Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

OVER THE LAST THREE DECADES, fast food has infiltrated every nook and cranny of American society. An industry that began with a handful of modest hot dog and hamburger stands in southern California has spread to every corner of the nation, selling a broad range of foods wherever paying customers may be found. Fast food is now served at restaurants and drive-throughs, at stadiums, airports, zoos, high schools, elementary schools, and universities, on cruise ships, trains, and airplanes, at K- Marts, Wal-Marts, gas stations, and even at hospital cafeterias. In 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food; in 2000, they spent more than $110 billion. Americans now spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars. They spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and recorded music -- combined.

Reading Fast Food Nation isn’t eye-opening on a page-by-page basis. That isn’t to say that all the information contained in its covers is common knowledge, but it’s fair to say that most Americans are familiar with the broad strokes. Who among us believes that a Taco Bell taco is a nutritious meal, or that the person taking our order is a skilled worker—and I say this as a semi-long-term employee of McDonald’s. We’re aware that the meat we eat is frequently raised and slaughtered using inhumane and sometimes grotesque methods, and, to all these things, we’re more or less forced to give semi-informed consent, either by pretending that they’re not so bad or pushing them out of our minds entirely so that we can eat our Big Mac in peace.

Fast Food Nation’s power comes not from its depth—although it is one of the most detailed studies of America’s #1 export—but from its breadth. Where many micro-histories take a narrow view of their topics and trust the reader to place it in a larger context, Fast Food Nation covers nearly every facet of the fast food sprawl, from its growth in post-WW1 America to its impact of school lunches, food science, the meat-and-potatoes industries and beyond and, ultimately, offers a solution. One of the blurbs on the back cover describe the book as a seminal work of muckraking, and that seems a fair assessment, even if this particular work’s assertions are backed up by copious footnotes. Fast Food Nation is definitely, for better or worse, a book with an agenda—reforming the eating habits of a country.

There are points at which it becomes a bit too didactic, but for the most part, author Eric Schlosser maintains a remarkably even-handed tone while dealing with some fairly infuriating material. While the chapters on the quality of meat used by restaurants—spoiler, there’s poop involved—and school lunches—which are held to lower federal quality standards than fast food—are gross and disturbing, it’s the chapters about individual workers caught up in the unforgiving system that sting the most. From an immigrant Subway franchisee who purchased a money pit disguised as a gold mine, to the story of the man who literally gave his body and his life to a slaughterhouse that didn’t even tell him, after twenty years on the job, when he was fired, the inhumanity of the great machine is what got to me the most. Like the helpless immigrants in Upton Sinclair’s Jungle, the real-life characters throughout Fast Food Nation are tragic, everyday people—mostly poor ones—sold a dream and a vision that was never really going to happen, but at least the hamburgers are only 99 cents.


Christopher said...

"Spoiler--There's Poop Involved" would make a good name for your memoir.

Carlton Farmer said...


Jack said...

Fast food is a business now more than a service of providing health junk food. Few decades ago the trend did not exist even. After 1970’s the this fast food trend just elevated. A rough estimation shows from past 3 decades the consumption of burgers, fries has been tripled in US.
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