On Screen, a Milkshake Is Never Just a Milkshake

In the new absurdist rom-com Bottoms, two teens get to know each other over perfectly pink strawberry milkshakes at a diner. One is a cheerleader with a quarterback boyfriend who doesn’t seem to care much for her, the other a shy social outcast who longs for her new friend. They gently exchange glances and smiles, realizing there may be some chemistry there. It’s a scene cemented into the American imagination: wholesome young love blooming in a small town — with a side of sugary whipped dairy.

Only in this case, the couple are two girls, Isabel and Josie, played by Havana Rose Liu and Ayo Edebiri. Squint and the diner scene looks straight out of Norman Rockwell’s America — before, of course, you remember that this is exactly the kind of relationship that the cultivated image of idyllic suburban life so often represented by diners and burgers and milkshakes was meant to destroy.

Milkshakes are in a strange limbo in American food culture. They are more novelty than actual foodstuff, something to post on Instagram (Black Tap), order ironically to participate in a meme (Grimace shake), or hurl at right-wing trolls. But in movies and television, they remain a dietary staple, something without which no heart-to-hearts at a diner would exist, no arch commentary on the American project would land. The milkshakes of our imagination ultimately mean so much more than they do in real life.

While ice cream and vanilla and chocolate all have their origins elsewhere, the milkshake is distinctly American. It has become an easy shorthand in pop culture to symbolize the story that America — specifically, white, heterosexual, 20th-century America — wants to tell about itself. It’s straightforward in the Archie comics and ironic on Riverdale. It’s used as a campy juxtaposition to the dark plots of Pulp Fiction. And when Daniel Plainview mocks Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood, he sneers, “I drink your milkshake” — an oddly innocent invocation given the cruelty at play.

The word “milkshake” originally described an alcoholic health tonic of eggs, milk, and whiskey, but the milkshake as we know it was invented at a crossroads in American history. Most sources credit Chicago Walgreens employee Ivar Coulson with birthing the modern milkshake when he added vanilla ice cream to the soda fountain’s chocolate malted milk in 1922. At that time, many pharmacies had fountains for mixing drugs like caffeine and bromides into sweet sodas and milk drinks, but soon the beverages took off on their own. “This is during Prohibition, so a lot of people were maybe a little bored looking for things to do with their time,” says Adam Chandler, author of Drive-Thru Dreams. Instead of a bar, “soda fountains became that third place for people to go.”

But this was also a time of social turmoil. Three years before Coulson invented the milkshake, Chicago faced deadly race riots. “Woodrow Wilson, a few years before, had segregated the federal government,” Chandler says. “Socially, there was this conservative thread that was kind of pulling the country in different directions.” At this time, most soda fountains were segregated, places where white people specifically could comfortably enjoy a treat outside their homes (though later they would become where Black people and other activists would fight for equality). The milkshake as an avatar for whiteness and a conservative idea for what America should look like was built in from the beginning.

According to Chandler, the milkshake’s image grew stronger as fast-food chains proliferated in suburbs across the country in the 1940s and ’50s; the milkshake was part of the model of replicating the soda fountain experience that white families left behind in the cities.

In a 2018 piece in the Atlantic, Suzy Swartz described how she felt watching the kids on Riverdale — in the midst of dealing with serial killers and cults and underground child boxing matches — sipping milkshakes. “I became nostalgic for the adolescent years when I could eat like the kids on the show do, devouring burgers, fries, and shakes with abandon and little concern for bodily or environmental consequences. I remembered a recent past when things were vaguely better and easier than they are now.” The milkshake does evoke wistfulness for a time before concerns about cholesterol and sugar intake. But when comparing life to a time when things were “better,” one must question better for whom? Though fast food would go on to saturate every market and demographic, the meal it originally served was nostalgia for a select few. Under the sweetness and the froth, the milkshake represents America not as it was but as certain people wanted it to be. Wholesome, innocent, white.

According to Potter Palmer, director of food and wine programs at Boston University’s Metropolitan College, food makes for a great metaphor because “food is visual. It engages all our senses.” A character’s eating choices can reveal information about their class, their tastes, their relationships. And when it comes to milkshakes, there is an instant association with Americana — as well as an inherent excess of consumption onscreen. Basically, the darker desires behind the nostalgia. Palmer brings up Pulp Fiction as an example: “There’s a lot of consumption in the film, but it’s not really a celebration of that consumption,” he says. Uma Thurman’s character drinking a milkshake is a joke: This is not wholesome; these are not innocent people. The milkshake is too much, too expensive, too sugary, but that doesn’t stop her.

But perhaps the reason the soda fountain milkshake is such an effective storytelling device is because it’s a dish stuck in amber. The teens in Bottoms being brought milkshakes or Uma Thurman ordering one right before she ODs make you take note because who orders a milkshake? When they’re popular today, it’s been in the form of overloaded milkshakes designed to go viral on Instagram, or boozy milkshakes for nostalgic adults accidentally invoking the drink’s origins. But even those are “fun” only because of their ability to riff on the past.

Seeing a milkshake makes you think of the past because, from their creation, milkshakes and the soda fountains they came from represented something. Their health-based, Prohibition origins were immediately a symbol of what America could be like if it jettisoned the “bad” — which meant anything that didn’t uphold a white, heteronormative, capitalist society. Thus, their presence onscreen is never an accident. No one just happens to be sipping a milkshake while the scene happens around them — they are film’s greatest edible metaphor.

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