Sun Jul 28, 2002

Fries, Lies and Apple Pies

I was in New York for a conference most of last week. On my way home—- a four-hour wait in JFK, a long flight to Salt Lake City, another two-hour layover and then a two hour flight to Tucson—- I read Eric Schlosser’s excellent Fast Food Nation. It’s a terrific piece of muckracking journalism that looks at how fast food became “as American as a small, rectangular, frozen and reheated apple pie” and what that has meant for American society. There’s a lot in the book to, uh, chew on, including some social history on the growth of the fast-food industry in California, a fascinating account of a visit to a factory that produces natural and artificial food flavorings and an indictment of labor practices in both the meatpacking industry and the fast-food franchises themselves.

There’s also an excellent chapter on the efforts of fast-food companies (pioneered by McDonald’s) to build brand loyalty by marketing to children. The short-term goal is to get kids to pester their parents for Happy Meals. The long term goal is to create adults who are reminded of happy childhood moments whenever they see or, especially, smell McDonald’s food. I remember that Ireland got its first McDonald’s sometime in the early 1980s, in Dublin. Cork got one a year or two later. Very rapidly, it became the coolest place to have your birthday party. We all wanted to go there. A couple of years later, the Ronald McDonald mystique had taken even deeper root in children’s minds. When I was in college, a cousin of mine made her first communion, an event which I and everyone else in Ireland had celebrated by going to a hotel restaurant somewhere for dinner, before travelling around to all your relatives and extracting money from them. My cousin, though, didn’t want to go to some stupid restaurant for her dinner. This was the biggest event of her life, and she wanted to celebrate properly, by eating at McDonald’s.

One of the reasons I bought the book, incidentally, was to give me some moral ammunition to argue with myself when I get a craving for a two cheeseburger meal, something that happens distressingly often when I walk past the McD’s in the student union at lunchtime. Thanks to Schlosser, I now know the names of the chemicals that make the burgers and fries smell so damn good. The next time I get a craving, I will imagine the factory on the New Jersey turnpike where those flavors are manufactured, and remember the nasty chemical smells that would filter through my car’s air vent when I used to commute from New Haven to Princeton.