The psychology of fast food choices

Greetings from the Augusta Heritage Center’s Bluegrass Week in Elkins, WV. Music camps are usually tons of fun for both instructors and students alike, but they usually don’t afford a lot of time for writing (sleeping is also rare, and discouraged). Therefore, I present an “encore presentation” of a little piece I wrote about the psychology of fast food choices on the road. It might be the greasiest writing I’ve ever done for Bluegrass Today.

Judging by the hate mail, the slashed tires, and the kidnapping of my goldfish, I’d say last week’s column was a little too edgy. And I guess I understand; after all, what could be more controversial than suggesting that entertainers avoid controversy?

For the next few weeks, I plan to dial it way back, and we’ll be devoting this Bluegrass Today space to the discussion of soft, fuzzy puppies, cute and friendly ponies, and we’ll devote one week entirely to recipes involving marshmallows.

Before we get to those comforting topics, though, I want to delve into an issue that brings comfort to some, strikes fear in the hearts (and stomachs) of others, but is way too deep-fried to be controversial: road food, particularly the fast food variety.

Unless you’re in a very herbal kind of band, one that brings coolers of their own sustainable, locally grown kohlrabi on the road, at some point or another you’re going to be on the way to a gig without a lot of time to spare, and you’re going to patronize one of the familiar chains of fast-food purveyors we all have a love/hate relationship with. Maybe that should be a “like/hate” relationship.

In the same way that Mexican food is basically the same four ingredients reworked into different shapes, fast food is a completely hamburger, french fry, and fried chicken-based experience, no matter how much they try to jazz up their coffee drinks, or how many wilted “side salads” they serve up. And yet, years on the road turns traveling musicians into connoisseurs, some of whom feel strongly about the subtle differences in the way these basic ingredients are presented.

These strong feelings lead to trouble sometimes when deciding which of these outlets to give your business to. Even in the most agreeable and easy-going bands, there always has to be one passive-aggressive member who will at first claim that he or she is content to stop anywhere, but then will raise a series of objections (“That looks like a dangerous left turn to get in there.”) about other members’ choices until you settle on the one he/she really preferred in the first place. If you ignore this manipulation and go somewhere else, you will be blamed for all of its shortcomings, and what fast food place doesn’t have shortcomings?

I did some research (not really) and discovered that there’s actually some serious psychology connected with our fast food choices, i.e., the fact that you might go to Wendy’s more often than Burger King says something about your personality. Dr. Karl Ziegenstuhl, the author of the groundbreaking Hamburger Envy: Special Sauce and the Male Ego, said the following, in his most recent work, Drive-thru Self Esteem: The Psychology of Cheese Toppings: “A simple decision like whether to order a combo with fries and a drink, or just the sandwich, says a lot about who we are, and our relationship with our parents. Fast food can be a barometer of our deepest neuroses.”

His final chapter on chipotle sauces blew my mind.

In the book, he outlined some of the traits that are associated with choosing various familiar national fast food chains. I’ve tried to put them in layman’s terms below. This is only a partial list:

KFC: The fact that you chose a business that through their acronym seems to be hiding what their product is, indicates some secretiveness on your part. You’re also very fond of fried chicken, and have been known to wear the occasional string tie.

(On a side note, a musician friend, when in his 20s, had never heard the full name “Kentucky Fried Chicken,” and didn’t believe us when we said that’s what “KFC” stands for. After that, I tried to tell him that “DQ” stands for “Delicious Quota.” He didn’t buy that either.)

McDonalds: You long for consistency in your life, and tend to be a traditionalist. You are foodie-like in your french fry purism, and you also believe that Flatt and Scruggs’ music went to the dogs after 1963. You tend towards cheapness in birthday gifts.

Wendy’s: You’re a person who appreciates flexibility, since the Frosty can be eaten with a spoon or a straw. You’re a multi-instrumentalist. If you’re a man, you’re fairly secure because you don’t mind having to say “biggie” in public. You probably don’t change your strings very often.

Burger King: The frame-broiling speaks to your primitive side, and you may have a latent tendency towards pyromania. The old “have it your way” slogan caters to your sense of individuality. If you find yourself requesting a “blackened” salad or milkshake, you may need to seek help. You know all the words to He Will Set Your Fields on Fire.

Hardee’s: The fact that they’re called “Carl’s Jr.” on the west coast appeals to your desire to change your image and identity, while eating all the same food. Pig in a Pen is your favorite song, and you’ve never actually been inside a health food store.

Arby’s: You just like saying “horsey sauce.”

Bon appetit!