In a recent episode of This American Life, producer Zoe Chace travels to the headquarters of the fast-food chain Hardee’s to get to the bottom of one of the stranger trends in American cuisine in recent years: the food mashup. Pioneered in 2010 by KFC’s notorious “Double Down” sandwich—a bacon and cheese sandwich with two slabs of fried chicken in place of the buns—frankenfoods have swept fast-food chains in recent years: the hot dog crust pizza, the Doritos taco. So who comes up with this stuff, Chace wonders?
When she meets the small Hardee’s team that tests out hundreds of combinations, it becomes clear that while these absurd products are clogging American’s arteries, they’re also, on a certain level, brilliant. As healthier chains like Chipotle and Panera have begun to crowd the fast-food market, older companies have been forced to innovate. And innovate they have: When the Doritos taco was released in 2012, for instance, it lifted Taco Bell out of a yearlong sales slump.
From the light bulb to the iPhone—with the car, the pacemaker, and the Snuggie in between—Americans pride themselves on their inventions. We put a high premium on ingenuity, whether it’s used to cure diseases or market a sandwich. Yet, what is it about our nation that makes us love and encourage new ideas? Is it something in our approach to education, our economy, our cowboy mythos? How do we pick it up, and how do we pass it on?
In advance of the Smithsonian/Zócalo “What It Means to Be American” event What Does American Ingenuity Look Like?, we asked a group of American-ingenuity experts: What are the aspects of U.S. culture that encourage us to prize innovation?