Category Archives: books

The written word, in tangible form.

Paris 2007

Paris: woman with baguettes and small dog
[This is the third article about travel. Others: London/UK, chocolate in London.]

There are so many reasons to visit Paris; so many reasons to enjoy the city and – most pertinently – the food. Lacking the resources to hop from one name-restaurant to another (to be honest, places like L’Arpège, L’Atelier du Joël Robuchon, Alain Ducasse and so on aren’t likely to be my preferred eating experience anyway), it seemed much better to wander through markets, browse the shops, and pour money into chocolate, pâtisserie and macarons while staying in a 2-star establishment somewhere for EUR 50 (A$82) per night!

I’ve been to Paris more than a handful of times and have gradually become more careful in choosing the markets to visit, the restaurants I’ll eat at and the pâtisseries worth revisiting. What I haven’t achieved is regular access to a kitchen and the time to exploit that properly. In fact, staying in a simple apartment (EUR 65 (A$107) per night) with a basic kitchen (two hotplates, a fridge, a microwave, some useful pots and enough space to twirl a dishcloth) was only made possible this year.

Markets | Shops | Eating

I’d love to tell you that I cooked up a storm every night. I didn’t. But I did stuff the fridge fulllll of cheese, olives, cakes, charcuterie and butter! And mushrooms and cumquats. And Normandy cider.

I could wax lyrical about the olives…

But let me tell you about food and eating.

Food-related shops

The two most impressive épiceries (loosely: foodhalls, strictly: grocers) in Paris are at Bon Marché and Lafayette (click on the ‘Gourmet’ link in the French version). The former is a cavernous supermarket-like space (without the tacky supermarket feel), part of a department store. The latter is more like the foodhalls of Harrods or David Jones, with numerous delicatessen counters, ready-to-eat meals, café counters and more. Where Bon Marché feels relatively calm and stylish, Lafayette maintains some style whilst drowning in a novel mélange of old ladies who do all their grocery shopping there, Japanese tourists and German schoolgirls. (Both the Japanese and Germans – and presumably numerous other groups – descend like wasps on the impressive chocolate aisles.)

At last I made it to Dehillerin and Mora, the two most renowned cookware shops in Paris. Dehillerin is particularly famous because it’s, well, rather reminiscent of an old, old hardware shop with poky aisles of bits and bobs and men in sensible coats (the people who serve you, not flashers). It was all a little overwhelming, and you can hear hordes of American tourists salivating over the copper pots. Me, I just salivated over the copper bordelais (canelés bordelaises, sometimes spelt cannelé) moulds. As delish as canelés are (and there are long long discussions over at eGullet), I don’t feel quite the same foolish enthusiasm for them as I do for other pâtisserie items, so I decided not to splurge EUR 8 (A$14) per little mould (consider that one mould doesn’t get you far, and four moulds is still a little meagre) and will just leave it for when I’m rich (assuming mortality doesn’t intervene). By the way, if it’s good chocolate moulds you’re after, Mora seems to be the place to go.

The Librairie Gourmande moved to a new location (90 rue Montmartre) near métro Sentier in the 2nd arrondissement earlier this year. It is now on two floors, so has considerably more space than the old location in the 6th. It felt a little chaotic when I was there, hopefully as a result of the recent move. It’s hard to find a really good selection of gastronomic literature in Paris and I hope this shop picks up. I’ve written previously about Librairie Badiane in Lyon, where the shop and their website were a good deal more with-it than Librairie Gourmande when I visited. (Note that the second best shop in Paris for gastronomic literature (primarily cookbooks) is probably Gilbert Joseph on Bd. Saint Michel, followed by Gilbert Jeune on Place Saint Michel.)

Markets

This year I made it to the markets on Boulevard Richard Lenoir (Oberkampf, 11th arrondissement), sometimes called the Marché Popincourt, which is my ‘local’ if I dare be so pretentious. A long way further down Bd. Richard Lenoir is the Marché Bastille. And a little to the east is the market at Place d’Aligre. The first of these three has changed from being strongly local to increasingly having tourists in the mix and merchants who know it. The Bastille market is a bit larger, but apart from some nicknacks and a Portuguese bloke selling (primarily) Italian wares (but real chouriço too!), it didn’t feel that much better than the first. The Marché d’Aligre, including the fixed covered market known as Marché Beauvau, is a much more down-to-earth affair. Some of the produce is crap. There’s a bit of a flea market. The covered market is small but has a range of meat and other produce stalls – I almost bought some horse fillet to try, but chickened out (so to speak) for fear of the opprobrium which certain Parisian friends might have directed at me. Nay, it was to be cumquats and comté rather than cheval and chèvre.

Marché Bastille bread
Marché Bastille chicken

I bought lots of cumquats. Well, I asked for not so many. I got a lot. And paid for a lot. But it gave me an excuse to practise making cumquat tea. Cumquat tea? Yep. It’s quite delicious, and I had converted quite a few Parisians to it by the time I left. I would include a recipe here, but that would be a little distracting, so I shall post again once the weather is warmer in Melbourne and someone deigns to donate a bushell of cumquats to the cause.

Dining

Multilingual menu

Bon Marché (see beginning) has one more attraction: a café called Delicabar, nestled in the women’s fashion department on the first floor. Not my usual place to tarry, but well worth the exception. I first visited Delicabar after reading early mentions of it on eGullet back in 2004. The novelty? An interesting approach to desserts and pastry, and a blurring of lines between sweet and savoury. Jellies, mousses, fine pastry, vegetables, fresh flavours all find expression in ways which were, at first, novel and unexpected: a glass of spiced fruits in a jelly; a ‘bubble’ (dome) of carrot mousse; sablés (shortbreads) flavoured with olive oil or rosemary; chocolate soup; green tea tartelettes… you get the picture.

Delicabar bar
Delicabar seating

The setting was cool and bright – natural light, white walls, and curvaceous bright pink or yellow banquettes, stools and islands. Staff dressed in black. Delicabar lived up to its tagline: snack chic.

A year or two after opening, Delicabar was extended to include an open-air courtyard that is delightful in warmer weather, successfully extending the simple, naturally lit ambience of the venue.

Alas, the experience has begun to undermine the style. Last year and this, we found staff less and less engaging (they were never effusive, but stylish hauteur seems to have become unmotivated and a little tatty). Last year I found my millefeuille pastry was overcooked. This year, the previously stunning sablés tasted less fresh than usual. And the coffee had declined.

Five visits in four years might not be enough to give an accurate reflection of change – maybe I was unlucky on my last two visits – but my bar chic companions shared my view. Nonetheless, the food at Delicabar can still be special and, more interestingly, you should come back to syrupandtang in about a month’s time for more detail about the food and the chef.

After pigging out on cakes and croques monsieurs (if you feel tempted to pronounce that Crock Mon-Sewers, then please use ‘French toasted ham and cheese sandwich thingo’ instead!), cumquat tea and chouriço, tomme de brebis (a ewe’s milk version of Tomme de Savoie, I believe) and cidre, it was necessary to dine a little more upmarket. Two lovely discoveries were Le P’tit Manger (11th) on Rue Richard Lenoir, near Rue Parmentier (métro Voltaire), serving pretty good Liègeois cuisine at quite reasonable prices. Excellent confit de canard and good chips! Another place was the Corsican Restaurant Alivi at 27, Rue du Roi de Sicile in the Marais (4th). Can’t remember my main dish (veal?) but did have a delightful honey cake, a recipe for which I must go a-searching.

Goodbye

Métro Sèvres-Babylone

I’m going to separate the account of cakes and chocolate into a separate post, so stay tuned for that one.

– DM
[This is the third article about travel. Others: London/UK, chocolate in London.]

Greed, business and bookselling

Australian book retail chain Angus & Robertson (A&R) has got itself in the poo. The mainstream media (Fairfax) ran stories briefly (08 August) about A&R attempting to screw its suppliers by demanding payments to cover their ‘gap’ in profitability. To put it more clearly, Angus & Robertson is using the same sort of approach that Australian supermarkets have to the products they carry — ‘pay us to stock your product or go away’. More detail can be found in an article at Crikey (subscription). Suppliers/publishers who don’t yield enough volume profit for the bookseller retailer are being billed for large sums in order to obtain the right to continue to supply the retailer.

I’ve heard that a representative of A&R stood up at the Australian Booksellers’ Association conference a few weeks back and said something to the effect of ‘we aren’t a bookseller, we’re a retailer’ and more about profits and products. So there we have it.

Two of the suppliers mentioned in media coverage are Tower Books and Thames & Hudson. They are prominent in areas such as architecture, art, design, some literature and more (including many French-published food titles). If A&R loses Tower Books (and they seem to have, given the correspondence between them) one would assume that no Taschen books will be available from A&R (Taschen do all sorts of popular books on art and artists, design, culture and photography) as Tower is the Australian supplier. The same is the case for DC Comics. And Thames & Hudson has an impressive catalogue of titles in similar areas. It would seem that A&R doesn’t deserve anyone’s business if they think selling books is about extorting money from suppliers and only giving consumers whatever A&R deems massively profitable enough to bother with.

UPDATE: A nice description of A&R’s greed and various parts of the correspondence can be found at Lightbulb

– DM

Review – Botanical, by Paul Wilson

Botanical front cover

Botanical: Inside the iconic brasserie. Recipes by Paul Wilson. Photography by William Meppem. (2007: Hardie Grant Books, Melbourne.) RRP AUD 85

Overview: An impressive ‘chef’s book’ by respected Melbourne chef Paul Wilson, Botanical is both a serious cookbook and a self-congratulatory piece about the restaurant (the Botanical). Intended for serious home cooks or other chefs, this is perhaps the first local heavy-duty ‘chef’s book’ Australia has seen, with recipes often encompassing many steps and long lists of ingredients. (It’s possible Tetsuya competes in detail — I haven’t been able to look at a copy to compare.)

Botanical photography 1

Good bits: The recipes are interesting and span an impressive range. Emphasis is placed on local ingredients. Excellent design and photography. Another feather in the hat of the publishers Hardie Grant.

Recipe examples: wood-roasted calamari with chorizo sausage, olives and smoked paprika; gingerbread hotcakes with caramelised pineapple; slow-roasted beef blade over organic baby beetroots with red wine and beetroot sauce; grapefruit tart with sauternes jelly.

Botanical photography 4Botanical photography 3

Bad bits: One clanger: the ‘Conversions’ page (p18) lists a tablespoon as being 15ml, which it definitely isn’t in Australia (20ml). The publishers assure me that the error will be fixed in the next print run. Australians can ignore the typo, while overseas readers will just find some things a little underflavoured.

I feel the book needed tighter editing. The introduction, history of the restaurant, etc, are overly long and a touch repetitive, reading too much like a piece of untempered self-congratulation. Chris Lucas (the owner former owner) gets to write a recommendation of Riedel glassware in the section on wine and that seems out of place in this sort of volume.

A set of ingredient notes makes clear that flat-leaf parsley is the variety to be used in all recipes, but then every recipe with parsley re-states that it is ‘flat-leaf parsley’, making the original note unnecessary.

Wilson’s passion for the best produce is admirable, but comments like ‘make a worthwhile investment by buying real buffalo milk mozzarella’ overlook the fact that the variable quality of Australian mozzarella (shaggy moo or normal moo) can make it an extremely bad investment on some days. Commentary on the recipes is also too loose sometimes.

Botanical photography 2

Comments: Most of my negatives are unimportant when it comes to the cooking itself, thankfully. It’s about time we saw a local book of this calibre in Australia! It won’t be for everyone (because of the ambition it requires), and it certainly reflects Paul Wilson’s style — solid classical cookery with modern flourishes, complex restaurant dishes, frequent nods to cuisines of the Mediterranean, and an affection for quail eggs, truffles and local seafood. This is an attractive large-format volume (almost 30x30cm) and I dread to think how many people will use it as a coffee table piece rather than actually cooking from it.

– DM

Links:

to order Botanical, by Paul Wilson Books for Cooks AU | Amazon UK

A new bookshop for foodlovers: Badiane of Lyon (FR)

picture of Badiane

In this world of the online bookselling behemoth Amazon (in its seven personalities), it’s always nice to find an independent bookshop catering to one’s specialist area of interest. There is a handful of bookshops specialising in gastronomy and oenology, but they are often unknown to many potential customers. Few large countries seem to be able to support more than one real specialist and the advantage that chain retailers have in publisher discounts and freight contracts means that business for any specialist is hard.

Imagine my joy when I found a new gastronomic bookshop — and purely by chance. As the rain poured down on me on Place Bellecour in the French city of Lyon, I frantically looked around for somewhere to take shelter and spied a bookshop bearing the words ‘la librairie de toutes les cuisines’ (the bookshop for all cuisines).

Opened early in 2007, the bookshop Badiane — ‘la librairie de toutes les cuisines’ includes a fairly large, attractive retail area, a children’s area, a kitchen and small gallery. Badiane stocks new books, mostly in French, and the owners, Marianne Vellieux and Catherine Guérin, schedule regular food events and cookery classes. There’s also an online catalogue. They told me that they plan to offer English-language courses to cater to the tourist market — a great idea, as Lyon is well known as a gastronomic destination in France (and is a very attractive city too, even though all the Parisians I know asked me ‘So, why do you want to go to Lyon?’).

– DM

Amazon tastes bad

Some wonderful internet services rely on so-called ‘intelligent systems’ to keep you interested and stimulated. They guess your preferences, guide your choices, point you towards new (and lucrative) potential purchases. Perhaps the most famous such system is TiVo. Unknown in Australia except by technogeeks, TiVo is a US device that predicts which programs you will want to watch on telly. You tell it what you like (or don’t) and lo! your diet of CSI and Alias spreads like a crimewave. Your TiVo personal digital video recorder saves every imaginable analytical crime series that your 300 channels can throw at you. Your partner suffers nightmares for months thereafter.

If telly isn’t your thing, how about intelligent audio streaming? A service like Pandora lets you customise ‘stations’ of musical styles, and as the reasonably-empowered listener, you get to tell Pandora what you feel about each song it plays. It will even tell you why it chose a particular song for you. Very bright! You can discover that an affection for Santana’s Maria Maria goes hand in hand with an attraction to Craig ‘how-many-times-can-I-mention-my-name’ David. Or that loving John Paul Young’s Love is in the Air (which I do) makes you a candidate listener of Roger Wakefield. Wrong wrong wrong. Although opening Pandora’s box can cause a few surprises, you can at least berate Pandora by telling it not to play that awful track again! Nonetheless, I find myself unable to train the dear gal to play music which I regard as in some way genre-sharing with Savage Garden. Chris de Berg? Gimme a break.

TiVo is said to be a little harder to control than Pandora. If you dislike cowboy movies, there is anecdotal evidence that you might face a barage of arthouse films and a dancepartyness of Queer As Folk episodes. Realigning one’s sexual orientation with TiVo might be some sinister social experiment, but the ‘intelligence’ in the system clearly doesn’t understand that not every straight boy aspires to be John Wayne. The amusing or dissonant effect of this sort of ‘recommender system’ (as they’re called in the trade) was first highlighted in an article by Jeffrey Zaslow in the Wall Street Journal in 2002 and has become quite famous.

Notwithstanding my minor tussles with Pandora, I haven’t had to contend with any serious distorting effects of a recommender system. Until yesterday.

Amazon thinks I have a sense of humour and would buy a book by Victoria Beckham (once ‘Posh Spice’ of the Spice Girls pop group). Let me revise that. Amazon.co.uk thinks I have a taste for quirky humorous books, and thinks I should buy popular fiction, and thinks I would like a book by Victoria Beckham. So, so wrong.

The good news? This affliction probably isn’t permanent. Because I know the culprit. It’s Jamie Oliver. All I had done was give a ranking to his new tome (Cook with Jamie). Suddenly I’m meant to want a book about why penguins’ feet don’t freeze. Amazon suggests I buy Ian Rankin and John Grisham too. Ha! The only near-hit is Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. And then there’s that book by Mrs Beckham. If it were one written by her hubbie I’d be camping out front of my local bookshop in an instant.

So, Jamie has buggered up my Amazon recommendations. I’m not talking about the ‘Customers who bought this item also bought’ section. Amazon customers can also view a ‘Recommendations for you’ page that develops as a result of your previous purchases, views and wishlist. Should I unrate Jamie? I might yet want to buy a Jamie book at some point (there is, however, no historical precedent). I faced a similar dilemma when a high rating of Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice resulted in a few too-hands-on titles about building brick ovens and the like.

I should explain that I use Amazon almost exclusively to surf the food/cooking category. It’s a great way to keep abreast of new books (sometimes slow to reach Terra Australis), find old or unexpectedly interesting tomes, or even to buy the occasional item. Who’d have guessed? Anyway, the effect of surfing within a limited domain is that the recommendations are usually fairly acceptable. Sometimes Amazon gets a little too enthusiastic about Japanese or Persian cooking, but I can deal with it, and there was once a nasty incident when I told it I owned a book on butchery, but we won’t go there.

I’ve been looking a little more closely at the recommendations. The situation seems quite grave. A few deviant food books have also crept in. Apparently Allegra’s Colour Cookbook, Sophie Conran’s Pies and Mary Berry’s Christmas Collection are worthy of my attention. Is there happyjuice in my cordial? This isn’t Jamie’s fault.

An unlikely pair of culprits have been identified. On the one hand we have Bill Granger (Every Day). I knew there was something wrong when a guy can smile that much. And on the other is the Rose Bakery of Paris (Breakfast, Lunch and Tea). By rating these I’ve been thrown into the lifestyle end of the bookshop. I’m having visions of Donna Hay spinning spaghetti into neat little nests. Should I cook with Marie Claire? Is it time to redecorate? Do I need a makeover? If collaborative filtering (the process of predicting interests based on a range of people’s preference patterns) does this to me then I don’t want to be a team player!

Whether you’ve got £20 to spend in Top Shop or £2,000 to spend at Gucci, looking good isn’t about money, it’s about style, and style never goes out of fashion.

I wonder if the rest of Victoria’s book is as rich in insightful aphorisms. With a title more like a C-grade porno than a fashion aid, That Extra Half an Inch: Hair, Heels and Everything in Between (Hardcover) is not going to fulfil me culinarily. It strikes me that I’ve viewed the page for this masterpiece twice already and Amazon’s recommender system has no doubt recorded that fact for posterity. I expect the clever algorithms are now irreparably biased in pink. Am I doomed to How to Walk in High Heels: The Girl’s Guide to Everything when next I visit the ‘Recommendations for you’ page?

– DM

Links:

Cook with Jamie Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
The God Delusion Amazon US | Amazon UK
The Bread Baker’s Apprentice Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Allegra’s Colour Cookbook Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Sophie Conran’s Pies Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Mary Berry’s Christmas Collection Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Every Day Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Breakfast, Lunch and Tea Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Donna Hay Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Marie Claire Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
That Extra Half an Inch: Hair, Heels and Everything in Between (Hardcover) Amazon UK
How to Walk in High Heels: The Girl’s Guide to Everything Amazon US | Amazon UK

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.

-DM

Links:

contact Books for Cooks

amazon.com: Fast Food Nation

amazon.co.uk: Fast Food Nation