I have been told by people in more than a few countries that one sure way to spot an American is that he or she is eating while moving. Walking, driving, on the bus, on a train, in a plane. There’s always someplace to go and, by some crazy coincidence in gastro-timing, Americans are always hungry when it’s time to go there.
Dr. Seuss wondered out loud if this tendency to find oneself a little peckish on the road to El Dorado or some other such place might be satisfied by green eggs and ham.
“Would you? Could you? In a car? Eat them! Eat them! Here they are.”
“Why, of course, Sam-I-Am!”, you might think.
Why not? I eat everything else in a car. Why not green eggs and ham? But Sam is disappointed.
“I would not, could not, in a car.”
Today, one’s car is about the safest place to eat. It’s a throwback to the 1950s and '60s when drive-in restaurants were big, and the car was an extension of a teenager's bedroom. It was a place where one could spend time alone, or with others, and there and then, discuss art and poetry and do whatever else teenagers need privacy to do.
As early as the 1920s, Americans found the car to be an ideal place to settle back, eat dinner and, as a bonus, avoid the dullness or discord of the home fires and, perhaps, avoid a raging pandemic.
So, we went last weekend, the three of us, to experience that strange place that exists between eating at home and eating out. Not quite in motion and not quite at home. The drive-in restaurant.
And, while a bit on the cool side, we thought we’d make it our last shot at eating outside for an extra measure of safety.
Drive-in restaurants are rare these days. It’s hard to know what happened to them. Some blame the strange design of front seats in modern cars that put the cup holders right next to sensitive electronic equipment and phone charging outlets.
But the decline of the drive-in seemed to have started even before USB 2.0. And it’s not as though people don’t eat in their cars. They just want to drive while doing it.
It seems as though the waning of the drive-in coincided with the genesis of the drive-in’s close cousin, the drive-thru. This always seemed like a kind of de-evolution to me where a species travels backward to a more primitive state. A drive-thru is just a drive-in without the parking lot and roller skates. How much fun could that be?
Sonic Drive-In, just south of Interstate 94 off 45th Street South in Fargo, still brings food to your car and still does it, in our case anyway, on roller skates. Its old-fashioned drive-in offerings include hot dogs, hamburgers and milkshakes. Remember when "American Graffiti" was nostalgia rather than historical fiction? It’s like that.
A burger, popcorn chicken, a rather sad but passable shot at a BLT and sides with drinks for three people came to just a bit over $22.
Right next to us, not 20 feet away at the Starbucks, after-dinner coffee called, but the line for their drive-thru stretched all the way back to Sioux Falls, I think. Why?
Then it came to me: These people don’t want to eat, or even drink coffee. They want to go someplace, and eating — or drinking coffee — was just something to do while getting there.
Leaving aside the fact that it’s horribly distracting to eat and drive, and more accidents are caused by people driving while eating and drinking non-alcoholic beverages than, well, people who are not eating and drinking non-alcoholic beverages while they drive, it just seems kind of… messy? Claustrophobic? Is there no other way to fit eating into a day?
Dessert was served through the drive-thru window at the Dairy Queen across the road from Sonic. Our server passed out the Blizzard and turned it upside-down to prove that it can be eaten from the point of view of either major political party.
Our after-dinner coffee was picked up at the drive-thru at Starbucks in south Moorhead, where the lineup was better managed because it could snake through a 10-acre parking lot where people sometimes parked pretending it was a drive-in just for the nostalgia. Two hot chocolates and a Grande iced coffee with sweet crème, no classic, and two pumps of white mocha.
Even if you are not a fan of fast food, it’s a strange time and it calls for strange measures.
Drive safe, eat safe and be safe.
Eric Daeuber is an instructor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College. Readers can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.