- I grew up eating fast food on a regular basis, but once I moved to New York City, I quit my drive-thru habit.
- While staying with my in-laws during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, drive-thrus became the only viable option for a dinner date with my husband.
- The nostalgia of drive-thru food has provided a sense of comfort during the pandemic.
- Even though my husband didn’t eat fast food growing up, he’s also now learning to love it as an adult.
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Growing up, I practically lived on fast food. Some of my earliest food memories are of insisting that my parents say “three times extra mayo” when ordering my Chicken Littles at KFC, and refusing to eat when my McDonald’s Happy Meal hamburger had been touched by anything other than ketchup and pickles.
As I got older, my tastes became more sophisticated: cheese-laden roast beef sandwiches from Arby’s, the Wendy’s suite of loaded baked potatoes, and Taco Bell’s Mexican Pizza became my new loves. I learned to tolerate chopped onions on my hamburgers, though it was decades before I came around on mustard.
Fast food fueled me through countless childhood relocations, college exams, and all-nighters in graduate school. During my unstable upbringing, the food that came from a drive-thru window was a constant.
McDonald’s always tasted like McDonald’s, no matter where it came from. I knew that I could always seek solace in the reliably mild Tex-Mex flavors of Taco Bell.
For the first 23 years of my life, these foods were there for me in a way that little else was.
I developed a disdain for fast food when I became a cook
After graduate school, I moved to New York City, and eventually found myself working as a professional cook.
I have always loved food, but working at a farm-to-table restaurant showed me a different way to eat. I learned about new ingredients and sustainable food systems. I started making everything from scratch, even at home. I adopted a “try anything once” mentality towards everything from fish eyes to tripe.
Over the next decade, I affected a deep disdain for fast food and everything it stood for. In a way, this allowed me to distance myself from the person I had been, who relied on the superficial charms of fast food for momentary fulfillment. I wouldn’t even touch boxed cake mix, let alone eat from a drive-thru.
That changed when COVID-19 shut down New York City, forcing my husband and I to temporarily move upstate to care for his ageing father.
My husband’s upbringing could not have been more different from mine. Fast food was never a part of his life, not even as a broke college student living in the city. He grew up on a small farm, and the only produce he ate as a child came from his backyard. So when, desperate for something even vaguely resembling a date, I suggested we go to the local Sonic, he was grossed-out — but intrigued.
During the pandemic, our car became the only place where we could get privacy
Over the past few months, our red Honda Fit has become one of the rare places where we can have complete privacy. Driving down a country road, listening to Jo Dee Messina (another forsaken vestige of my youth), I saw the Sonic Drive-In sign in the distance and felt an immediate sense of calm wash over me. We parked in one of the chain’s signature car bays, and the speaker on the touch-screen menu blared NSYNC while we sipped Ocean Water and ate double-decker cheeseburgers.
“This is way better than I expected,” my husband admitted, particularly dismayed by how good the electric blue, sunscreen-flavored carbonated beverage tasted.
I put my feet up on the dashboard and watched the sun set over the Sunoco gas station across the highway. It felt like being on vacation in a bizarre suburban dystopia.
After that, his interest was piqued. With restaurants closed, eating in the car was the next best thing to eating out. It also offered a much-needed reprieve from cooking three meals a day while working and acting as caregivers.
Summer brought the opening of drive-thru seasonal soft serve stands, which can be found all over New York’s capital region. We would get malted milkshakes and drive along back roads at sunset, the air blowing through the rolled-down windows a welcome respite from the heat.
Drive-thru eating is retro but suddenly relevant
In 1950s America, with the rise of interstate highways and urban sprawl, cars became an extension of personal identity. Drive-thrus, drive-ins, car washes, and other businesses cropped up to support the new ideal of spending one’s free time on the road.
As a person who has spent a large portion of my life in New York City, driving for pleasure always seemed like a foreign concept. Now, stopping at a drive-thru in the middle of a cruise to nowhere in particular makes perfect sense. Like victory gardens and canning, it’s a retro practice that feels newly relevant.
Whenever we would go back to our apartment in Brooklyn, we would stop at the McDonald’s drive-thru on the southbound thruway to get Oreo McFlurries and fries.
At first, my husband was so inept at using the drive-thru that he would bypass the menu and go right to the window. On another early visit, he remembered to stop at the menu, stammering out an order before driving away with our food, but without my debit card. But despite his learning curve, it became a part of our strange new routine.
McDonald’s not only tasted like my childhood, it was also starting to taste like going home.
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