Dinner at 70 MPH

Preston Lerner is a frequent contributor to West.

When cup holder mania first swept the car industry about 20 years ago, prevailing wisdom held that more was merrier and bigger was better, which is how we ended up with minivans able to cradle Slurpees by the dozen. But whatever their excesses, early cup holders performed a utilitarian function: holding cups. They served the food industry; the food industry didn’t serve them.

My, how the table settings have turned. In the latest assault on culinary sanity, there’s now an unofficial food segment called cup-holder cuisine--food that’s not merely packaged to fit a cup holder, but created to be eaten while driving. Consider, for example, Yoplait’s artfully bottled yogurt Smoothie. Or 7-Eleven’s Go-Go Taquitos, which, according to connoisseurs, fit four to a cup holder. Or Taco Bell’s Crunchwrap Supreme, a stuffed and sealed, leakproof tortilla marketed as “good to go.”

Naturally, some freeway foods have ended up as roadkill. McSalad Shakers never caught on with McDonald’s customers, partly because they didn’t want to wear lettuce along with their lap belt. Another notorious food flop was IncrEdibles Push ‘n’ Eat eggs--scrambled eggs designed to be squeegeed into the mouth from a microwavable tube--which, apparently, looked a lot more appetizing on the drawing board than they did inside a Honda Civic.

But despite the failures of salad in a cup and omelet on a stick, market research by NPD Group shows that the average American eats 32 restaurant-purchased meals in the car each year, up from 19 in 1985. John Nihoff, a professor at the Culinary Institute of America, says Americans “feed"--liberally defined to include sipping coffee or scarfing down a doughnut--themselves nearly one out of every five meals while driving. No wonder Burger King is reportedly poised to roll out wraps shaped to fit in cup holders. Or that Dodge is prominently promoting its heated cup holders--perfect for warming up the sippable Soup at Hand lineup, which Campbell’s bills as the world’s “first truly portable soup products.”


Eating while driving is yet another form of multi-tasking at which Americans excel. If market forces work as advertised, cup-holder cuisine ought to increase in quantity and quality in the coming years. But Nihoff, for one, isn’t buying. “No one is allowed to eat in my car,” he says. “When I found a coffee cup in my back seat, my wife and I had a big fight.”