Bookworm: Fast food dreams and small town nightmares

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom”

  • By Adam Chandler
  • c. 2019, Flatiron Books
  • $27.99, $36.50 Canada; 288 pages

You’ve done it again. You forgot. Picture it: your brown-paper lunch bag is sitting home on the kitchen counter with chips, banana, and sandwich right where you put it, forgotten as you dashed to work. Yep, that’s okay. According to Adam Chandler in his book “Drive-Thru Dreams,” for over a century, forgetful diners have had a tasty lunchtime back-up.

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A hundred years ago, if you were hungry and in Wichita, you were in luck. Although Texas, Wisconsin, and Connecticut have laid claim to it, Wichita is where America’s first hamburger was invented, says Chandler. Not long before, Upton Sinclair had written an exposé on American stockyards; because of this, the tiny square of meat was cooked where diners could watch, so that they’d feel more confident in the food’s safety.

“Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom” by Adam Chandler.

At around that time, hailing from Indiana, a scrappy rascal named Harlan Sanders was looking for the next deal. As a teenager, Sanders dropped out of school, worked on a streetcar, joined the army, rode the rails, fought and scrapped and kept his eyes open. A decent cook since the age of five, he eventually opened a café on a road that was later bypassed by the highway system; undaunted, he set off by car to sell his flour-and-spices concoction meant for making delicious chicken dinners.

Of course, dinner isn’t complete without ice cream and Dairy Queen joined the nation’s table about the time Sanders was building his café. Bob’s Big Boy took a seat, too, as did several regional burger joints and Burger King, which still uses the motto they’ve had since 1957. Three years prior, though, Ray Kroc set his eyes on a small restaurant with world-wide potential.

And Sanders … ?

His chicken was a sensation but he was getting on in years, and not inclined to fight the corporatization of fast food. In 1964, he was convinced to sell the licensing rights to Kentucky Fried Chicken to investors for $2 million; seven years later, rights were resold for over 140 times that.

“Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom” author Adam Chandler.

Nobody’d blame you if you’re suddenly hungry now. You might have cravings for a burger and fries, or you might have cravings for “Drive-Thru Dreams.”

Starting with a short tale of one small town’s excitement over a rumored taco emporium, author Adam Chandler tells the story of what the industry prefers to call “quick-serve restaurants.” It’s a tasty biographical account of men and meals, the fun of which comes as Chandler explains how take-out fits in with everyday society and how Americans lived parallel to each stage of fast-food’s development.

There’s a bit of business in those tales, but there’s also a helping of nostalgia and bites of Oh-Wow in what Chandler offers; taking it further, he writes of how religion and insistent fans changed what we eat, which “secret menu items” are a thing, and why Baby Boomers are good for the industry.

So grab a burger, pour the ketchup, spoon up the coleslaw, and crack open “Drive-Thru Dreams.”  If eat-on-the-go is your summertime go-to, it’s worth a nibble.

“Bad Axe County”

  • By John Galligan
  • c. 2019, Atria
  • $26, $35 Canada; 327 pages

Your neighbor minds his business. And yours, the guy’s down the road, and the lady’s next door. He sees everything and is happy to share – or so you’ve heard. As in the new novel “Bad Axe County” by John Galligan, nobody tells you a thing.

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When the Weather Service said that a storm was coming and it might dump 10 inches of snow, few in Bad Axe County worried.

It was just another spring in Wisconsin and the snow wouldn’t last. Still, Interim Sheriff Heidi Kick needed to keep her deputies alert, though that was becoming a problem: half her staff was loyal to the last sheriff, and they made little-to-no effort to hide their dislike for her.

“Bad Axe County” by John Galligan.

Much of Bad Axe County kind of seemed like that, ever since the night a dozen years ago when Heidi’s parents were killed in what authorities said was a murder-suicide. Heidi was serving as the county’s Dairy Queen then, and folks never forgot that those both set her apart. It surely didn’t make her job – or her life – easier.

Neither did a growing sense that there were things people weren’t telling her.

Like, when elderly librarian Harold Snustead was assaulted at work. The attack seemed senseless, even to witnesses who also said that Walt Beavers had been on the library’s public-access computer. When Heidi checked its history, she discovered that Beavers had been looking at a website for local sex workers and possible predators. Was that why he skedaddled after the attack? 

At the county’s edge, Pepper Greengrass had only known Dale Hill for a short time, but she already knew everything about him: he wasn’t very bright, so the 16-year-old played him like her Ho-Chunk ancestors played a drum. Hill was surely her ticket away from her sleazy step-father, so she’d go along with whatever he said; besides, Pepper’s Dad once told her to “go with the flow” and she’d always be okay. She remembered that, as she was passed from man to man in a line that stretched from 1980 to South Dakota and straight into Bad Axe County.

“Bad Axe County” author John Galligan.

Readers who are fans of author John Galligan’s previous books may’ve wondered where Galligan’s been since the last one. One possible answer: he may’ve been perfecting his craft, because “Bad Axe County” is as good as it gets.

With a shiver and nod at today’s news, this novel opens with a scream of two different sorts as we’re introduced to a new, and quite reluctant, crimefighter in Heidi Kick, who wears armor that’s part platinum, part cotton, and she’s not afraid to get it dirty. Readers will also be delighted that Kick is fresh, open, not-quite-naïve, but willing to be schooled; surrounding her is a bawdy dispatcher, a too-handsome officer, an eager EMS volunteer, and criminals that’ll make you cringe, gasp, and dig your nails in.

Readers of thrillers take note, then: “Bad Axe County” is wildly good, frighteningly realistic, sometimes raw, and gritty as dirt. It’s perfect for you. Make it your business to read it.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.