Culture is in many ways the means by which we define ourselves. It is instrumental in binding us together, shaping our identity and facilitating our survival. John Macionis, a sociologist, defines culture as "the ways of thinking, the ways of acting, and the material objects that together form a people's way of life." The values and beliefs of a culture therefore play a large role structuring how we act, what we do and even what we eat.
Values are culturally defined standards that people use to decide what is desirable, good and beautiful, and that serve as broad guidelines for social living. A key value of U.S. culture is material comfort. Hinging on this value is the belief that success is defined by making money and enjoying what it will buy.
Convenience is crucial to this value, and that's where fast food comes in. Fried chicken, hamburgers, french fries and ice cream are quickly and readily available at drive-thru restaurants. We buy these foods because we are motivated to do so by the belief that we deserve what we desire.
The U.S. is also a high-income country, which means that our culture and society are rich enough for people to focus their attention on the unique lifestyle they prefer and pursue their personal happiness. Moving past the concerns of low-income cultures, who have to worry about survival, the U.S. exists in a post-industrial era in which economic production makes use of new information technology.
This ease of production allows mass quantities of consumer goods to be produced more efficiently, cheaper and faster. This way of life has created a culture with a mindset of instant gratification. Foods we can get quickly and easily such as pizza, hamburgers, French fries and hotdogs are promoted and sold widely, catering toward American's fast-paced lifestyle.
In addition, food in our culture is instrumental to the happiness of Americans. Fast foods are high in fat, salty or sweet in flavor and are commonly found at parties and events. Eating for pleasure is normal in our privileged culture, so foods such as these are considered "comfort foods."
Eating things like chips, soda, fried chicken and cake can facilitate the feelings of happiness and fun, giving us comfort at a convenience. Also, because of our materialism and entitlement, Americans not only believe they should have what they want, but have large portions of it. The increase in obesity in the U.S. shows our cultural trend of pleasure eating fueled by mass production of fast food
Lastly, the U.S. culture leans towards eurocentrism, the belief that the European way of life is an ideal that everyone else should imitate. It encourages the dominance of European cultural patterns — a parallel of which can be seen in the elevation of American foods, to the extent that foods like hot dogs, hamburgers, fries and ice cream have been labeled "American favorites."
It could even be argued that these foods have become symbols of patriotism. Macionis says a symbol is "anything that carries a particular meaning recognized by people who share culture." These foods are recognized as what "Americans" eat, and symbolize being American.
On the Fourth of July, it is common to throw some hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill, put fries in the fryer and break out the ice cream. Eating these foods feels patriotic because they represent part of American culture.
There is no doubt that a culture is characterized by many facets of life, and food is a very important uniting factor within a society, as its people gather around a table to partake in dishes that are family favorites. And in America, because of materialism, wealth, hedonism and patriotism, we love fast food.
Perhaps there is a deeper meaning than we often realize behind trends. We're addicted to fast food because it's ingrained into our culture. It may be time to remove it from its elevated position. If such an unhealthy addiction is natural in our lives, it means there's nothing to stop us all from being unhealthy, overweight or at risk for cardiovascular disease at a minimum.
The very fact that fast food is so culturally prevalent should worry us.