Review: Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser

Fast Food Nation

Book review

Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, published in 2001, is a well researched, persuasive and at times shocking work describing the excesses of big business and the broad spectrum of compromises that make modern, cheap fast-food lifestyles possible. It is interesting to review this work six years after publication, when a movie has appeared of the same name (late 2006) and when some of the issues raised in the book have gained greater momentum and seen some strategic improvements in the fast food world (such as McDonald’s ‘healthy’ menu options).

The profile of organic foods is markedly higher now than at the time the book was written, ‘good-conscience’ supermarkets have appeared in many countries (Macro Wholefoods Market in Australia, Whole Foods Market in the USA, Naturalia in France) and farmer’s markets appear to be growing in popularity.

I am sympathetic to much of what the book attempts to achieve, but only so far as it is supported by relevant facts. Schlosser’s research is excellent, his facts well supported and his narration outstanding. I felt no reason to doubt the plausibility of most of what was written (especially after reading the notes at the end of the book).

It should be noted that the movie Fast Food Nation is a fictional story about characters working in the various industries described in the book. The book itself is not fiction. It is a piece of investigative journalism with a strong ideological position.

This work is entirely aimed at a US-domestic readership. It is fairly accessible to outsiders, but the information, the ideology and the rhetoric are crafted for the readers Schlosser knows best. His few excursions into foreign territory are limited, clichéed and sometimes flawed.

Schlosser’s skill as a storyteller is marred by a strong tendency to draw the bow just a bit too long. His desire to paint detailed pictures of so many of the (real) characters in the book panders to the USAmerican penchant for the extended ‘local’ and ‘personal’ narrative which can alienate other English-speaking readers. But I’m sure it works for his intended audience.

If just half of the barely relevant scene-setting detail had been omitted, his work would have been sharper and more compelling; less inclined to trigger cynicism in the reader. Instead, I found myself sighing as yet another person’s story was told with too much detail before Schlosser finally reached his point.

Kenny Dobbins was a Monfort employee for almost sixteen years. He was born in Keokuk, Iowa, had a tough childhood and an abusive stepfather, left home at the age of thirteen, went in and out of various schools, never learned to read, did various off jobs, and wound up at the Monfort slaughterhouse in Grand Island, Nebraska. He started working there in 1979, right after the company bought it from Swift. He was twenty-three. He working in the shipping department at first, hauling boxes that weighed as much as 120 pounds. Kenny could handle it, though. He was a big man, muscular and six-foot-five, and nothing in his life had ever been easy. P187

Most of this verbose description is irrelevant to what follows: the relevant part of Kenny’s story is a long and harrowing one. A different type of narrative excess is seen below:

On July 11, 1997, Lee Harding ordered soft chicken tacos at a Mexican restaurant in Pueblo, Colorado. Harding was twenty-two years old, a manager at Safeway. His wife Stacey was a manager at Wendy’s. They were out to dinner on a Friday night. When the chicken tacos arrived, Harding thought there was something wrong with them. The meat seemed to have gone bad. The tacos tastes slimy and gross. An hour or so after leaving the restaurant, Harding began to experience severe abdominal cramps. It felt like something was eating away at his stomach. He was fit and healthy, stood six-foot-one, weighed two hundred pounds. He’d never felt pain this intense. The cramps got worse, and Harding lay in bed through the night, tightly curled into a ball. He developed bad diarrhea, then bloody diarrhea. He felt like he was dying, but was afraid to go to the hospital. If I’m going to die, he thought, I want to die at home. P193

It wasn’t the tacos’ fault. The food poisoning was caused by E.coli in some frozen burgers in Harding’s freezer, and that’s what the rest of the chapter deals with. But you don’t forget the tacos, even though they were irrelevant to Schlosser’s factual point. Tacos are fast food and apparently they weren’t nice on that memorable Friday night in July, 1997, so let’s include them for good measure? Guilt by association is a dirty trick.

Too many authors with a strong ideological position sacrifice the good, meaty facts (if you’ll excuse the pun) when they resort to cheap emotional point scoring with little content. Saying ‘you shouldn’t vote for MrX because his policies are cruel and his party is corrupt’ might have a basis in fact, but is immediately undermined if you then say ‘and he’s ugly too’. Throwaway lines give doubters and opponents simple, unnecessary ammunition. Taking cheap shots isn’t a virtue — a lesson that Michael Moore of Fahrenheit 9/11 has never learnt, and which Schlosser also fails at times. Schlosser’s opponents are numerous, coming from big business, the political right (who label him a lefty liberal or even a socialist), and quite a few who just feel he’s un-American. Dropping the cheap shots and focusing on the salient facts would have made the whole work tighter and less tiresome.

It’s not just the overextension of detail and the occasional cheap shots that distract from the point. Schlosser sometimes draws tenuous connections between events or facts and this tarnishes the respectability of his arguments. In line with the often careless USAmerican invocation of Nazism and the horrors of WWII, Schlosser attempts to draw a bad-guys line between McDonald’s, Walt Disney and Nazism: Walt Disney employed two German scientists after WWII who had both been associated with activities which resulted in the abuse or death of concentration camp prisoners. These men had nothing to do with McDonald’s or the relationships between Walt Disney and McDonald’s, but their irrelevant presence in the book serves as a cynical attempt to spray black paint on a canvas that will be thoroughly coated in blood and manure by the end of the book anyway.

One other example of rhetorical over-reach: fast food restaurants cause violent crime. Schlosser details a number of murders conducted at or by workers at these establishments. Without doubt, rotten conditions of employment can lead to extreme actions by some mentally unstable people, but there must be a reason why the popular term for crazed killings is ‘to go postal’ and not ‘to go McDo’.

Schlosser’s presentation of facts, events and purported causality is weakest and most frustrating as the end of the book approaches. He becomes repetitive and it’s clear that parallels in many other industries are somehow to be ignored, as are questions about society and human behaviour that beg attention.

For all the merit of his description of the absolute immorality of parts of agribusiness, the dehumanising tendencies of large enterprises and the bottom-line, and the unhealthiness of fast food from source to table, Schlosser fails comprehensively to take into account social factors in creating this situation. So much of what he criticises as the sins of big business exists in a chicken-egg relationship with the consumer. McDonald’s serves food at artificially low prices, from which producers earn the slimmest of margins and from which consumers can become unhealthy and obese. Who drives this? Consumers have been taught to hunt down the cheapest prices or exploit the maximum in convenience. They can still be depicted as victims, though not necessarily of the fast food business. Greed is not new, but nor is the desire for a bargain. An obsession with the bottom-line isn’t restricted to the corporations. I couldn’t help wondering which is the more effective argument: (1) your actions as a consumer promote the abysmal conditions in the meatpacking industry, or (2) big business exploits employees without regard to morality or humanity? Schlosser barely touches the first.

Schlosser concludes Fast Food Nation with a direct appeal to the reader. Gone is the narrative of facts. He finally says ‘this is me’ and writes about what he feels people should do and why. The somewhat propagandistic style at last turns into a clear personal stance — a refreshing change, as the reader could be forgiven the cynical exhaustion by the end of the preceding chapters. It is, however, also the point at which Schlosser does what so many anti-business-complex, pro-sustainability, pro-organic, pro-Slow writers do: not only does he fail to address individual responsibility, but the perspective of an empowered middle class takes over and he ignores the fact that the desirable, un-fast food is barely affordable for most of the main victims of fast food. Schlosser isn’t on the organic and Slow bandwagon, but the catch-cry is the same: choose to buy something else. When it comes to local food produced in a responsible, ethical manner, the price-point is usually out of reach of the most vulnerable sections of society — sadly also the employees enslaved in the various industries contributing to the black picture that Schlosser describes.

Fast Food Nation is good — if you already believe, or if you are willing to filter out the narrative fluff. It is skilfully crafted as the battle-cry for a sympathetic readership. It is without doubt a ‘must-read’, but better read in the cold light of day rather than in the warm glow of an ideological hearth. Its style guarantees that many unbelievers will remain resolute in their disbelief, but you could hope that the book sews some seeds of doubt in those who are at first determined to disregard even the more horrific facts retold in it.



contact Books for Cooks Fast Food Nation Fast Food Nation

Syrup & Tang goes live

Welcome, gentle reader, to syrupandtang. The beauuuuutiful design is the result of many long, hot summer days and long, grumpy late nights over the last four months. You do find it beauuuuuutiful don’t you? (This is a rhetorical question.) The site will probably need a few tweaks as I discover things I missed or decide that I don’t find some features beauuuuuutiful enough. Do tell me if you find something which isn’t working as you think it should. Some technical notes are found here.

One paragraph down and still no mention of content. {chagrin} Food. Eating. Drinking. Travelling. Thinking. That’s what it’s all about. This isn’t a diary and I’m unlikely to tell you what I had for dinner. I hope you enjoy what you read on syrupandtang. And if you have a comment you’re welcome to leave one here, under a specific article, or send one directly to me via the contact form.

Now click away as you choose:)

– Duncan

A sense of humour at Eurostar

The train that thinks it’s a plane seems to have a sense of humour. Putting to one side Eurostar’s once unenviable reputation for tardiness and forgetting momentarily Eurostar’s legacy-airline pricing model (no affordable one-way tickets, a maximum return price of €760 for a journey of less than three hours), one can’t help being impressed by this touch of humour on the company’s website (my emphasis):

To check in, all you have to do is insert your ticket into the machine (which will hold onto it exactly long enough for you to start to panic, just a little bit) and then walk through the gate with your baggage. Easy. If you need help, our staff are always around, and we’ll be glad to check you in ourselves.

When To Check In
This depends mainly on what ticket you have. Unless you’ve been advised otherwise, please check-in at least a 30 minutes before your scheduled departure. Below are the full details, just bear in mind that if in doubt, arrive with time to spare. And have a croissant.
Link to original

Not only is this refreshingly lighthearted, but it’s present in the other languages available on the Eurostar site as well:

Il vous suffit d’insérer votre billet dans la machine (qui ne vous le rendra qu’aprés avoir observé chez vous un début de panique et un premier geste d’appel au secours en direction de notre personnel d’accueil”)
En cas de doute, prévoyez large et arrivez en avance. Et savourez un bon croissant.

Om in te checken hoeft u alleen biljet in de machine te steken (die het net lang genoeg zal behouden om u een beetje zenuwachtig te maken)
Hieronder vindt u alle details, maar denk eraan dat in geval van twijfel het beter is te vroeg te komen. En een croissant te verorberen.

Consistency in translation (where culturally appropriate) is second only to godliness and a good millefeuille.


Jinx at brunch

The scene is set: three brunching blokes amble into another overly popular Carlton café one Sunday. There’s me, then someone we’ll call Jim (because he’s a gym-bunny and pays attention to his carbs and proteins and all that), and there’s the quiet enigmatic one called Sigmund. My sour morning complexion needing a lift, I order sweet pancakes with various fruity bits, including a serving of lavender ice-cream which sounds just perfect for this warm summer morning.

And it would have been a perfect, warm summer morning… if the ice-cream hadn’t been plated next to the steaming hot pancakes and then left to stand a while. By the time it reached me all that was left was a teaspoon or two of rapidly dissipating cold stuff and a pool of custard-formerly-known-as. If one likes one’s ice-cream, then one must find a way to either gulp or savour the remnants. Savouring was clearly out of the question. The remaining blobs were quickly transported to my mouth, where they could at least melt in their rightful place. But, alack! Alas! Disappointment could not be arrested, for the blobs were not just pre-softened, but entirely lavenderless. Was the lavender a mirage, or had plain vanilla become the new lavender? I shall never know.

My companions went for the savoury options. Both, boringly, decided to have omelettes with fillings. And they might even have chosen identical fillings off the list if Jim hadn’t suddenly had one of those fitness-crazed nutritional moments and decided he wanted hash browns in his omelette. Yeuch. More surprising was the fact that this was on the list of available fillings — the reason Jim had come upon this distasteful idea in the first place. He ordered an omelette aux hash browns and smoked salmon. He was punished.

A large omelette on toast was delivered, avec salmon, but sans browns. It was brought to the waitress’s attention and eventually two or three briquette-like things were delivered. Not briquette-coloured, but certainly the size of those diminutive chunklets one might use to fuel a barbeque. We supposed they were intended as an appropriate size for the inside of the omelette. Regardless of their physical form, they tasted awful.

Sigmund, meanwhile, happily munched through his satisfyingly unambitious omelette without trouble. He even got the extra filling he’d ordered (the basic omelette price only included two fillings). Some people are just blessed.

After drinking our digestif coffees, we went to pay. The bill listed a side order of hash browns, despite Jim having ordered them in conjunction with the omelette (two fillings included, remember). It was an unusual request, I guess, so misunderstandings can arise. We explained, and for a moment it looked like all would be happily resolved, and we could depart. But then the waitress hand-balled the matter over to the Dark Side. “Well, you can’t seriously have wanted that as a filling for that!” he said. He clearly didn’t believe us. Jim must have planned the whole thing to defraud the Dark Side of a $3.50 side order.

I tried invoking the mantra of customer prerogative, unsuccessfully. I tried my light-sabre of logic (‘the menu lists the permitted fillings, and hash browns is on the list’), but it failed to slay the Dark Side. ‘If we put all the permitted combinations on the menu it would be 45 pages long’, he snapped hyperbolically. Dark Side 2: Customers 0. A grumble and a snap and a huff or two later, the bill was corrected. Dark Side 0: Lost Customers 3-and-growing.


Iron Chef America – low sodium

It was slow to cross the ocean to Australia, but eventually cult foodies here got to see Iron Chef America — the Masters series from 2004. I love Iron Chef. It is a masterpiece of kitchen prowess in a camped-up we-love-the-ridiculous style. Inspired stuff. Completely unlike Iron Chef America.

Where Iron Chef (original) has Chairman Kaga, resplendent in dandy sartorial delights and with a cheeky twinkle in his overacting eyes, America has Chairman Who-Cares, cute, cutting a nice figure in his well-tailored suit, and overacting for the sake of, well, overacting. The gentle viewer could be forgiven thinking that Chairman Nice-Suit wouldn’t be able to tell his caviar from his tapioca. Sigh.

The Japanese series had the jolly “man alive!” banter of the (dubbed) panel. The American series gets Alton Brown, whose voice reminds me more of a cartoon character than an informative host. He does know his stuff, however. That’s nice. But the commentary becomes too didactic and repetitively inane. Whereas the Japanese panel could get away with “I think he’ll probably make X with that”, “No, it looks like Y”, “Gee, I was sure it was gonna be X, but he’s a clever guy”, Alton Brown ranges from very informative commentary on sugar decoration to the stunning “I’m sure this will probably definitely be X or maybe something like that”. Now, I don’t have a transcript in front of me, so please treat that as a paraphrase, but whatever the exact wording, it doesn’t make for scintillating watching. The camp becomes the cold and the banter becomes the banal.

Maybe I’m just a little conservative, too attached to originals. One of those guys who hates covers of my favourite songs or misappropriation of my favourite dishes. Am I just too curmudgeonly to be open-minded about Iron Chef America?

If Chairman Kaga spoke English, if Hiroyuki Sakai didn’t wear red satin, if the voice didn’t say “man alive!” would I still enjoy re-runs of the original Iron Chef? Probably not, but who cares? This isn’t a game of Hypotheticals. The only thing that Iron Chef America has over the original is a touch more commentary by the judges and a little more authoritative info from the commentator. And Vollfffffgang Puckkk.

Wolfgang Puck is like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but with a little more vim. His accent may even be more entertaining than that of the Gubernator. The latter has little more than bad-actor-meets-macho-character in Austro-English. The former has Perrrrrsonality.

Personality is something that Alton Brown shows less of in his commentary (he works better when in the frame). And I can’t forgive him for calling Spätzle “shpaytzul” (Kevin Brauch (his floor boy) should wash Alton’s mouth out with wasabi). Without the personality of the original commentary panel and lacking the poetic and eccentric judgements of the original jury, this television is pretty soulless.

For all the technical information which Iron Chef America — Battle of the Masters conveys, both visually and verbally, the lack of fun and whackiness is like undersalted pasta; nourishing, perhaps, but no yumminess. Where’s my Iron Chef umami dispenser?



contact Books for Cooks Iron Chef: The Official Book Iron Chef: The Official Book