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Fast Food Nation

March 27th, 2004 · 3 Comments

I’m probably one of the last people to read this book by Eric Schlosser, correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. Published in 2001, three years ago, Fast Food Nation (FFN) was a New York Times bestseller. Somehow I spied it in a bookstore window recently and then reserved it at the library. What follows below are my notes, including quotes and thoughts about the book.

Fast Food Nation: principles and prices

This is a book about fast food, the values it embodies, and the world it has made….I am interested in it both as a commodity and as a metaphor. What people eat (or don’t eat) has always been determined by a complex interplay of social, economic and technological forces. page 3

The key to a successful franchise: “uniformity” p. 5
“We have found out…that we cannot trust some people who are nonconformists,” declared Ray Kroc, one of the founders of McDonald’s, angered by some of his franchisees. “We will make conformists out of them in a hurry..the organization cannot trust the individual; the individual must trust the organization.”

But the value meals, two-for-one deals, and free refills of soda give a distorted sense of how much fast food actually costs. The real price never appears on the menu. p.9

The History of the Industry: girls and cars and food

I enjoyed reading the colorful histories of those who started the franchises, in particular Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders (practiced law and obstetrical medicine without licenses!), Carl Jr. (his wife sold hot dogs from a cart while their toddler napped) and Ray Kroc.

The drive-ins fit perfectly with the youth culture of Los Angeles. They were something genuinely new and different, they offered a combination of girls and cars and late-night food, and before long they beckoned from intersections all over town. p 17

It was interesting to learn about the relationships Ray Kroc had with Disney and with Nixon.

Willard Scott -later the weatherman on the Today show – was hired to “invent a new clown who could make restaurant appearances” But he was “deemed too overweight” to play the part in a major ad campaign on TV. p. 41

The Marketing of Fast Food: feel like a good parent
with it’s particular focus on young children – not surprising but still disturbing…trained taste buds are addicted for life.

“A child who loves our TV commercials, “Kroc explained, “and brings her grandparents to a McDonald’s gives us two more customers.” p 41

“But when it gets down to brass tacks, “a Brand week article on fast food notes, “the key to attracting kids is toys, toys, toys.” p47

Taking your children to Mc Donald’s: “It’s an easy way to feel like a good parent.” p 50

What’s in the Meals?

Schlosser interviewed people involved with parts of the process.

A flavorist is a chemist with a trained nose and poetic sensibility….The flavorists with whom I spoke were charming, cosmopolitan and ironic. They were also discreet, in keeping with the dictates of their trade. They were the sort of scientist who not only enjoyed fine wine, but could also tell you the chemicals that gave each vintage its unique aroma. One flavorist compared his work to composing music. p 127

Sounded like a fun job – I might like it – or maybe Enoch would too, with his enjoyment of wine… 😉

During the fall, Lamb Weston added sugar to the fries; in the spring it leached sugar out of them; the goal was to maintain uniform taste and appearance throughout the year. p 131

The stories from the meat-processing plants are vivid. As I read about immigrants who work 8 hours a day in a factory, wielding knives and losing fingers, then go to school at night, I felt both sorrow and responsibility. How hard the work is, gruesome and bloody, intense, all so that I can buy a hamburger from my minivan? I imagine that the topic itself is powerful. For example a story about the factory where my car was made might also disturb me, but it wouldn’t have the same gore factor. Or a story about strawberry pickers or salad would have similiar stories of poverty. From my laboratory work, I am desensitized a bit to these kinds of descriptions. Yet since I read Schlosser’s work, I’ve thought more about meat, wondering why I am eating it, if this is how the people and animals are treated. Cows that don’t die easily. Blood everywhere. Workers who are injured, losing limbs, and then back on the job that same day. I find myself remembering the people and their stories of suffering:

The voices and the faces of these workers are indelibly with me, as is the sight of their hands, the light brown skin criss-crossed with scars. p 186

The medical literature on the causes of food poisoning is full of euphemisms and dry scientific terms: coliform levels, aerobic plate counts, sorbitol, MacConkey agar, and so on. Behind them lies a simple explanation for why eating a hamburger can now make you seriously ill: There is s*** in the meat. p 197

International impact

One franchise opened up near a concentration camp:

“Welcome to Dachau,” said the leaflets, “and welcome to McDonald’s”

In-N-Out gets good praise:

The high wages at In-N-Out have not led to higher prices or lower-quality food. …There are no microwaves, heat lamps or freezers in the kitchens…The ground beef is fresh, potatoes are peeled every day to make the fries and the milk shakes are made from ice cream, not syrup.
p. 260

What to do?!

More than a century ago, during the congressional debate on the Sherman Antitrust Act, Henry M. Teller, a Republican senator from Colorado, dismissed the argument that lower consumer prices justified the ruthless exercise of monopoly power. “I do not believe,” Teller argued, “that the great object of life is to make everything cheap.” p. 266

Nobody in the United States is forced to buy fast food. The first step toward meaningful change is by far the easiest: stop buying it. The executives who run the fast food industry are not bad men. They are business men. They will sell free-range, organic, grass-fed hamburgers if you demand it. They will sell whatever sells at a profit….The real power of the American consumer has not yet been unleashed… Even in this fast food nation, you can still have it your way. p 269-270

Two applications:

Joan Kroc’s $200 million donation to NPR came to mind. The stories in Fast Food Nation, its descriptions of the industry, are the kind that NPR would cover. Although the gift has no strings attached, I wonder what are the implications of NPR receiving this fast-food fortune: seems a bit ironic to me.

I also find myself wondering about the implication of Schlosser’s case study of Colorado Springs. Schlosser didn’t explicitly draw this parallel, but he did mention how many Christian organizations were headquartered in that city, as well as many fast-food restaurants. The juxtaposition begged the question: has faith become a franchise? He described how one of these organizations in particular focuses on teaching children obedience, and at the same time he was writing about Ray Kroc’s opinion on conformity, and contraptions in restaurants that “morons” could use. One interpretation could be that Schlosser was saying religion is for morons. But another aspect of the juxtaposition would be to consider how cultural Christianity has lost its freedom, becoming a culture of conformity also.

After reading this book, I’m amazed that fast food restaurants are still functioning in this country. If this book was a best seller, where is its impact on our economy? Where are the consumers boycotting or crying out for better food? Why do I still see golden arches and other neon signs around me in our community? And I wonder whether the meat industry itself has experienced a loss – distinct from the mad cow controversy. After reading FFN, I certainly don’t feel like eating hamburger, from McDonald’s or even cooked in my own kitchen.

I think that part of the problem is that even with education, habits are hard to break. The other day as we were coming home late, I realized we would be commuting during dinner time on the ferry boat. I could stop by a fast food restaurant and pick up some burgers and fries for the family. But after reading FFN, I didn’t want to do that. So I took the time to stop by a grocery store and buy some sandwich ingredients. I was pretty proud of myself. Until I realized that I had bought salami. I was so focussed on avoiding hamburger that I didn’t think twice about the lunchmeat. Here I was, feeling affected enough to avoid fast food, yet it had not made enough impact on me to change my choices.

A Salon review I read criticized Schlosser:

I think the main problem is Schlosser’s appeal to cold, hard reason rather than enlightened appetite. […] But Schlosser has left out a discussion of what needs to replace all those fast-food meals — the kinds of fresh foods that would be affordable, accessible and familiar enough to override Americans’ daily cravings for fries, burgers and other processed, taste-engineered foods. And he doesn’t even approach the question of what it will take for a healthier and more varied way of eating to win over the low-income people who are the captive market for fast food right now.

I think Maria Russo has a point. But I’d like to think that if I hold strong enough convictions, if my reason and intellect agree, along with my emotions, then I will be able to live what I believe easily. It will flow from me, organic, intentional and inherent, without conscious effort. If Schlosser can convince enough people to change convictions, then the practical details of healthier replacements will follow. Yet my own experience calls this into question: either I need stronger faith or there’s more than feelings affecting my decision. I think it comes down to whether I’m willing to pay the price to do something different in my life. Schlosser is right that the executives are business men. They will sell whatever people want to buy. However it will take some number of people who are willing to live differently, to make demands and boycotts, to alter their lifestyles, before change will occur. This will require perseverance, commitment and the ability to live as a minority in a culture that is centered on conformity and convenience.

Which has greater value: convenience or conviction?

Tags: books

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 tania // Mar 28, 2004 at 1:53 am

    i’m on tania’s computer, but this is enoch.

    yup, i’d love to be a flavorist, sounds fun!

    and we do eat too much fast food, but at least In n Out is a little better than the others…

    anyways, i have to support the drug companies by eating my burgers and taking my lipitor… 😉 (i wish i didn’t have to…)

    you’d get a kick out of our dinner at Simon Chan’s home last night… in n out… he and wife were at a black tie ball/hospital fundraiser…

  • 2 Katherine // Mar 30, 2004 at 10:45 pm

    If I have to take the kids to fast food, In-n-Out rules. Going to McDonald’s would make me feel like a bad parent, not a good one. I believe we have only taken the kids to McD’s once (in 9 years). I don’t know why we did it that time either!
    My weekly organic grocery delivery includes meat from Niman Ranch, where “livestock are humanly treated, fed the purest natural ingredients (with no animal by-products or waste) never given growth hormones or sub-therapeutic antibiotics, and raised on land that is cared for as a sustainable resource.” See http://www.planetorganics.com/about/niman.asp

  • 3 helen // Apr 6, 2004 at 8:26 am

    hiya, i’m looking for sites with content about the history of fast food uniforms, to contemporary apparel. I’m a fashion designer showing london in sept & want to expose mc donalds in my next collection…any help would be very much appreciated……x