March 1, 2015
Dinner conversation last night led someone to remark that aside from Italy, California has the best food in the world. I didn’t bite. Maybe there’s something to this, because although I spend relatively little time in California, I have had some very good meals there. Yet the image that comes to mind with California food for me is food consumed in the car while cruising from one place to another. Songs by the Beach Boys start humming in my head and I’m reminded of films like American Graffiti where all the action centers around Mel’s Drive-In. Trying to put some meat on those bones, I Googled the Beach Boys’ “All Summer Long,” looking for a line expressing fond adolescent memories of eating cheeseburgers or chili fries, but all I got was “Member when you spilled Coke all over your blouse?”
We forget that there was no place to put a Coke in your typical 1960s piece of American chrome. Now in fairness to Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys main lyricist, I should note that the one Beach Boys song really dedicated to food encourages us to eat our vegetables. Maybe we’ll get around to that if we ever do another month of food songs in the Thornapple blog. Today I’ll just chalk that up as a tangent and get right back to the importance of a cupholder in the American lifestyle that we have all come to know and love.
Of course, I drove a ’63 Ford Fairlane without a cupholder in those days (and by “those days” I mean the late 1960s). It was, as a matter of factual record, not until the late 1970s that every McDonald’s or Burger King felt it incumbent to provide an opportunity for drive-through service. True ‘50s-style cruising for burgers would have more typically involved stopping the car and sitting in it while being served by car-hops (preferably on roller skates). Then you start up the car and go someplace else, even if it was just down the strip a few miles to a different drive-in where you would stop the car and do some more socializing, or maybe get a milkshake. We can tick off quite a few important observations in food ethics from this.
First, all the elements of an ethos were fully realized in this automobile-based food culture. There were ritualized social performances that supported group bonding and individual socialization. There was an intense aesthetic experience of being present in the moment that cemented the feeling that contrary to all the obvious signs of triviality, something important was happening here. Car-based consumption of this sort usually involved multiple layers of sociality: You rarely went out by yourself, or at any rate rarely stayed by yourself all evening. Riders would hop from car to car during those burger stops, and there was always the expectation (however infrequently realized) of romantic interludes. It was thrilling, even if it’s a little embarrassing to admit that now.
But of course we need to move right on to the fact that it was completely unsustainable. The fuel consumption was economically possible only because gas was 19¢ a gallon—something that disappeared with the lengthy lines at gas stations during the OPEC embargo a decade later. We were pretty much clueless about the environmental damage. It was also an expression of youth-culture that was destined to disappear simply because each generation has to have its own thing. I’m sure under 40 readers of the blog (if there were any) would have no idea what I’m talking about. So it was economically, environmentally and socially unsustainable. That’s three for three.
The Beach Boys might have been on to something when they sang “Won’t be long ‘til summer time is through.” Southern California hung on to that ethos, however. The last chorus answers the “Won’t be long…” with “Not for us, now.” Carmakers paid homage to those days by putting cupholders into their vehicles sometime later and Americans cruised into an era where they did not even pull over to socialize while eating in their vehicles. It’s an identity, I suppose, but is it one we should celebrate?
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University