Irradiated by LabRat
This is not what I said I was working on yesterday. Dinner conversation with Stingray revealed that we’d both been quietly nursing the same festering peeve for some time now, and the grumble to follow was writing itself a hell of a lot more easily than the other thing.
We are getting heartily sick of hearing people talk about fast food in general- and McDonald’s in particular- as if it were created and served by Satan himself to masses of human livestock.
McDonald’s (and just about any other fast food chain) is not good food. It’s not particularly tasty, it’s not very good for you, and it was never supposed to be. The point of fast food, as subtly hinted in the name, is to be fast. You pull up or go inside, input your order to the staff (which are rather unfairly treated in popular culture as one step above untrained monkeys, though I’ve met a few who deserved it as well as more that really didn’t), and minutes later receive a quantity of calories ready to consume, plus or minus exactly what you ordered. It’s not very elegant and it’s not very appealing, but it is very simple, and sometimes when you’ve got about fifteen minutes or less to find and eat something, it’s a godsend.
The pinnacle of popular McDonald’s demonization has got to be Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me. The entire premise of the movie is that Spurlock sets out to prove a point about the American obesity epidemic by… bingeing on a super-sized-with-fries Big Mac orgy three times a day. In order to achieve the weight gain he did (26 pounds in a month), he would have had to be eating even more extra Big Macs than were standard at the time. He also gained an array of variously horrible disorders- most frighteningly the kind of fatty liver disease that more normally strikes alcoholics but will also fell anyone eating, I don’t know, seven thousand or so calories worth of the exact same fatty food items every single day for a month. I could eat seven thousand calories worth of orange juice, salad, and chicken breast every day for a month and while I might acquire different specific disorders- I imagine type II diabetes instead of fatty liver, plus whatever intestinal shenanigans resulted from that much fiber- I would be just as overweight and just as sick at the end. Having thoroughly trashed his body in order to make this non-point, he spends the rest of the movie interviewing anyone remotely associated with the fast food industry (who are, he makes clear, directly responsible for obesity in America and enjoy killing kittens in their spare time besides) and demonizing the obese to the point where anorexia looks like the better option.
I could go on to rant about the complete negation of any personal responsibility on the part of consumers inherent in this line of thought, the meanness and stupidity of making bodyfat percentage into a moral issue, or the dangers inherent in the logical conclusion- depriving people of choice “for their own good”- but many others have done it before and done it better; I trust you’ll take the points. I’ll stop the Supersize Me discussion by noting that Spurlock is currently in the cable television dungeon fulfilling his life’s calling as a modern carnival geek.
Leftist smuggery based in the concept of “the ignorant masses will eat themselves into whale-like proportions without the slightest flicker of sentience if we don’t tell them what to do” is only half of what inspired this rant. The other half is a pair of my heroes.
We are foodies. I really hate using that term, since it’s gotten wrapped up in all sorts of irritating bullshit- like doing everything short of holding exorcisms in fast food outlets- but all of the others are actually even MORE pretentious. (Although I’m taking the term our friend Hannah came up with- “enthusiastic omnivore”- under strong consideration.) We love food, we spend time looking for the best available in our area and trying anything new we find, Stingray cooks while I head up kitchen Research and Development, we watch unhealthy amounts of the Food Network, etcetera and ad nauseam. We’re obsessive. And like any good obsessives, we have our favorite public figures whose exploits we enjoy vicariously.
Anthony Bourdain’s current show, No Reservations is based on the premise of sending him all around the world to, basically, find food and eat it. Alton Brown’s side project is Feasting On Asphalt, which is essentially the same premise confined to continental North America and conducted from a motorcycle caravan. Both of them pound on the themes of the evils of corporate fast food and its destruction of local culinary culture, and in Alton’s case, the “original” American road food. Don’t get me wrong; they have some very good points, and all of my favorite quick food stops in this state or any other I’ve lived in are exactly the kind of regional, fresh-made short-order stands and restaurants that Anthony and Alton hold up as so deeply superior. They are, for the most part- they taste better, they’re better for you, and it supports local business.
But corporate fast food IS American (and later globalized) road food culture, and it is so very successful because it serves a specific and important need that those kinds of places don’t: standardization. Oh, I know, standardization bad, it closes the mind and numbs the palate and destroys cultural identity and blah blah foodiecakes. I KNOW.
But when I’m driving long-distance, unless I have some knowledge of the area- or time to acquire it, which isn’t always the case- I’m likely to grab my meals from Mickey D’s, or KFC, or Wendy’s. I may not expect quality, but I CAN expect to know what I’m going to get for a certain price and that it is highly unlikely to make me sick. (In fact, one of Ray Kroc’s major innovations that made McDonald’s so successful was the promotion of cleanliness in his restaurants.) There’s still a chance the place is a health inspector’s nightmare, but the broader corporate standards generally stack the odds in favor of the faceless soul-eating chains. While I’m generally in favor of giving my intestinal flora and immune system a nice workout and looking for regional and independent when traveling, there are times and places when the scheduling just isn’t there to accommodate devoting a day or more to getting to know my own stomach lining better. During the first season of Feasting On Asphalt, Alton Brown gave time and loving detail to the guide that Duncan Hines put out to traveller-friendly restaurants he encountered as a salesman, which rated them on service, quality, and above all cleanliness- Alton correctly made the point that this revolutionized eating on the road in America. I spent the rest of the episode waiting in vain for him to mention fast food chains as a logical extension.
There is also the matter of time and cost. While it is very true that you have problems if you consistently prioritize a full evening’s TV-watching over cooking to the point that fast food becomes a staple of your diet, a factor often missed by the anti-fast-food side is this: in America, as with most of the developed world, time is money. Or, if you prefer a less stark formulation, free time is something that people demonstrate they value greatly over and over again, much to the consternation of social engineers. While it may be less costly in dollars to buy fresh food and prepare it at home, the value placed on time means that fast food still comes out pretty cheap. Whether the values placed by an individual on time for certain activities (or the total lack thereof) is sane or not is a matter with no particular bearing on the value of fast food in and of itself.
Americans in general seem to have some serious issues with perspective when it comes to food. Contrary to the misery of the obese and the zeal of diet-and-fitness devotees, what you eat has no bearing on how good a person you are unless you’re eating human flesh. As has been said time and time again, eat a little bit of everything in moderation goddammit, move around enough to challenge your body often, and you’ll do just fine. Don’t sweat the clown. Maybe we can even get to the point where McDonald’s will take those soccer players and Olympians off the packaging- I really hate that.
Not that I’m going to stop snarking when I see The Horrors Of Modern Life conveniently in microcosm when I’m trying to get a burger and get out- oh no. Later on when I’ve got some time to write and am fishing for material I’ll tell you about the Burger King where the eight-year-old at the cash register was the most on-the-ball person there. But damned if I’m going to let myself succumb to the delusion that it’s a moral issue of our times as opposed to just a common way to get cheap food quickly and reliably.