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Where the Fleet Meet to Eat : A Definition of Fast Food

February 09, 1986|JACK SMITH

What is "fast food"? Is it simply a phrase of our times, or do we really have faster food?

Writing recently about schoolchildren's ideas of the '30s and '40s, I observed that there were no fast foods back then.

That is questioned by John F. Haigler, a San Diego attorney. "What actually qualifies today as a fast-food restaurant?" he asks. "We in the legal world are burdened with a supposed need for precise definition."

Haigler says he remembers a chain of small hamburger "joints" in New England known as either White Castle or White Tower; he can't remember which.

"Anyway, they specialized in five-cent hamburgers (albeit paper thin), served up almost immediately upon order. Maybe they were 10 cents.

"Is it the nature of the food itself that characterizes a restaurant as 'fast food'?--that is, hamburgers, french fries, Cokes, fried chicken? I don't think so. Those also were available when I was in high school, and we didn't consider or call them fast foods.

"Is it the nature of the 'service' that defines fast food? Perhaps. One stands in line to order at McDonald's and then retreats to a table, carrying one's order. Or out to one's car. That feature also was not uncommon in the '30s--e.g., the old-fashioned 'drive-in' prior to World War II (and for a while afterward). Surely those were fast foods of a sort."

This is a momentous subject, and Haigler asks good questions.

It seems to me that fast foods has developed as a derogatory term for foods that children and teen-agers like, and which are not thought to be good for you.

If a child is too fat, we blame fast foods. If a child is too thin, we blame fast foods. If a child is listless and dull, we blame fast foods.

To parents, the term seems to have little to do with the speed at which such foods are served, although easy availability is a feature of fast foods.

Fast foods have only one taste: salt. The drinks that go with them have only one flavor: sweet.

If you can live on sugar and salt, fast foods won't hurt you.

William Safire, the language expert of the New York Times, includes fast food in his recent book, "What's the Good Word," but only to refer us to another term-- hashslinger slang , of which he laments:

"The mechanization of food service--the speedup at the fast-food counter--has led to greater efficiency and more uniform portions, but has cost us a lingo that was evocative of hometowns, youth, night and the moon."

By hashslinger slang he means such graphic terms as "Adam and Eve on a raft" for poached eggs on toast; "Draw one!" for coffee; "Squeeze one!" for orange juice; and "Stretch Sweet Alice" for a large glass of milk.

"Soda-fountain lingo persists in some modern slang," Safire notes, "but the argot has disappeared as an art form because both soda jerk and hashslinger have lost direct contact with the customer. Not enough time to talk. I got on line at a fast fooderie and for a wild moment thought of saying 'a cluck and a grunt on a burned British,' but bit my tongue and dutifully murmured, 'Egg McMuffin.' That's progress."

In that sense, the old-fashioned drive-in was not fast food. We had plenty of contact with the waitresses, who were called carhops. (How's that for a graphic occupational noun?) Carhops were not chosen for their conversational style as much as for their legs, which were usually on display under short, short skirts.

Some of them worked on roller skates, and that was fast . They rolled up to your open car window, took your order--and whatever sexist patter they had to take--and then whirled on their skates and rolled off to place it. They were good with the flip rejection, and if that didn't work, they could always skate away and leave you sucking on your thumb.

I suppose some of the guys actually got a date with a carhop, but I never saw it happen.

Today, as Safire says, you stand in line and give your order to a girl who puts it into a computer, and another girl dishes up your order, which is already prepared and waiting, and back you go to your table.

If you want to hold the mayo and the tomatoes, you tell her and she writes it down on a slip of paper and it takes a little longer. But there's no time for wisecracks. Somebody's waiting behind you.

The trouble with fast food is that you don't have time to practice any of those fast lines you picked up from Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

Speaking of change, it's interesting to speculate that no carhop ever said, "Have a nice day."

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