A Thought About Eating in Cars

eating in cars

Americans are obsessed with food lately. So much that we devour books and shows about food almost as much as creatively repurposed corn products. I, for one, recently read the French food culture book “French Kids Eat Everything” and it, combined with a few lines from an Alton Brown podcast, (more food media there, consumed unselfconsciously) fueled a bout of introspection that led me to…an opinion (yikes).

American food culture has been turning more toward the slow, the simple, and the real, and for this I’m very happy. In this process, the car as a location for eating has been stigmatized. French people, in their great food-centric culture, as I read in “French Kids Eat Everything” hold sacred the act of eating at the table.  They also would probably not eat a sandwich from a wrapper, and would never ever eat in a car. This strict devotion to proper meal time with chairs and tables and cutlery is part of the reason French people are, on average, healthier than Americans. Alton added his voice to my brain stew by expressing some sadness over the common occurrence of Americans eating at desks and in cars and the infrequency of eating as families at tables – a sentiment I can agree with. But America is geographically huge, and our drive thru culture evolved as a response to the fact that many Americans have to spend a lot of time in their cars. And lots of us don’t have time to cook before or after (or during) our big commutes, but that’s another can of worms.

While  I’ll admit that most drive through food is nutritionally deplorable and exemplar of our nations obsession with fatty, salty, fast, and cheap, there are things worth preserving in drive through culture. The fast-food hamburger as perfected by In-N-Out for example, or the ideal fountain coke with just the right amount of bubbles, which can be found only in paper cup with plastic lid.

So here it is: I love a drive thru. And while I get that frequenting fast food places is bad for our waistlines and probably our minds and family dynamics, I don’t get the all or nothing mentality that seems to be necessary with every American fad. Let’s apply some Cookie Monster moderation to the drive thru – make it a “sometimes” thing.

Eating is about more than consuming fuel anyway, it’s about connecting. And some of the best conversations of my life have taken place in cars parked in drive-through parking lots, late at night, over a bag of paper-wrapped tacos. I don’t know what it is about sitting side by side in a parked car and sharing fried food, but it inspires camaraderie and honesty like few other situations do. Eating at a table is for polite conversation and wholesome family bonding. Drive through parking lots are for confessionals,  making confidantes out of mere friends, and talking through big choices. French fries and burritos grease the wheels of truth and bond us like bandits. Your teen won’t talk to you? Take them to Sonic at 1am and see what happens. Worried about your best friend? Buy her a chocolate shake and let her spill her guts in the safety of your company.

Should we all be eating fast food a lot less? Clearly. But is eating in a car  every now and then something to be sad or, even more American, feel guilty about? I don’t think so.

(P.S. Thanks to Caroline and Jordan for modeling the awkwardness of posing for a car-dining picture. And for not getting mad at me for using your pretty faces without permission. K?)

  1. I'm filing a lawsuit.

    Jordan — January 6, 2014
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  2. I'm not mad. We're clearly sharing a moment. <3

    Caroline — January 6, 2014
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  3. Also, I find del taco to be the best for bonding. Or something equally disgusting. If you drive up together you've already confirmed a pretty telling characteristic about your personality.

    Caroline — January 6, 2014
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  4. an opinion! and even still, your opinion is moderation. you and i are a lot alike. i totally agree with this post. i think eating at the table, particularly at dinner time, is a tradition worth hanging on to, but do i think we should burn down every single drive-thru? absolutely not. you, of course, said it a lot better than that.

    miranda — January 6, 2014
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  5. Jordan, I will buy you a 12 piece mighty wings if you reconsider. Caroline, the Del Taco on University Avenue is indelibly etched in my memory as a place of sisterly bonding. There's no going back. Mir, we are brain twins.

    courtney — January 6, 2014
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  6. I just read the French Kids book too and was feeling guilty and frustrated (though our daycare does serve home-cooked vegetarian meals!!).... But I like your perspective and I think it is really true. Some of my fondest high school memories are at Sonic in the little stalls eating extra long coneys and slushies.

    Caitlin — January 10, 2014
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  7. Hey Caitlin! I'm glad to hear my little drive thru theories actually do extend beyond my own little circle! As for the guilt part, I think our puritanical American heritage hasn't really set us up to value long lunches and cultivating our children's palates. As much as I like the idea of feeding my future babies shredded carrot salad and roasted beets, it's an uphill battle when you don't have a culture that backs you up. Moving to France might be an easier option.

    courtney — January 10, 2014
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