I never thought about eating fast food as a marker of American industriousness. I just thought we were always in a hurry, and liked to avoid waiting. When he put it this way, it seems obvious, like a lot of ideas that one has not quite formed. I'm re-reading the book Chop Suey by Andrew Coe, tracing Chinese restaurant food in American life -- in the early days of Chinese restaurants, a similar combination of convenience, status, and low prices drew Americans to Chinese restaurants, then often called Chop Suey Houses. I'm not sure that they had yet started eating on the run, though.
Cultural historian Barry Glassner said Americans have an unusually complex relationship with food, influenced by convenience and status. We want our food quick and easy, and at the same time we use it to show our rank in the pecking order. Fast-food breakfasts, he said, can fulfill both purposes.
"In America, it's considered a mark of our industriousness that we're very efficient in our meals," said Glassner, a professor at the University of Southern California. "In other times and places, you would be seen as a little crazy."