From The Atlantic by Suzy Swartz:
In her book Why You Eat What You Eat, the neuroscientist Rachel Herz explains the science behind Americans’ food choices. Comfort foods, she says, are “usually foods that we ate as children because, when it comes to aromas and flavors, our first associations are the ones that stick most indelibly.”
Though identifying one defining national comfort food in a country as heterogeneous as the United States would be ahistorical bordering on irresponsible, the most enduring icon of American cuisine is the diner or local fast-food franchise, purveyors of Riverdale’s favorite foods: the burger, shake, and fries.
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.”