Junk-Food Journalism

"Whither goest thou, America?" wrote Jack Kerouac, the thinking man's bad writer of the 1950s. Every now and then, some work of mere mortal beings comes along to lift the veil, or perhaps the hem, of time and let the rest of us catch a glimpse of the future of our rich, dumb and out-of-control republic. Such a work is Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. Subtitled The Dark Side of the All-American Meal for the benefit, no doubt, of fans of fast journalism -- those who prefer reading the conclusions of a report without wasting all that time parsing the arguments that lead up to the conclusions -- the book is, to be kind, a bit uneven.

Schlosser begins his jeremiad with the description of a military facility originally built as the nuclear wartime headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, housed in a hollowed-out granite mountain in Colorado. What do the current dwellers within Cheyenne Mountain, employed by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the Air Force Space Command and the United States Space Command, have to do with fast food? Apparently Schlosser has found out that on occasion some of them send out for food from Burger King or have a Domino's pizza delivered to the gate. There is more of this sort of reporting. In the next chapter, he reveals that Ray Kroc, the man who took a hamburger stand owned by two eccentric brothers named McDonald and turned it into a multinational company, was, in 1917, in the same Red Cross ambulance unit as Walt Disney. Further on, he brings up the story of the five murdered Wendy's employees in Flushing, New York, and concludes that "crime and fast food have become so ubiquitous in American society that their frequent combination usually goes unnoticed."

Schlosser can wring a Deeper Meaning and Hidden Connection out of almost any factoid. (Or, perhaps, these are too miniature in scale to be actual factoids. Can we create a neologism, "factissimal," in honor of this man's style?) A look at the author's acknowledgements reveals that the book began as a two-part series in Rolling Stone and goes on to effusively thank Jann Wenner, the publication's founder. This fact clears things up considerably for those who can remember pot parties in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1960s. That is the milieu in which Wenner came of age intellectually and in which his magazine was founded. Back then, if you wanted to send a frisson of delicious horror and revulsion along the downy spines of your fellow collegiate tokers, and introduce into the room a comradely feeling of Us against Them, all you had to do was find a way to work into your conversation such terms as "military-industrial complex," "Disneyland" and "corporation." The context in which the words were used was pretty much irrelevant as long as no laudatory adjectives were attached. Contemplating how Wenner has managed to perpetuate that sensibility across 35 years, a continent, and down to a new generation of writers like Eric Schlosser, the reader can only cough once and gasp, "Far out, man!"

Basic facts, as opposed to factissimals, are not quite Schlosser's long suit. He seems somewhat astonished to discover, in a chapter on flavor additives -- one of the better parts of the book -- that the Food and Drug Administration considers flavors "synthesized by funguses" as "natural." Apparently he has never learned what yeasts are or how beer, bread and wine are made. Similar examples can be found on many other pages.

Yet Schlosser is genuinely informative when giving us a glimpse of the impact the Bush administration is going to have on America's food supply and eating habits. Houstonian Nancy Ames catered Shrub's Black Tie & Boots inaugural party. The menu, like the actual concept of a black tie and cowboy boots party, was very 1982, very pre-oil-bust Texas, with lots of margaritas and denatured Tex-Mex dishes. The Houston Press's First Chief Directorate of Culinary Semiotics studied the Ames menu carefully and could not divine a clear trend for the future. Schlosser has provided the decryption key.

The Bush presidency is going to be very, very good for major fast-food chains and the equally huge firms that supply them. The reason he is going to be very, very good for McDonald's and giant meatpacking companies like IBP and ConAgra is that Ronald Reagan and Poppy Bush were very good for them. Shrub's reflex is to ape the Reagan area, from his choice of advisers to the rug he has installed in the Oval Office, Reagan's own. President Reagan, especially, did a great deal to defang the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Reagan was a master of union-bashing as well. And every Republican administration beginning with Richard Nixon, who received huge contributions from Kroc and his McDonald's corporation, has been receptive to arguments detailing why any increase in the minimum wage will lead to the End of Civilization As We Know It.

Schlosser details how OSHA, already understaffed when Reagan took office, was further limited in its ability to enter meatpacking plants unannounced or to examine safety records provided by the meatpacking plants, first under executive orders, and then under the guise of a euphemistically labeled "reform" bill. Several of the major plants are in Colorado, where Shrub has found his secretary of the interior. And U.S. Senator Phil Gramm, according to Schlosser, is the top recipient of meatpacking industry money, while his wife, Wendy Lee Gramm, sits on the board of the IBP company.

In other words, a reading of Schlosser suggests this: Don't expect much to change in this fast-food empire. Don't expect outbreaks of food poisoning -- like the one that killed three children who ate Jack in the Box burgers in Washington State in 1993 -- to cease, even though the Jack in the Box chain, nearly brought to ruin by the ensuing publicity, has instituted an elaborate inspection system for its meat. Don't expect improved working conditions for people in the fast-food industry or the wretches toiling in remote backwater towns who produce the meats. Don't expect to have it your way.

This argument, we have to admit, rings true. Of course, even a broken clock gives the right time twice a day.


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