capacity to decode the national appetite—and matchbox chapels where there is practically no barrier to entry or belonging. There is no velvet rope, no palm to grease, no waitstaff injecting a sense of hierarchy, no dress code, no reservation book. You are welcome to bumble in wearing last night’s clothes and order seven small cheeseburgers and an apple pie at 10:30 in the morning.
Eating fast food is an experience with which nearly everyone is familiar. It’s both an intimate common reference point and, at the same time, the least countercultural thing imaginable. Some countries have the unifying trials of compulsory national service; America has a paper tray mat turned translucent by stripes of French fry grease and tiny stars of dabbed-up ketchup.