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.