Not sure if this isn’t reading too much into the whole thing, but this is at the very least an interesting and somewhat provocative essay on fast food nostalgia, culminating in Donald Trump’s eating habits and appeal to a certain class of Americans.
It’s no accident that fast foods tap so persistently into the national consciousness; cheap, efficient, and predictable, these foods satisfy deeply ingrained American values. They also speak to a collective memory of the good old days: The rise of the United States on the global stage coincided with the postwar ascendancy of fast-food franchises. Kima Cargill, a clinical psychologist who studies eating habits at the University of Washington at Tacoma, says, “At that point, there was a real sense of triumph about the American project, and food was a big part of that.”
Fast food was an exemplar of American exceptionalism and industriousness. The United States “came of age in the era of industrialization, and we became better than anyone at creating industrialized food,” says Amy Bentley, a professor of food studies at New York University. “Other countries have fast food, but we did it earlier and better than anyone else.”
In 2005’s Hamburgers and Fries, John T. Edge went so far as to say that burgers are “modernity encapsulated, an entire meal stuffed into a streamlined vessel and ready for portage.”
Not only was this American fast food delicious, cheap, and fabled in its innovativeness, but it was also presumed to be wholesome. White Castle, for example, touted its high standards of cleanliness. According to Edge, the burger franchise sponsored a 1930 study that reported that “a normal, healthy child could eat nothing but [White Castle] burgers and water and fully develop all its physical and mental faculties” with the caveat that manufacturers need only add calcium to their buns (which they did). The shrewd marketing worked, and sales skyrocketed as other fast-food copycats like Steak ‘n’ Shake, Castle Blanca, Red Castle, White Turret, and White Tower started to follow the “White Castle System,” which prioritized a low price and the presentation of cleanliness and healthfulness even in the face of the Depression. This food reinforced a convenient myth that any and every American had easy access to a meal that was as balanced and cheap as it was ubiquitous and unique to the States.
But then everything went to hell because of reports on fast food’s impact on your health, an emphasis on diet and complexity, the liberals telling us what to do, etc. People started seeing fast food as nostalgia in response. And thus Donald Trump both being one of those people and people projecting those simpler times upon him.
But recently, the man receiving the most attention for his unhealthy eating habits is anything but disadvantaged—he is the president of the United States. Unlike those for whom geography and poverty make healthful eating impossible, Donald Trump’s propensity for fast food is not born out of want. Perhaps it is a willful rejection of facts about food and nutrition that made Kentucky Fried Chicken, Diet Coke, McDonald’s, and pizza what his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski called the “four major food groups” on his campaign trail.
Or perhaps it’s nostalgia. Trump did grow up in the postwar era, after all, and earned the Oval Office in part by relentlessly appealing to nostalgia for a bygone time when America was “great.” As the writer Helen Rosner pointed out in a column for Eater, even when he is not eating fast food, his dining choices remain unadventurous and unvaried. Trump prefers the meat loaf at Mar-a-Lago that’s based off his mother’s recipe, Rosner writes, and well-done steaks covered in ketchup when he dines out. Rosner posits that his two favorite meals—one he’s relied on since childhood, one he makes familiar and common with ketchup, and both of which he eats regularly instead of trying new dishes—signal “an aversion to risk … an unwillingness to trust the validity and goodwill of any experiences beyond the limited sphere of one’s own.”
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a gastronomic trip down memory lane at a McDonald’s or White Castle, just like there’s nothing wrong with the occasional pang of nostalgia for the past. But both feelings ignore ugly truths in favor of a moment’s comfort. When overindulged, they can prop up a flimsy myth of a time when things were more wholesome than they are now—when the American project was perfectly executed, and when your body was impenetrable to the effects of greasy, fatty food.
Well, I’m not sure that future historians will explain the rise of Trump through the prism of food nostalgia. But I’m not sure this is so wrong either.