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.

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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.

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.

Plebeian Gourmet

You are a gourmet, sir, a plebeian gourmet, a peasant with taste.

What I have said is not abuse: I am merely stating the formula, the quite simple psychological formula of your simple, aesthetically quite uninteresting personality.

So Detlev Spinell writes to Anton Klöterjahn, the husband of Gabriele Klöterjahn in Thomas Mann’s short story “Tristan.” The letter and its setup are farcical; the story takes place in a sanatorium where Frau Klöterjahn is recovering and where Spinell lives. When this letter is written, Herr Klöterjahn happens to be visiting, so envelope returns straightaway to the institution and provokes an immediate confrontation that does not suit Spinell’s strengths.

The story is ethereal and sad, even in its somewhat cliched presentation of an artistic spirit that gravitates to an older style of building now reserved for sick people. Unlike the other patients, Spinell doesn’t suffer from a particular illness or defect, but he likes the decor and the solitude, though not to write for publication since his only production are of letters. On the one hand this description of a wastrel litterateur struck too close to home, but, on the other, the presentation of separate spheres is, even accounting for the date, too much a caricature.

Nevertheless, this particular passage had me laughing aloud, all the while being fixated on the term “plebeian gourmet.” It is evocative, dismissive of the man’s origins and complimentary of his taste. In general one might look at “gourmet” as applying to food, although the letter makes clear that Spinell uses the term more broadly to mean taste in all things, and, particularly, in choosing his wife. Plebeian also evokes a range of meanings: lower class, healthy and robust, of a non-aristocratic family, uneducated. These are phrases that are equally applicable in Europe or America, but in the latter the racial politics of class structure are more pronounced than in the setting of the story.

What sent me down this path was thinking what such a phrase would imply in twenty-first century America. The lack of a traditionally-titled aristocracy per se feeds into an American vision where we are all plebeian, particularly because technology has unmasked a great deal of the mystique of individuals who might have otherwise qualified. Some people have more money than others, but their foibles are exposed for the world to see, too. Some of these same technological innovations have leveled the playing field in terms of platform for people who aspire to participation in the cultural discussion and opened access to the “gourmet,” whether of clothes, essays, books, food, drink, etc. [Taste in people is something else, and I’ll leave that out since both parties have agency.] Certainly not everyone has access to the gourmet, and others choose deprivation from for reasons from philosophical to practical. In other cases, individuals of one temperament condescend those of another, for picayune reasons. The point is that, for most, “plebeian” is a baseline and the “gourmet” is an aspiration. In other words, “plebeian gourmet” is an archaic description, but not an antiquated one.

There are plenty of issues I’ve ignored here, from exploitation of labor in developing countries, to rape of the environment and the temptations of junk food. Spinell certainly sees himself (and Frau Klöterjahn, hence the tension of the story) as being better than other people on the virtue of their artistic sensibilities. The same fissures exist in the average high school, but if one were to hurl “plebeian gourmet” at another, even if actually believed, would be an affectation.

Let me confess to you, sir, that I hate you…You are the stronger man. In our struggle I have only one thing to turn against you, the sublime avenging weapon of the weak: intellect and the power of words. Today I have used this weapon. For this letter–here too let me make an honest admission–is nothing but an act of revenge; and if it contains even a single phrase that is biting and brilliant and beautiful enough to strike home, to make you aware of an alien force, to shake your robust equanimity even for one moment, then I shall exult in that discomfiture.

Taking a moment on a holiday

I like food a lot, and today is one of, if not the premier food event across the United States. Standard, not metric, tons of Turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, potato, and pumpkin pie will be made and consumed today, to go with cider and adult beverages. I like all of these things, and even have a soft spot for the traditional fare, which is sometimes derided as boring. After that preface, however, I must admit that I am not particularly fond of Thanksgiving, and not because of its historical connotations. In part, I don’t have the facilities to host and while there are some friends in town, family and other friends are scattered from coast to coast, so my interest in the day is somewhat muted. Yet have a more philosophical opposition to specific gluttonous days: rather than a single day to eat well and eat too much, would it not be better to eat well and to satiety every day? Time is precious, but good food is worth it, and my ideal is to host gatherings [see the above limitations] with more frequency.

On this Thanksgiving day, I have the added limitation of having just gotten back from a trip to Minneapolis, and am therefore laying low–cleaning, baking, and generally putting things back together. More than that, I didn’t get to spend enough time writing on this particular trip, and (in so doing) realized that what I really want to do is to spend time working on my dissertation. I also fully intend to spend Black Friday the same thing.

There is a risk that publicly acknowledging thanks on a dedicated day implies that one need not do so any other day, but I think it is still worth doing so. In the macro level, I am thankful for my health, my loved ones, including friends and family. More specifically, though, I am thankful that I still really enjoy my research and am still getting an opportunity to read and write for my job (as much as I am looking forward to getting back to teaching).

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I hope to write more here, but between job applications, dissertation, teaching, and the various protests that have taken place at the University of Missouri, it has been a busy several months.

Why skimp on the cheddar?

Warning, this post is entirely self-indulgent.

It is a heady feeling; one part pure desire, one part anticipation of a pleasure that is just beyond your reach. Not the ache of an unobtainable pleasure–that mixture of pure desire and the hollow pain that comes from the knowledge that the pleasure is entirely out of reach–but the rush that comes with knowing what you desire and knowing how (and how quickly) you can obtain it. The inexplicable craving that makes the entire world become sharpened to the point of fogginess. You notice every sight and every sound but are utterly incapable of concentrating on any one of them. Your heartbeat quickens while your mind and your body demand release. With luck, obtaining what you desire happens quickly and your senses return to normal, sated and weary. If not, your senses slowly return to normal, but the desire remains, muted. No longer the heady anticipation it is replaced by an ache. It is not a permanent ache that eats away at you from within–not yet, anyway–but a dull ache that will only go away when the pleasure is obtained.

Yes, it is a cliche to compare food to sex, but I did it anyway. So there. In some ways, this is a knee-jerk reaction to a great sandwich I had for lunch (great bread, tomatoes, avocado, chipotle mayonnaise). But for a white cheddar cheese sandwich, the cheese was decidedly lacking. There was plenty of it, but the cheddar on the sandwich was bland, hard, and a bit rubbery. This may pass for cheddar cheese in some places, but the sandwich disappointed me. Cheddar cheese should be on the verge of crumbling, moist, tart, and rich. It should be decadent. For a good, but not great cheddar I recommend Cabot’s Extra Sharp or Seriously Sharp cheddar. It is tart and it crumbles. But, if you want a great cheddar, I recommend Grafton’s Three Year Cheddar. Grafton’s cheese is tart and it crumbles, but it also melts in your mouth and is delicate. It was the disappointment of the sandwich, combined with the memory of Grafton’s cheddar that brought on the heady feeling, now slowly receding into an ache.

The world is more-or-less back to normal. I’m on my way back to reading for my comprehensive exams and I am sure that more sober topics will follow. Pardon the indulgence.

Assorted Links

“Money worship has been elevated into a religion. Perhaps it is the only real religion—the only really felt religion—that is left to us.”
– George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying
(A quote I thought of while watching the Frontline documentary about the education industry)

1. Vanishing Languages – A feature in National Geographic this month that looks at the linguistic genocide being committed by English, Mandarin, Russian, Spanish, and Hindi (to name the big five).

2. Third World Child – Johnny Clegg and Savuka – The National Geographic article reminded me of one of my favorite songs of all time, Third World Child, written and performed by Jonny Clegg and Savuka, released in 1987. Clegg created the first prominent mixed-race band in South Africa during Apartheid, and I would also recommend other songs of his, though Third World Child touches me in a way most of the others don’t, even if I often like the other songs better. There are actually two songs on the video, with Third World Child ending at 4:09, but I like the video because it attempts to recreate as best as possible the actual music video.

you should learn to speak a little bit of English
Maybe practise birth control
Keep away from controversial politics
So to save my third world soul

3. Food and the College Experience – Some thoughts on the decline in social eating at college.

4. A Case for Not Fearing Islamism – An article in the Atlantic that suggests that accepting (since allowing is rather condescending) Islamic governments would eliminate any aggrieved sense and that when Islamic law runs countries, some of the undercurrents of radical Islamism are eliminated. Islamism (it argues) is fueled by exclusion from economic and political power. There is something to be said for this argument.

5. Why Do We Wear Pants? – The answer is horses. A report on this proposed theory of social evolution on the fact that pants for men evolved out of warfare on horseback, while pants for women emerged from bicycle riding.

What else is out there?