Harper Perennial, 2002 updated re-edition of a 2001 original, 383 pages, C$22.95 tp, ISBN 0-06-093845-5
Almost ten years after its publication, it’s not a stretch to call Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction exposé Fast Food Nation a budding classic. It’s been influential enough to spawn one direct film adaptation (as an ensemble drama, no less) and inspire a documentary picture (Food, Inc), while becoming a primary inspiration for a basket of food-related non-fiction such as Morgan Spurlock’s Super-Size Me and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The 1,462 reviews on Amazon.com so far hint at the influence it had on readers during its decade-long history. Best of all; it’s still a terrific read in 2010.
It’s not as if his basic thesis is controversial: Fast-food (ie; food you order at a counter and get almost immediately) is a uniquely American creation, and its continued existence hints at a number of profound second-order effects. Born in the socio-economic context of 1950s Southern California, its growth as an industry has changed the way America feeds itself. That much is unarguable, but as Schlosser set out to examine American through the prism of fast-food, the less savoury aspects of the fast food industry quickly emerge.
It starts with the food, obviously: Chemically manipulated to a point where basic taste and smell can be manipulated at will, fast food is laden with salt, sugar and fat designed to fill you up and make you ask for more. The resemblance with traditional food is more a matter of habit than substance. Thankfully, Schlosser doesn’t spend a lot of time dealing with the health impact of the industry: the point having been made elsewhere, he feels free to talk about the second-order effects of the rapid-restaurant agri-cultural complex: The regression of the meat-packing industry to appalling standards that would make even Upton Sinclair blanch; the transformation of agriculture into a corporate cartel (a subject that has since been explored in greater detail by a variety of sources), the transformation of food in neatly marketable categories… if you thought fast food was bad for your health, just wait until you realize the impact of the industries that had to be built in order to make that cheap burger possible.
Once we’re sliding down the greased rabbit hole of the fast food underbelly, through, it’s hard to stop. What about the voluntary servitude asked of the largely teenage employees employed at fast food restaurants? What about the far less optional servitude of illegal immigrants employed in the meat-packing factories? What about the lower food safety standards that result from a system concerned with profits and speed? Fast food is not just a way for people to buy food, it’s a system that, domino-like, affects everything it touches. The idea that one can explore a culture through what it eats has seldom been as troubling.
In delivering this work of investigative journalism, Schlosser depends on a wide variety of historical sources, personal interviews, documented statistics and verifiable press clippings. One of the book’s smartest decisions is to ground its subject in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, and examine the facets of the fast food community through a community small enough to be understood. This microcosm becomes a way to grasp an issue that would otherwise be too overwhelming to contemplate.
Circa 2010, Fast Food Nation continues to show the way. There is now a lot more material available to those who would like to learn more about the modern food industry, and others have picked up the threads identified by Schlosser. There’s a reason why it’s still selling briskly: But even today, the book is still a fun, engaging, noxiously informative read… even as most of its points are now common sense.
[March 2010: As an experiment in investigative criticism, I actually went out of my way to go get lunch at McDonald’s shortly after finishing the book. I was reminded within moments of stepping into the lunchtime rush of the restaurant why it had been years since my last Big Mac. I’d like to say that the food was horrible, but it was… fine. I did have some trouble at the office due to the smell of the meal, however: plans to stealthily eat at my workstation as usual were foiled by the unmistakable aroma of the combo I had ordered, and I had to retreat to the lunch room where I got a few surprised comments about what I was eating. All in all, not an experience I’m bound to repeat soon.]