Eating fast food too fast to care

February 13, 2001|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- A few years ago, in a moment of culinary cross-cultural crisis, the gracious owners of a Japanese restaurant offered my family their house delicacy. With a flourish and a smile, they placed before us an elegantly sliced and uncooked lobster tail.

Not only was the tail raw, but it shared the plate with the body to which it had so recently been attached. Right above the creature's eyes were two antennae. Still twitching.

This was the night I came up with Goodman's First Rule for Dining: never eat anything while it's watching you.

Now, however, after reading Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation," I look back on that dining adventure with something akin to nostalgia. He has convinced me that the problem isn't that Americans have too intimate a relationship with their dinner, but rather too distant.

On any given day, one-quarter of adults eat at a fast-food restaurant. In any given week, the typical American downs three hamburgers and four orders of french fries. In any given month, 90 percent of American children between ages 3 and 9 eat at McDonald's.

Despite the fact that we spend $110 billion a year on fast food -- more than we do on higher ed, software or new cars -- few of us have any idea where the food comes from, how it gets to the plate, or what's in it. We don't raise it, we don't harvest it, we don't cook it. We just take it wrapped and ready.

"The whole experience of buying fast food has become so routine," writes Mr. Schlosser, "so thoroughly unexceptional and mundane that it is now taken for granted, like brushing your teeth or stopping for a red light. It has become a social custom as American as a small, rectangular, hand-held, frozen and reheated apple pie."

It's Mr. Schlosser's muck-and-Big-Mac-raking task to deconstruct the food-industrial complex. He shows that American speed-cuisine has had "an enormous impact not only on our eating habits but on our economy, our culture and our values." The industry has created a cheap, expendable work force and a network of factory farms.

Moreover, he says, with point-by-point, venture-by-venture reporting, "profits of the fast food chains have been made possible by losses imposed on the rest of society." Not the least of which are the growth of supersize obesity.

What's most intriguing isn't the greed, but the pursuit of uniformity. The need for absolute predictability, for example, transforms Mother Nature's potato into fast-food french fries. The Idaho spud gets shot through a gun knife and cooled by ammonia gas. Fries-in-training get the "excess" sugar leached out in the spring and more sugar added in the fall. All so they will look and taste identical all year at every stop.

If seasons are eliminated in fast-food nation, so is seasoning. Flavor is processed out and then put back in with the help of a "flavor industry" which I hitherto never knew existed. It's the flavor industry, for example, which makes that "natural smoke flavor" in the broiled chicken patties -- by charring sawdust, capturing the aroma chemicals and bottling them.

As for the beef? The description of life and death in the plants where a steer is turned to hamburger reads like a sequel to Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." And anyone who's been getting paranoid about mad cow disease and frankenfoods should be equally worried about old-fashioned fat gram killers and new-fashioned E. coli strains.

In the years since the Golden Arches loomed over dining, the outcry against fast food has mostly come from elitists and food snobs. But there's something more basic at work. The central American kitchen is no longer a hearth but a factory.

At the risk of raising the guilt level of exhausted parents pulling into the communal dining hall, we hardly realize how removed we and our children have come from something as fundamental as food. Farmer Brown has been replaced by Ronald McDonald as the basic icon of eating.

If we are what we eat, we are oblivious. It's 6 p.m. Do you know where your chicken nugget has been? It's probably come off the overdeveloped breast of a new breed of chicken. It's been reconstituted, stabilized, breaded, frozen, reheated, flavored with beef additives, and set on the plate containing twice as much fat per ounce as a hamburger.

The great American table ought to be made a healthier place for worker and consumer. But at the very least, we should know our place in the food chain of chain food. It's somewhere lower than that of the crustacean.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe. com.

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