Unlike popular opinion, the history of junk food didn’t start at the same point in time and space as the history of McDonald’s. The name and location of the first junk food restaurant is lost to history however it could have been in Ancient Rome. Urban living in Ancient Rome involved many individuals in multi-story apartment buildings, most of which had little or no cooking area. Street vendors and walk-up restaurants fed large segments of the populace. Later on, throughout the Middle Ages, quick and cheap food was plentiful in the larger cities of Europe, including London and Paris, where the junk food establishments of the day fed locals and tourists alike.
Pilgrimages to holy sites were becoming popular and tourism generally was becoming a possibility for more individuals than ever before in the past in time. A rapid bite of hearty, inexpensive food was news eagerly shared among travelers. The history of junk food in America runs parallel to the invention of the vehicle. Both of these industries are so intertwined that many people today think of junk food as anything being served out of a window and into an automobile. McDonald’s may easily claim fame for perfecting the service and style of cooking we know today as junk food, but the first junk food restaurant in the United States wasn’t a McDonald’s.
It had been White Castle, a hamburger joint that opened in Wichita, Kansas, in 1916. Curb service, where a fast food restaurant employee delivers food from the restaurant to waiting customers outside in their cars, started as a novelty at an A&W Root Beer shop in the 1920, but was so popular the practice spread nationwide in short order. By the 40s, the friendly carhop person delivering the food to the vehicles had gone mobile, too, wearing roller skates to speed service.
By the 50s, the junk food industry boom was in full swing, incorporating and perfecting marketing strategies borrowed from earlier days. Fast food franchises had become popular dining stops from coast to coast, thanks to their standardized menus, easily recognized signage, and unified advertising strategies that made household names of such industry leaders as White Castle, McDonald’s, A&W Root Beer, and Howard Johnson’s. The history of junk food in America was set in 1951 when that year’s edition of the Merriam Webster dictionary included the term for the very first time.