"Tell me what you eat," Brillat-Savarin wrote in his Physiology of Taste, "and I shall tell you what you are." In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser offers his own variation on this famous aphorism: "A nation's diet can be more revealing than its art or literature." There is an obvious link between national identity and cuisine. We are a country of hamburger and French fry eaters, and the far-reaching consequences of this style of eating have not been adequately explored. Schlosser is less concerned by issues of cuisine than about fast food's place as a "revolutionary force in
American life." According to Schlosser, McDonald's, Burger King, et al, have radically altered American agriculture, economics and social life. It imperils American health and individual livelihood.
But it tastes so good.
That taste, according to Schlosser, is emblematic of the problem. Carefully designed and chemically enhanced, the mysterious beefy essence that we associate with James Beard's favorite French fries, for instance, has less to do with men and women in chef's whites (or even polyester shirts and visors) than with those in lab coats. In other words, we (of the fast food nation) no longer know what we are eating and our ignorance imperils us.
In the introduction, Schlosser offers a startling summary to bolster the importance of his study: one in eight American workers has done time at McDonald's. McDonald's is the largest owner of retail property. It is the largest single purchaser of beef, pork and potatoes. And, importantly, McDonald's, which revolutionized marketing to children, owns more private play space than anyone else in the U.S.A. It wasn't always that way. As Schlosser points out, McDonald's growth into an American institution has largely been in the last thirty years. Now, with the celebrated synergy between McDonald's and Disney, it is hard to imagine a time, as Schlosser reports, when Walt Disney rebuffed McDonald's founder Ray Kroc in his desire to place a franchise in his new Disneyland.
The story goes beyond Mickey D's, of course, just as the impact of the fast food nation goes beyond the American way of eating. Schlosser maintains that the industry deflates wages, encourages monopoly practices in agricultural processing and reduces everything, including Mikhail Gorbachev, to the level of commodity. But all of these problems Schlosser identifies provoke more questions than he can possibly answer. Should we fault a company for delivering a product to consumers in the most efficient and cost-effective manner? Don't consumers value "value" (meaning calories per dollar) over quality? Isn't the rise of fast food coincidental with, and necessitated by, the rise of sprawling southern and western cities and, if so, doesn't that make fast food the symptom of a larger societal problem? And, as Schlosser establishes, if there are unintended negative consequences to this way of eating, are there positive ones too? Don't these major national brands -- McDonald's, Burger King, even Walmart -- offer a kind of national cohesion that government could simply not foster?
These questions are not meant to detract from the quality of Schlosser's work. What reservations I do have concern his uncritical approach to individual sources (McDonald's corporate sources, The Center for Science in the Public Interest) but do not concern his broader thesis. Because Schlosser is ultimately right: we should know what we eat, even if we are made uncomfortable by the knowledge.