Fast food isn’t the part that changed

Topeka Capital Journal.
July 9, 1986

There is a popular notion that the great wide world of grease and salt, known as fast foods is something relatively new, But that is not so. Fast foods have been around a long, long time.

There are more of them now, and they are served in a variety of more attractive places, particularly if you like glitz, But most of them offer basically the same old fare. Fast foods have been around as long as I can remember.

Every little town in Oklahoma, and, I suppose, other states as well, always had two cafes. They were at opposite ends of Main Street. One was called the City Cafe, the other the Elite Cafe, and that was pronounced EE-light.

People with names like Joe and Mabel ran them. Joe often did the cooking, and Mabel ran the front end, where there was a counter with eight or ten fixed stools, and five or six booths and tables.

If you wanted fast food, you could call Mabel and tell her to fix up a chicken dinner or a sandwich to go. She would put it on a paper plate with a napkin over it and have it ready.

Or you could just walk in and ask for something to go, and that’s about all you can do today at McDonald’s or Wendy’s. You could get a sandwich or a full meal, with pie and coffee. Believe it or not, they had paper cups in those days. But they were made out of paper, and hot coffee in one burned your hand.

If you got fidgety or complained about the short wait, Mabel would tell you to “keep your pants on” or “hold your horses” or “simmer down.” And when she delivered your food, she never, thank God, said, “Have a nice day.”

That is one of the few things new out the fast food business. Today, you can’t buy a hamburger, taco, or drumstick without somebody telling you to “Have a nice day.”

I can hear you now, saying that the fancy fast food places today have “drive-through” service. We didn’t have that, but we had something close. Even Doc Snider’s drug store back in my old hometown of Britton, Okla., had it. It was called, “curb service” and the people who waited on the cars were called “carhops.”

I was one. Back then, I always thought that someday I would write a sizzling sex book called “I Was An Underage Carhop,” recounting my experiences on the job and telling of what I saw and heard as I checked out the cars I was serving.

My best material would have come from the back seats of cars containing two couples. I was grade-school, age, and it seemed to me to be pretty hot stuff. It would be pretty tame now and I don’t suppose my book would sell today.

Carhops today are mostly young girls in short skirts, with good legs, and many of them are on roller skates. Obviously, I don’t qualify. I can’t even skate.

If fast food means food that is ready when you are, There was a great variety of it back in the old days. When I was in grade school, Mr. Davis had a little store across the street where you could buy a hot dog baked inside a roll, hot out of the oven, for 10 cents.

I went to high school in Shawnee, Okla., at a boarding school called St. Gregory’s, run by the Benedictine Fathers (“Builders of Men”) Often, after supper, we would walk down to the highway to a little filling station where, for a nickel, you could buy a Nehi grape soda and, for another nickel, a little bag of salted peanuts.

You poured the peanuts into the grape soda and swilled blissfully away. It fires the taste buds just to think of it.

I remember, too, at that time there was a place in Oklahoma City, “Spaghetti Red’s,” where you could get a small platter of spaghetti covered with chili for a quarter. Outstanding.

Name me three things better you can get in a fast food place today. You can’t do it.

I also recall a place in Oklahoma City that featured hamburgers for five cents apiece, six for a quarter. They were just like today’s hamburgers – greasy, salty, delicious.

Whoever coined the term, fast foods, probably meant it to be derogatory, because it is popular to knock them, even as we are eating them. They are blamed for most of the ailments of children and adults alike. But we keep eating them.

They’re easy to like, because they have the right taste. All the food is salty, and all the drinks and desserts are sweet. If salt and sugar are what you’re after, then fast foods are for you.

In some ways, the worst thing about fast food is that it’s so fast. Inside, you order, pay, get your food, and somebody says, “Have a nice day.” Outside, It’s the same, and if you try to linger, the guy behind you honks.

It wasn’t like that at the old Elite (pronounced EE-light) Cafe. If you had the time, Mabel would tell you about the Elliotts’ bull getting loose, about the car wreck at the two-mile corner, and about the town drunk falling off the end stool.

Progress has its price.

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