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

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

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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Forbidden forests: how Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows saved the trees

How Bloomsbury used the Harry Potter series to make publishing eco-friendly.

“Of all the trees we could have hit, we had to hit one that hits back,” says Harry of the Whomping Willow, which successfully whomps both him and Ron when they arrive at Hogwarts by car. The incident is representative of a natural world that often appears remarkably robust in JK Rowling's original series. There is little sign of wizards being plagued by air pollution or acid rain. And while Dementors may lurk in the shadows, climate change does not.

Yet just as Rowling's wands pay tribute to the trees they're hewn from – with their hawthorn, holly and hornbeam woods as key to their construction as their pheonix feather or unicorn hair cores – so too would her books.

By the time The Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, all its UK texts, jackets and cases were printed on forest-friendly paper. The move by Rowling and Bloomsbury “sent a clear signal to the rest of the world”, says Greenpeace’s Jamie Woolley, and was “the catalyst” for other publishers to follow suit.

The Potter transformation was inspired by a Greenpeace campaign. In the same year that the fifth Harry Potter went to press, their “Paper Trail” report revealed that the UK book publishing industry was unwittingly sourcing paper from vulnerable ancient forests in Finland and Canada.

Change spiralled from there. In 2005, Bloomsbury printed the UK’s hardback version of The Half Blood Prince on 30% Forest Stewardship Council certified paper. By 2007, the US publisher Scholastic had pledged that the first 12 million copies of The Deathly Hallows would all be printed on paper that was at least partly recycled or sustainable.

Thanks to this shift, UK books labeled with the Forest Stewardship Council’s (FSC) logo are now becoming the rule rather than the exception. Over half of all British adults now recognize the mark, numerous UK publishers have upped their proportion of paper taken from FSC certified sources, and Penguin and Harper Collins have both pledged to reach 100 percent FSC sourced paper in the next three years.

But the challenge is also far from over. According to the FSC, many European and US publishers outsource their manufacturing to China, where imported timber from Indonesia is accompanied by one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world.

In the UK, just 13 percent of land is covered by trees and a recent report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee criticised forest regulation as “not fit for purpose”.

So what can readers do to help? The FSC recommends looking out for its logo on any book you buy. And if that's not enough to satisfy, the Harry Potter Alliance has created a guide to fighting climate change for fans. 

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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