Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age

by John A Jakle & Keith A Sculle

 “For others the roadside is just too damn obvious to require rigorous contemplation.”

This quote, from the last page of the book (first published in 1999), probably should have been on the first. The whole concept of “the roadside” as an entity in and of itself, let alone as a topic deserving of serious thought, still seems to be outside of the field of view of the general motoring public. This despite a body of literature that dates back to the 1960s. Books like this and events like the 1988 Society for Commercial Archeology conference “Americans and the Automobile” seek to give visibility to the complex and often hidden influences of the automobile on culture and everyday life.

Jakle and Scully’s previous books, The Gas Station in America and The Motel in America, received positive notices and this latest tome completes the intended trilogy. All three are serious pieces of work, and all three require a good deal of work to digest. Their comprehensive approach elevates its subjects to levels of magnification that, initially at least, seem to exceed the topic’s relevance.

The trilogy chronicles “the entrepreneurial roots of roadside commerce” and “what cultural meaning the roadside carries above and beyond the immediacy of the functional.” This latest book traces how and where Americans on the move eat, from the emergence of the restaurant in the days of the Civil War to mom and pop roadside stands to Hamburger University.

The introduction lays the groundwork by defining terms such as landscape and place. Here already we realize that this is not a simple topic and some perseverance is called for to stay with the authors while they dispense with a good deal of scholarly theory. The first three chapters take us from the abstract to the concrete by examining everything from floor plans to business plans, why some entrepreneurs made it and others didn’t, how the types of food as well as its preparation changed in response to the ever increasing pace of traffic outside the restaurant’s doors. The bulk of the book is devoted to thorough portraits of individual restaurants and chains, sorted by food group. All these various strands are tied together in a grand case study of Springfield, IL, which due to demographics and location is treated as a representative microcosm.

The book is so thorough, covers all bases, and reaches so deep that one is surprised to read that the authors consider their work to still be only speculation and that much, much more investigation needs to done.

A survey of the 18-page “Select Bibliography” reveals that all the cited sources are of US-American origin and one cannot help but wonder if this field of activity is one of those peculiarly American preoccupations? The text is accompanied by assorted tables, charts, chapter notes, and an index.

Everyone who travels the roads needs to get gas, sleep somewhere, eat somewhere. These activities are inescapable byproducts of auto-mobility—one might as well think about the bigger picture.

Copyright 2010, Sabu Advani (speedreaders.info)

Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age
by John A Jakle, Keith A Sculle
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002
440 pages, 217 b/w illustrations, hardcover
List Price: $34.95
ISBN-13: 978-0801869204
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