On National Fast Food Day, an interview with chef George Geary, the author of a book on California fast-food history
It’s a big year for junk food: White Castle, America’s first diner, is celebrating 100 years in business, along with See’s Candies, Eskimo Pies, and Wonder bread. November 16th is National Fast Food Day, a day to clasp our greasy paws over a pile of salty fried carbs and honor the delicious heritage of America’s favorite chain restaurants.
Celebrity chef and culinary writer George Geary serves up fast-food history in his new book Made in California: the California-Born Diners, Burger Joints, Restaurants and Fast Food that Changed America (Prospect Park Books). The best-selling author of The Cheesecake Bible and L.A.’s Legendary Restaurants profiles the mouth-watering stories behind 50 beloved west coast eateries, from Randy’s Donuts, IHOP and Fatburger to the defunct Pup ‘N’ Taco.
Geary’s background is as adventurous as the SoCal food culture he documents: as head pastry chef at the Walt Disney Company, he baked Elizabeth Taylor’s 60th birthday cake; as a longtime coordinator and judge for the L.A. County Fair he assembled wild midway recipes for his book Fair Foods; and he got his start cooking the prop cheesecakes for The Golden Girls.
The California native grew up eating at restaurants like Swenson’s and Lawry’s, and got the idea for the book while marveling at the sheer number of west coast diner chains. Equal parts foodie, educator and historian, he explores innovations like the sesame-seed bun and the contested origins of Taco Tuesday between encyclopedic background research and gorgeous old photos.
Chef Geary served up some insight to Book & Film Globe on the California magic of our favorite greasy spoons, the one meal nobody makes at home, and how to calculate the ideal burger.
You describe a confluence of factors helping California become the mecca of the fast food world. Can you unpack those factors a little?
If you look at the east coast like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, they have diners: you must get out of your car and sit down like a coffeeshop, but California started the drive-thrus and carhops. You would think with our sunny weather and the snowy east coast, it would be the other way around!
You’ve taught a dazzling range of culinary traditions all over the world. In what ways does the West Coast’s love of speedy, fatty food reflect its culture?
The drive-thrus and carhops are a Southern California phenomenon really. We on the West Coast are wound tighter, we like fast. We are in a hurry to get to the beach! Californians are health nuts, but we do like our fast foods. Although in Northern California cities like San Francisco, you don’t see fast food locations as much as you see in other cities. It takes a lot of property to install a drive-thru.
You cover a broad spectrum of eating habits in your books, from LA’s Legendary Restaurants to Fair Foods. How are folks responding to the release of Made in America?
People are hungry for history–and food history. This is my first book without recipes, and I have found people want to learn beyond getting a recipe. The response is very favorable, I’ve had many sold out in-person events and Zoom events.
The book is meticulous in its scope and depth of analysis. Did you run across any odd tidbits of food history while researching it?
Many locations like Wienerschnitzel, Tommy’s Burgers, Cupids, and Carl’s Jr. have a product that we don’t make at home: chili dogs and chili burgers. Also, many companies had a “signature” building, so you recognized the brand before you drove in. Now they’re all gone: McDonalds, Taco Bell, Wienerschnitzel, IHOP.
You’re on a cross-California road trip in 1960. Where would you personally stop for a quick, tasty meal?
McDonalds. Taco Bell wasn’t around, and most people didn’t know what “Mexican” food was yet. McDonalds in 1960 was original, good burgers cooked on a grill with a toasted bun and only a few items to choose from.
I’d go to Denny’s for a sit-down meal because you would get items cooked and prepared fresh, whereas today everything is streamlined and microwaved.
Sure you might be a teeensy bit biased, but where do you weigh in on the Whataburger vs. In-N-Out debate?
I only had Whataburger about 15 years ago, I recall it tasted like Burger King to me. I think 5 Guys vs. In-n-Out would be better since we have both here in Southern California. 5 Guys has a huge menu with add-ons like mushrooms, bacon etc, while In N Out does not. Why? Because they feel their burger can stand alone.
Also, there are always 15-20 cars in the In N Out drive-thru, but at 5 Guys you can walk right up to the window and get a meal. Although 5 Guys charges almost $9 for a hamburger, more than three times the In N Out price. Even a Double-Double is still half the price of the larger hamburger at 5 Guys!