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Come to “America’s Drive-In”, y’all – for tater tots and Jetsons decor

At Sonic, the shtick is meant to be that the food arrives “at the speed of sound”; and the novelty in the late 1950s was that punters ordered their burgers and via speakers they could drive right up to.

Decor at US drive-in Sonic is reminiscent of the retro-futurist style of The Jetsons. Photo: Getty
Decor at US drive-in Sonic is reminiscent of the retro-futurist style of The Jetsons. Photo: Getty

De gustibus non est disputandum, so I don’t want any wise-ass backchat from you lot when I tell you that the meal I had at the Sonic drive-in on the Murfreesboro Pike on the outskirts of Nashville was probably the best one I’ve ever eaten. I don’t, by this, mean that the food was the best I have ever eaten – far from it – nor that the ambience was particularly good (I was sitting in the driver’s seat of my rented Chevy SUV), but the sky overhead was beautiful, the company highly amusing and most importantly: I was on holiday . . . sort of.

We’d driven in to Nashville from Atlanta the previous evening, checked in to our motel – the Fiddler’s Inn – and, taking the receptionist’s recommendation, adjourned to the Caney Fork River Valley Grille, which was right across the parking lot. In fact, every building on Music Valley Drive seemed to be across the car park, because in this place of dead roads the asphalt stretched clear to the horizon. The Grille was a faux-clapboard hutch from the outside but the inside walls were clad in corrugated iron. Weird. Weirder still were the stuffed animal heads mounted on those walls and weirdest of all was the life-size manikin that bore a disturbing resemblance to Stinky Pete in Toy Story 2. We ate deep-fried catfish and deep-fried alligator washed down with deep-fried Coca-Cola but, interesting as the meal was, unfortunately the Grille was a one-off so it didn’t qualify for this column.

Sonic, on the other hand, as of 2011 had 3,561 outlets trading in 43 states and glories in the sobriquet “America’s Drive-In”. In common with all the other US mega-chains that lash our guts to our garters, Sonic began life as a lemonade stall, or possibly a hot dog stand – at any rate, somewhere down-home in Hicksville – but has biggered and biggered ever since. The shtick is meant to be that the food arrives “at the speed of sound” (hence “Sonic”); and the novelty in the late 1950s was that punters ordered their burgers and tater tots via speakers they could drive right up to. Roller-skating carhops then scooted the trays over. Nowadays the World Spirit of junk food has skated somewhere else and with their stylised signs, extended porte cochères and “carnival food” menus, Sonic drive-ins have an air at once cartoonish and dated that made me think of the 1960s “space age” TV show The Jetsons.

Still, what did that matter? On a summer’s evening in Tennessee, with hardly anyone else about, my youngest son and I were free to indulge our fantasy of driving the Chevy forward to the past. True, it was difficult to make myself understood through the intercom and my credit card didn’t work in the stanchion-mounted reader, so eventually the poor girl had to come out and take our order in person; but although she wasn’t roller-skating she made up for it by being friendly and saying “y’all” a lot. Saying “y’all” is pretty integral to Southern identity – even the signs on the freeway read, “Buckle up y’all.” We basked in these inclusive y’alls, while also noting that the clientele at this super-cheap, corn-syrup-pumping drive-in was largely African American.

And if you think I’m taking a cheap shot at Sonic, just consider the phenomenon of slushes with Nerds®. Yes, you heard me: virulently coloured slushy sweet drinks topped off with liberal scatterings of candy. Sonic is the home of the Blue Raspberry Slush with Nerds® and isn’t afraid to shout about it. Nor does it mind broadcasting that it sells the Reese’s Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups® Sonic Blast. If there’s one thing I can assert with certainty, it’s that after consuming a Reese’s Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups® Sonic Blast, you’d better buckle up, y’all, because that’s one heck of a lot of go-go juice, even for a Jetson.

We didn’t go anywhere near these things – at least on foot. We sat in our Chevy and I sipped my coffee-style drink and judiciously chewed my cheeseburger. The youngest chomped his hot dog; other customers came and went but they didn’t linger under the porte cochère listening to the dedications being broadcast on Sonic Live Radio. I asked the boy how his dog was and he said: “It’s like, meh, but good,” which struck me as the sort of thing a pubescent God might say when contemplating the world he’s just created. I eased down in my seat, feeling slightly nauseous when I contemplated the “Summer of Shakes” that the wall menu informed me was imminent. The jalapeño chocolate shake struck me as an especially cruel and unusual punishment.

The drive-in has great symbolic weight in the American psyche. It’s of a piece with the automobile, forming a material assemblage that implies perpetual, purposive, expansive movement – even munching tater tots at a Sonic can be an expression of manifest destiny. But as I sat there on the Murfreesboro Pike, shifting uneasily and flatulently in my car seat, it occurred to me that my real affinity wasn’t with the restless psychic pioneers who stream along America’s freeways but with Stinky Pete: like him, I was smelly, stuck in a box and ready to become a museum piece, but then de gustibus non est disputandum and all that jazz. 

Next week: Madness of Crowds

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