Fast Food Nation

“There is nothing inevitable about the fast food nation that surrounds us –– about its marketing strategies, labor policies, and agricultural techniques, about its relentless drive for conformity and cheapness. The triumph of McDonald’s and its imitators was by no means preordained.”

“Our competitors are our friends, and our customers are our enemies” – the former president of Archer Daniels Midland

The most recognizable symbols of Americana are brand names such as McDonalds, Subway, Coca Cola, and now Starbucks. Fast Food Nation is Eric Schlosser’s classic work of investigative reportage that looks at the food and labor systems that led to the first major wave of these corporations.

Schlosser traces the fast food phenomenon to California in the 1940s and 50s where drive-in hotdog and burger joints began to pop up, catering to the newfound car culture. At the heart of these restaurants was the “Speedee” system that applied the principles of the assembly line to food service, simultaneously ensuring a consistent product across locations and reducing the need for skilled staff.

Allowing for some variation––Ray Kroc, for instance, expanded McDonalds by purchasing land for new franchisees and becoming their landlord––the model is simple: offer large quantities of tasty food to consumers at the lowest possible price point, while making a profit through a) volume and b) reducing the cost of both labor and supply. The superficially-attractive combination of taste, quantity, and cost feeds into the first, while the second is accomplished through increased efficiency, industrial supply chains, and anti-union activity.

From the point of sale, which takes up the entirety of part one, in part two, Schlosser works backward through the supply chain, profiling the conditions in the potato and meat industry in a reprise of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The common thread in Schlosser’s account is the overwhelming priority on corporate profit that pushes the speed in slaughterhouses past the point of safety for either workers or consumers.

Fast Food Nation is dated. Schlosser does not predict, for instance, the meteoric rise of pizza chains and Starbucks (admittedly, the story of coffee supply chains follows a different form of exploitation) or the local and slow food movement, and his cautionary tale about mad cow disease is more at home in the 1990s than in the 2010s. Public discussion of the industry also continued after 2001 when this was published. In 2004, the documentary Super Size Me set out to demonstrate the catastrophic health consequences of eating a McDonalds-based diet, in 2012 there was outrage surrounding “Pink Slime,” a finely processed meat product added to hamburger meat, and in 2016, The Founder dramatized Ray Kroc’s takeover of the McDonald’s franchise.

And yet, while non-historical details have changed, the broad strokes of Fast Food Nation remain relevant.

Fast food, both of the sort Schlosser profiles and of the so-called fast-casual variety, remains ubiquitous in the American foodscape. Reading about the corporate systems gave me flashbacks to the years 2009 through 2012 when I worked in Quiznos restaurants. Everything about the menu, from the recipes to prep to the script with customers was finely choreographed. The production line had four stations even though by the time I worked there we almost never had even four people working at the same time. Every station assembled food from prepared ingredients according to recipes on easy-to-follow job aids. Drinks were the largest profit item on the menu, at the time a $1.99 drink cost $.27 in paper and syrup––the credit card transaction fee was higher––and most skilled job (other than customer service) was handling the bladed tools for slicing meat, cheese, and tomatoes.

Quiznos marketed itself as a cut above fast food, with quality recipes, ingredients, and sauces, putting it in a class with the likes of Panera. In some ways this is true, but its primary competition was Subway, a fact immediately apparent in the handful of regional corporate meetings I attended. Most notably, in the wake of the 2008 financial crash (the year I graduated college, which, in part, led to this employment), Quiznos was trying to stay competitive with Subway at a time when it worried that a premium price point was driving customers away. Their solution introduced 5-dollar large sandwiches: basic subs without fancy sauces to match the Subway 5-dollar footlong.

Quiznos had already peaked by the time I worked there, beginning a decline that saw it lose more than 90% of its locations in about ten years. Cutting corners on supply and labor couldn’t compensate for discounted prices and the restaurant was no longer profitable for franchisees. Nevertheless, the fingerprints of the fast food revolution were all over the Quiznos experience, from the shiny but sterile veneer designed to draw people in while being easy to clean to the Taylorization that had inspectors time how long it took employees to make a sandwich at each station. The only things lacking were cars and the overt marketing to children.

As Fast Food Nation approaches its 20-year anniversary, I am left reflecting on how the financial crisis of 2008 might have contributed to its continuing relevance. There has been a renaissance in food culture in the past decade, with food competitions and explorations splashed across the television landscape and waves of excellent food––high class, diverse, local, ethical food–– have sprung up across the country. We don’t yet have a taco truck on every corner, but we’re inching in that direction.

Yet, it seems that the only thing that millennials are not killing is fast food, with the possible exception of McDonalds (depending on who you believe). Fast food continues to dominate the restaurant marketshare, with particular growth in pizza restaurants.

(A few years back I read an investigative feature on fast food pizza that looked at cheese consumption and how the industry’s demand for cheap tomatoes was warping the Nigerian economy, but I can’t remember which outlet had it and can’t find a link. Sorry.)

The war for which company can offer the greatest combination of taste and quantity at the lowest price…while paying workers as little as possible, rages on. Schlosser’s story details how entrepreneurial innovation can metastasize into runaway greed and remains relevant at time when fast food workers have been protesting for a living wage. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But there is also a larger point. The ubiquitous fast food restaurants that dot American highways, cities and malls are just one manifestation of the larger systems that lie behind the American diet. These corporations might have started a seismic shift in US food systems, but these same systems lie behind the American diet from readily available processed foods in stores to innumerable restaurants that all purchase from the same suppliers. In short, the US remains a fast food nation.

ΔΔΔ

I have since finished another of Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunthor novels, 2017’s Trace, and have begun reading A Long Day’s Evening, a Turkish novel by Bilge Karasu. Largely set in 8th century Byzantium, the novel offers a meditation on the obligations between the individual and authority.

Four Months Without Coffee

I had my last cup of coffee on November 6. If my quick finger math is correct, that means I had my last cup of coffee four months ago today.

This realization dawned on me this morning when several old friends posted pictures and captions about their love of coffee to Instagram. One of these, a college suitemate, I might term a coffee buddy. Seeing these posts sent my mind wandering, wondering whether I miss coffee.

Back in November I wrote a short reflection on the painful transition away from my drug of choice, noting the feeling of mental fog and general exhaustion that came with removing the stimulant from my system. Gradually that sensation faded. My body doesn’t react nearly as poorly to either too much or too little black tea (mostly English breakfast) as it did to coffee so while I still drink three or four cups a day, there are also days when I reach the late morning before realizing that I would like one.

And yet, there are times I still miss coffee. As a constant writing companion, tea does just fine, but I liked the taste of good coffee with just a splash of cream and I liked the ritual of brewing and drinking, particularly at coffee shops, that tea comes close to, but never quite replicates. But this is insufficient reason to return to a behavior that was becoming physically destructive to my body, so for the foreseeable future I remain someone who doesn’t drink coffee.

One Week Without Coffee

I have not had coffee in an entire week.

This is literally unbelievable to anyone who knew me in graduate school and later years of college. As in, “I don’t drink coffee anymore,” is the innocuous phrase that would let people know that I was under duress. I am the type of person who keeps a list of his favorite coffee roasters and shops in every city and who once made the joke on Twitter that he “is more caffeine now than man, twisted and evil.” And yet, here we are.

My body started reacting very poorly to even relatively small amounts of coffee, probably on account of the acid. I am quite clearly a caffeine addict, so began to scale down my intake rather than risking going cold turkey. This meant several weeks of just a small cup of coffee at about 5 AM before cutting it out entirely, replacing some of the caffeine with black tea.

Last Wednesday was the first day without a cup of coffee in I don’t know how long, and it went about as expected. I had four cups of tea and several doses of ibuprofen for the headaches. I did the same on Thursday, and the headaches had stopped by Friday. I have been through this process a couple of times in the past decade when I thought my coffee intake was creeping too high and cut myself off so that smaller doses of caffeine would work again. But these periods were always during the summer when I didn’t have to worry about my head feeling like it was full of wool and could just take an entire day to nap. This time, in addition to various writing projects, I had to teach. Talking in front of students through a fog of caffeine-withdrawal is a challenge, to put it mildly.

The switch to tea seems to be working, though. Still, it has absolutely still been a struggle. Without the constant buzz I feel a little bit dull and want to go to bed a little bit earlier, but my gut is happier and the early returns indicate that my sleep is a bit better. Other than struggling to read more than a few pages of a book before bed, these changes have been good, healthy.

But I say this knowing that I wouldn’t have stopped drinking coffee had I not been all-but forced and that I will probably start drinking it again if I am able. The thing is, as much as I like the bolt of energy, I also like sipping on a cup of good coffee when writing, or grading, or reading. I find it relaxing. Tea may someday supplant coffee, but right now it doesn’t have the same effect.

Going to Parts Unknown

More than once this afternoon I’ve had to wipe tears from my eyes over the death of a rich man I’ve never met. I’ve mourned the passing of celebrities before, but never to this degree, which rivals the emotional reaction I have had to family members passing.

I am, of course, reflecting on the the death of Tony Bourdain and trying to articulate why this one hit me so hard.

I have been travelling the world vicariously with him for a long time, revisiting places I’ve been fortunate enough to see myself and getting to travel to places I haven’t been able to go, whether for lack of time or money.

I was hooked by Kitchen Confidential and sucked into the craft of No Reservations. I’ve had some of my favorite episodes of Parts Unknown on in the background today, including the Punjab, Sichuan, where he force-feeds eminent chef Eric Ripert spicy peppers and alcohol, Massachusetts, with its powerful look at the narcotics epidemic, and now Charleston just so that I can chuckle at the Chef’s Table music played over B-roll of a Waffle House meal being prepared. Each episode is different, but they are all approached with sincerity, curiosity, and humor, as well as an attention to the craft of film-making and even literary stylings that I find particularly appealing. The shows are approachable, but not stupid, smart but not arrogant—that is, unless you are a vegetarian watching anything but his shows on India.

Tony Bourdain reminded me that success is not something that is the sole purview of the young. Tony was not perfect, but neither did he pretend that he was.

But with rare exceptions, it isn’t so much what Bourdain produced that I have found so moving, but the outpouring of anecdotes and stories online from friends, professional acquaintances, and random people who happened to meet him once. The people who have said that Tony’s enthusiasm convinced them as picky eaters to go try something else; the people who related anecdotes about a passing conversation with him in line to get food at some food stall; his hatred of Henry Kissinger; stories about his unwillingness to tolerate people who don’t treat waitstaff with respect or for food waste or for Harvey Weinstein. Above all: the sheer number of people who posted about how his show about a place or people who were theirs, including Arabs, West Virginians, Louisianians (to name a very small few), did right by them. How this aging white Yankee from New York working for multi-million dollar companies came to their place and embraced their food, their traditions, and them in a way that allowed their stories to be told.

As many people pointed out on Twitter, Tony Bourdain pushed a product that encouraged Americans not to be afraid of the world and all that it contains. Without trivializing the Tony’s loss to his loved ones, the supreme tragedy as I see it is that this message of curiosity, openness and enthusiasm stood opposite the dominant political narrative in the United States, which has been hijacked by people who peddle fear and who exploit position of power for selfish ends. It isn’t that he was the only person carrying this standard, but a picture is worth a thousand words and Parts Unknown every week delivered warmth and humanity from some small pocket of the world .

We are fortunate there is such a catalog of Tony’s voice already available, but that doesn’t diminish the sadness at his passing at a time when the relentless cacophony from the other side threatens to drown out the basic decency that he stood for. That voice will be missed.

On pizza toppings

I bake a lot and although the item I am most proud of, the one that would be my technical challenge for GBBO contestants, is the bagel, the foodstuff that started the compulsive baking is pizza. For a little context, I have tried five different dough recipes and although I have settled on one that I like a lot, it is not yet perfect. But crusts, even though they are absolutely essential to the perfect pizza, are not the subject of this post, the toppings are. Or rather, some toppings are.

A little more background: I was in Minneapolis recently for family reasons and on my way out of town I stopped at Punch Pizza, a chain that fires their pizzas at exceptionally high temperatures, which gives a delicious char onto their chewy crust. Punch does not have my favorite pizzas around, but theirs are more than serviceable, especially for when I am pressed for time. Being on my own, I went with one of my favorite pizza toppings: onions. Usually when I go there I am sharing my pizza with someone who doesn’t like onions, so I this was the first time I had them at Punch. As it turns out, I was not a fan of the onions on this particular pizza and since I had an eight hour drive that followed immediately upon eating, I had ample time to think about what went wrong here.

According to Punch’s website, they fire their pizzas “in a wood-burning oven to a blistering 900 degrees,” which, as noted above, is one of the reasons I like their crust so much. The extreme temperature also cuts down on the cooking time since the toppings warm and the cheese melts quickly. And yet I found a strange thing happened: the onions I ordered were warmed up, but they did not completely cook through and caramelize the way that they frequently do on pizzas I cook at home. I still ate the pizza, of course, but I think that I will have to take into account the cooking time and temperature when choosing toppings in the future.

Brunch: A History – Farha Ternikar

You don’t eat brunch. You do brunch.

I took a break from reading War and Peace to breeze through Ternikar’s slim history of Brunch from its origins in Great Britain in the late 1800s to its global phenomenon.

Although it began in Great Britain, Ternikar shows that Brunch took root in the United States. One vector, epitomized by french toast, entered through New Orleans, while another, with Eggs Benedict, came through New York. In both cases, brunch began as am meal enjoyed only by the elite because it required leisure time that few could afford. From these beginnings, though, brunch became a middle class and even working class meal, one that still went hand-in-hand with relaxation, but also that offered freedom for women because it combined two meals into one, thereby limiting the number of dishes that were used and freeing time for families. The combination of leisure and pomp associated brunch with church and weddings, as a time for people to mingle and eat, and culture manuals described how it was the perfect opportunity for single women to socialize with married friends. And, of course, day drinking features prominently.

Brunch consists of five short chapters: history, cultural importance, brunch at home, away from home, and in popular culture. Ternikar draws extensively on and quotes think pieces, culture manuals and magazines that both support and oppose the phenomenon, which frequently makes it a lively read. Themes such as luxury, relaxation, female activity, all appear clearly in these chapters. I enjoyed reading Brunch, but had some questions about the choices in putting the book together. For instance, I found the black and white images that are drawn from internet sources rather than, say, from field research to take away from overall product. I also found that the author did well to show the breadth of brunch in popular culture and around the world, but it also makes the book repetitious.

The Bagel, Maria Balinska

Sometimes when Amazon reviewers give low marks to a book the comments indicate that a book is not good. Sometimes the comments reveal that the Person Angry on the Internet didn’t actually read the same book that the author wrote. Sometimes the reader understood the book but is just angry that it isn’t the book he or she wanted. The last scenario is true of Maria Balinska’s The Bagel, which the reviewer lamented was principally a history of Jewish labor history, rather than a history of the eating of bagels. This is a valid observation, though Balinska does her best to lay out what evidence there is for how bagels were consumed, too.

Balinska starts with an overview of what she considers to be related breads from China to Italy, all wheat breads (distinct from rye, barley, oat, etc) made into dense loaves that go stale quickly, are usually eaten by dipping in tea or other hot liquids, and are baked into rings. One of the closest relatives to the bagel is the pretzel, with the three holes taking on religious significance. Balinska traces the bagel from medieval Poland, where it diverged emerged from a Polish wheat ring bread owarzanek, a luxury in a region that mostly produced rye flour, but one that was a Sunday food because it was associated with purity. The bagel separated from the Christian version by being boiled when the Polish monarchy issued restrictions against Jewish bakers making owarzanek.

The story crosses the Atlantic in the 1880s with the waves of Jewish immigrants and is wrapped around the labor politics, food safety standards, and anti-immigrant sentiments in the subsequent decades. Despite the complaint lodged in the Amazon review, this was the most interesting and strongest part of the book and one that I want to use should I ever find myself teaching the second half of US history. The stories about the conditions in these bakeries make me thankful for food safety standards, and the labor upheavals mirror the more well-known industries. The 1905 Supreme Court Case Lochner v New York, which ruled that the government could not limit the hours people worked, was brought by a bakery. At the NY bagel baker’s union’s height, Balinska argues that it was the shape and density of the dough, which defied mechanization, that gave the union power.

Balinska concludes the story by recounting how mechanization and big business in the form of Lender’s Bagels led to the Jewish bread conquering the United States. Frozen bagels made them last longer (fresh bagels earlier had a tendency to go stale in a matter of hours) and they became a readily available convenience food for homes and hotels alike.

The Bagel is an engaging read, though Balinska’s specific narrative is how special Jewish food in Poland became ubiquitous in America gives short shrift to the story of bagels in Montreal and tends to be somewhat reductive in order to trace this narrative. For instance, the existence of Bagel traditions in Florida, Buffalo, and those in New York run by organized crime are only accounted for in terms of the challenge they presented to the proliferation of New York style bagels. Being more comprehensive is impossible in a book so short, but what does appear hints at a larger, richer, and more complex story out there. The Bagel was published in 2008 and I was left wondering if, like other consumable products, there is an addendum to the big business, moderate quality climax–one where there has emerged a decentralized, artisanal bagel movement.

Long live the Kaiser, and Queen Brioche

America’s pretzel-bun fetish has gone too far. It was fun at first, to have a tangy, spongy, salty roll for burgers and sandwiches. It was new and exotic and pretzels themselves are delicious with mustards and cheese sauces. But the pretzel bun is dense and has a tendency to dry out. If you dip a dry pretzel in a sauce it is still delicious. If you have a dry pretzel bun, your burger is going to be a disappointment. Further, the density takes the emphasis away from the burger or sandwich and entirely onto the bread. This is the way it should be if the bread is transcendent, but, usually, the point of a compilation of ingredients is to make them all work together.

The two old standbys, brioche and kaiser rolls, don’t have this same problem. Kaiser rolls should be flavorful, but light and airy, the perfect complement to great ingredients. Mistreated kaiser rolls (stale, for instance) are going to be disappointing, but a mediocre roll still allows the rest of the ingredients to shine. Brioche rolls are also light and fluffy, but instead of being an airy bread with a bit of a crust holding it in, they are mostly butter. Everyone loves butter.

In the broadest terms I don’t mind that pretzel buns are a thing. For one, it is unlikely that they can be undone at this point, and, for another, I am generally in favor of letting people make their own mista…choices. My problem is that, sometimes, there is no choice, the default is just a disappointing pretzel bun. A pretzel bun that should be a niche item, an optional substitution at most. Life is too short for such tomfoolery; long live the kaiser.

Baker’s Romanticism

Some years ago, I read an internet advice column that suggested men learn how to cook and keep a stocked cupboard so as to impress ladies. The advisor, a woman, recounted how attractive it was one time when she was with a man on his couch and, upon expressing hunger, he leapt into the kitchen and prepared a spinach-artichoke dip for her. What if that man was a baker, and not a cook?

Scene:
A living room where a couple lounges against each other on a couch. They’ve been drinking wine. Her stomach rumbles and he offers to make a fresh batch of pain au chocolat. What can be more romantic than a traditional, buttery, french dessert? Of course she says “yes.”

In a flash, the beau is off the couch and the through the doorway into an unseen kitchen and there is a flurry of activity, cupboard doors and drawers opening and closing, the refrigerator rumbling to life as the cool air escapes when it is opened. A puff of flour floats through the portal and the racquet of an object hammering the counter. Ten minutes later, he returns covered in flour.

Their intimate activities resume, but he is called away fifteen minutes later, but only for a few minutes this time. And again fifteen minutes after he next returns, and thirty minutes after that. Then he is called away for a longer stretch (for shaping the dough). Then they have an hour and a half together while the the treats proof, with only a momentary break for him to preheat the oven. But he’s worked himself into a lather with the constant movement and has been dusted in a bit more flour at each step so goes to take a shower.

She has taken to checking Twitter. Facebook. Texting friends. His wine glass has gone untouched since the start, she’s finished the first bottle. He jokes that perhaps he should have chosen a recipe with an overnight proof so she’d have to spend the night. She opens a second bottle.

Twenty minutes of baking, an a cool down phase and the pain au chocolat are ready to eat. Only four hours after he offered to make her a snack and impress her with his culinary mastery, and she’s fallen asleep.

End Scene

There ways to make this interactive, of course, but if the goal is to show off one’s skill in the kitchen, then the lesson here is to prepare the breads in advance and start them proofing as soon as they get home. Or maybe that a baker is better suited to stable domestic life more than the vicissitudes of casual dating.

On a related point, I bet the guy in the example above used canned and bottled ingredients. If he was really that handy, he would have roasted his own artichokes.