Regular readers may know my short-lived but potent obsession with the radio program Theme Time Radio Hour, a show in which host Bob Dylan would choose a particular theme and then play an hour’s worth of songs that used the theme in their title and intersperse that with anecdotes, facts, myths, quotes, poems, and occasionally recipes about said subject. The thing that fascinated me was that he approached it with a very literal-minded method – the only coherence in a single episode was the word of the day and the fact that the songs were good. He very rarely passed commentary on his subjects and never ever tried to define them. Our Taco Breaks are usually unified themes, definitions that our writers bring to you in hope you’ll find an example, all the way back to the original article. Dylan’s just-the-facts approach creates an interesting effect, where he touches on so many themes and ideas and emotions that we get a broad spectrum of takes on a single subject. I thought it would be fun to give that a go and see what kind of comment section we end up making. Our first theme, dream, and scheme is fast food. Burgers, pizza, ice cream, buffalo wings, kebabs, fried rice. McDonald’s, KFC, Domino’s, Burger King (which is actually Hungry Jack’s here in Australia). There’s evidence of fast food restaurants in Ancient Rome, with cheap and quick meals usually sold to students and young professionals. They’re meals that often barely legally qualify as food but are fast, cheap, and leave you out of control of your digestive system.
The most famous scene in Pulp Fiction is Jules and Vincent invading the apartment of Brett and his friends, who have stolen Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase. Jules simply strides in and sees them eating hamburgers. It took years for me to wonder why in the hell Brett and co had decided on hamburgers of all things to have for breakfast after an apparently successful heist (the full meaning of Jules’s quip “The cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast!” had never registered). In an interview with Elvis Mitchell, Tarantino (gleefully) dissected why he had chosen hamburgers – as you might expect, it sets up a power move on Jules’s part, because you can ask for a slice of pizza, you can ask for a few fries, and you can ask for a chicken wing, but you don’t ask for a bite out of someone’s hamburger. As soon as someone bites into it, that’s it, it belongs to them. Jules asks for a bite of Brett’s burger because he knows what an absurd ask that is, and it’s a show of dominance to emotionally torture Brett before he kills him.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has many fast food restaurants. In the context of gameplay, they’re where a player can go to heal, as well as to fatten up their character if that’s what they want. In the context of narrative, they’re another element of satire. The GTA series takes the view that everything is corrupt, everyone is obsessively self-interested, and everything is caused by and will cause further suffering. The staff that serve you are either withering in contempt for you or inanely enthusiastic. The radio ads go into detail about the suffering the animals that go into the product went through as well as the failures of health and safety of production. There’s also an iconic mission that revolves around one of the restaurants. The Grove Street gang decides to go out to the drive-thru to pick up some chicken, only to be attacked in the middle of eating. One of the characters, Big Smoke, orders a truly absurd amount of food; it’s a masterpiece of comic timing as each of the other characters turn to look at him in realisation of how long he’s going to keep speaking. When they’re suddenly attacked, Smoke keeps on eating, much to the consternation of the rest of the gang, and you listen to their argument as you flee the enemy. The comic highlight of the scene is when Smoke spills his food (“Oh shit, you got ketchup all over the seat!” / “The business at hand, motherfucker, the business at hand!”). This whole scene also serves as foreshadowing for when Smoke betrays the entire crew.
Breaking Bad has a fast food restaurant as a major plot point – antagonist Gus Fring owns a franchise of fried chicken shops called Los Pollos Hermanos that acts as a front for his meth business. It often gives a comic underlining to serious scenes, like when Walt visits a restaurant and refuses to leave until Fring meets him; the scene is perfectly serious because the stakes are higher than ever, but it’s also hilarious because Walt looks completely insane from the outside for breaching the basic social contract that comes with fast food. I once read a short article complaining about the attitude one gets in a fast food restaurant, in which the customer is dragged in and shoved out as fast as possible; it’s not a good thing all the time, but it is nice to have somewhere to go where you can just get your food and fuck off, and Walt is breaking that expectation. But I also end up thinking of that scene very late in the game when Walt and Skyler meet Hank and Marie at some gimmicky Mexican restaurant; Walt’s logic is perfectly sound, knowing Hank and Marie won’t make a scene there, but it also leads to a chipper waiter walking up to them and asking if they’re ready to order, only to get stony stares in response.
The Avengers has that famous post-credit scene of the characters sitting silently in a shawarma restaurant. The reason it’s so funny is because we’re seeing iconic, larger-than-life characters fresh off the adrenaline high of a big adventure in one of the most banal situations conceivable – awkward silence in a fast food restaurant. It’s the payoff to a joke Tony makes fresh off his near-death experience, in which he spotted a shawarma place as he fell and wondered what that even is. It turns out it’s a Levantine Arab dish consisting of meat cut into thin slices, stacked in a cone-like shape, and slowly roasted on a vertical spit. The meat is sliced off as it cooks and is then usually prepared in a sandwich or wrap. Apparently, shawarma sales skyrocketed after the movie.
In American Beauty, protagonist Lester Burnham quits his job and impulsively takes up a job at a fast food chain called Mr Smiley’s. When the manager questions this, he says he wants the lowest responsibility job imaginable, and that he had fond memories of working at a fast food restaurant as a teenager. One would think that the lowest responsibility is no job, but I think Lester enjoys the structure of work. One common retort to the concept of a Universal Basic Income is that, without the need for money, people will not be inclined to work, especially with simple labour. One common retort to that retort is that people do need meaning and structure in their lives; there are people for whom the nature of their work is less important than that they’re good at it, or that it connects them with a clear social group, or even that it’s just a predictable pattern that they can build their lives around. People get up and go to volunteer work, or mom groups, or board game groups every day (or they write long essays for amateur pop culture websites). I think Lester recognises this, and what little we see is him taking genuine pleasure in his coworkers.
The eponymous character of Spongebob Squarepants works as a fry cook – the very first episode shows him getting the job. Spongebob’s age is indeterminate – literally, but also in his intended emotional maturity. He lives alone, but he’s often treated as a child by the other characters. Obviously, this is partly based around whatever’s funniest, but I think that this is part of making him fun for children to watch; I read once that when writing for children, make your protagonist at least a few years older than your intended audience because they’ll age out of your demographic very quickly. I think Spongebob’s job was at least partly chosen to bridge the gap between adulthood and childhood – to make him seem both at least a little grown-up and a little childish (although in the twenty years since the show came out, the average age of a fast food worker has shifted to 29). Part of the joke as well is that Spongebob romanticises his job; Squidward’s attitude is more typical of its workers, having contempt for the customers, the management, and the work itself. That first episode has Spongebob be sent on a snipe hunt, only for the restaurant to be swamped by customers. Spongebob heroically returns with the (entirely fictional) gadget he’d been sent out for and saves the day with his mad fry cook skills. This sets the tone for his character for the rest of the series.
What are your favourite uses of fast food in pop culture? Favourite scenes, plots, characters based around fast food?