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Fast Food

Picking up dinner at a drive-thru window? It's probably better if you don't slow down and think about it.

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If you live in the suburbs long enough, you're going to regret eating fast food.

No, I'm not talking about those times when you inhaled a quick burger at 10 p.m. and then had your cramping stomach wake you about six hours later and force you to make an ape-like dash toward the commode.

I'm not even talking about how your teenaged daughter affirms that certain of her male friends really do whiz in the lemonade when they get really hacked off at management for, like, making them mop up and all, you know?

No. The regret I'm talking about is altogether more profound. This regret will slap you in the face when you read Fast Food Nation, a recent bestseller by Eric Schlosser, a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, and a book that will not merely activate your gag reflex but will inform you of the ways our cultural worship of expedience and haste has frazzled our souls and endangered our well-being.

Subtitled "The Dark Side of the All-American Meal," you pretty much know what you're letting yourself in for when you crack Fast Food Nation's covers. The book is divided into two main sections, the first of which details the etiology of the fast-food epidemic. More on this in a moment.

By far more intense, though, is the second section of the book. It's the section that examines ...

Unfortunately I can't tell you what it examines, because I couldn't read beyond page 150 or so, where Schlosser starts looking at just how the food is grown, processed, prepared, and distributed.

Artificial flavorings, megatons of potatoes, grease, cows, pigs, chickens, growth hormones, slaughterhouses. Oh, my God, the slaughterhouses. Schlosser goes behind the doors at one modern "meat processing plant" and describes the efficiency with which animals are dispatched and transformed into food. This productivity is echoed in the job titles along the processing line: Knocker, Sticker, Shackler, Rumper, First-Legger, Knuckle- Dropper, Navel-Boner, Feed Kill Chain.

It gets worse. I'm not talking about rumored ingredients like cow nostrils or pig scrotums that are purported to be in modern fast food. I'm talking about little killers like E. coli and salmonella, to name just a couple of the microorganisms that are widely spread by high-volume meat processing. Schlosser devotes a whole chapter to these pathogens, noting that "the federal government has the legal authority to recall a defective toaster oven or stuffed animal -- but still lacks the power to recall tons of contaminated, potentially lethal meat."

As a die-hard suburbanite, I have an obligation to eat fast food. It's in my blood, literally, floating around in there on glops of cholesterol. True, fast food is ubiquitous as all get-out, but it's still a suburban stepchild, and those of us who live in Burbland share a common ancestry and a spiritual kinship with all foods and beverages that are bestowed upon us via a transaction at a drive-thru window.

And I'm mighty grateful to Schlosser for helping to define this bond, for tracing the development of the fast-food phenomenon, which he does admirably in Part One, the section of the book that I actually could read without my face turning the color of guacamole.

Here, Schlosser covers the beginnings of fast food, and notes that the postwar "car culture" of the late 1940s gave rise to fast- food franchises like McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut -- the whole mess of them. This nascent car culture, spurred by Eisenhower's development of the interstate highway system, led also to suburbia, motels, malls, smog, and all manner of other modern afflictions. A perfect synergy was thus established: We now had a culture with no time to stop and eat, fed by an industry that practically required that its customers eat without stopping.

Fast Food Nation looks at the industry's transient work force, most of it made up of teenagers or minorities who work for minimum wage or less. And the author addresses "branding" and marketing schemes that begin catering to customers barely old enough to chew solid food.

But Schlosser's main contribution is to point out the many ways that fast-food culture has become American culture -- and vice versa. As a logical extension of fast food's marketing prowess, Schlosser suggests that spreading the gospel of fast food around the world has almost single-handedly created what we have come to call "globalization."

As Schlosser is quick to remind us, we are indeed what we eat. I'd like to add that we are also, to a large extent, what we read. Give Fast Food Nation a thorough scan, but please remember what I said at the beginning: You will regret it.

Now, somebody please pass me that squeezy thing of ketchup, will you?

You can e-mail David Dawson at letters@memphisflyer.com.

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