The Fast Food Moment: Why Our Happy Meals Won't Make Us Happy - Matthew Miller
Eating is an agricultural act.
Recent years have seen several attempts to peer down the rabbit hole of our industrial food system. Two books in particular — Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma—as well as a feature-length documentary — Supersize Me, by intrepid filmmaker and self-experimenter Morgan Spurlock — have provided us with alarming insights into the way that major corporations in this country grow, process, and market the foods we eat on a daily basis. Schlosser's social history of the McMeal exposes its hidden costs: obesity, cancer, heart disease, animal and worker cruelty, soil loss, industrial and commercial waste, and habitat degradation. Spurlock reiterates some of the same themes on his personal quest for a coronary, a 30-day McDonald's diet that provides the narrative structure of his film. However, his focus remains on the personal and social health consequences of McFood. Finally, Pollan sets his discussion of "our national eating disorder" in the context of the larger question: What, exactly, should we eat? In some ways his account is the most thought provoking, if not the most disturbing.
Pollan illuminates the origins of the fast food holy trinity — Burger, Fries, and Cola — with the help of a mass spectrometer. The carbon isotopes reveal that over fifty percent of this meal was derived from corn. Corn makes the beef (indirectly) as well as the fillers and stabilizers in the patty. The high-fructose corn syrup in the cola accounts for 99 percent of the drink's calories and the syrup is in the bun and condiments too. Even a big chunk of the french fries' calories come from the beef tallow-flavored corn oil used to fry them. Talk about children of the corn! These facts came as a bit of a surprise for this omnivore. After taking all this information in, I reflected again on my own "fast food moments" hoping to explain some of my own eating behaviors to myself.
The contents for my "moments" usually come from Braum’s — a regional fast-food chain in Oklahoma where I live — and these contents are typically consumed in a moving vehicle on my way to work. I order the #3: a third-pound bacon cheeseburger, medium fries and a drink. Often I substitute a shake for my normal unsweetened iced tea, though this is a corn-ucopia as well; think milk, cows, corn, and high-fructose corn syrup. Usually the shake is half gone by the time the burger is in the car due to the fact that they give it to you first, and the fact that overpowering hunger and perceived time shortages are typically the proximate causes of my dietary indiscretion. The fries follow in their turn with an empty packet at the bottom of the sack before I hit the interstate. This is a necessary consequence of the situation. I'd prefer to eat the fries along with the burger, liberally drenching them in a saltencrusted puddle of catsup, but it takes 10 of the little packets to make the labor of tearing and squirting worth while, so I skip it altogether. Then, cruise control set and left knee guiding my two tons of hurtling metal down the highway, one hand forms a plate on which wrapper and burger rest. The other methodically and mechanically inserts burger into mouth for regular and measured bites. From start to finish the whole thing takes about eight to 10 minutes depending on traffic, but the experience stays with me for the rest of the day in the form of the previously irresistible but now merely undeniable "fast food smell." How efficient.
What, exactly, is this "industrial meal" that I've consumed? Well it certainly is not a salad your Grandma threw together out of things growing in her garden. It's a coolly calculated industrial artifact perfectly designed as the precise antidote to my hunger with every quality enhanced and embellished to produce the immediate effect of absolute satiety. Further, it's a contrivance designed to tap into our evolutionary wiring and exploit it, designed in its smallest details to keep us coming back for more. After all, there's nothing our big brains like better than a glucose shower. Ostensibly, McFood perfectly meets the deepest human physiological need.
Allow me a brief digression: we must be honest about needs. The lack of oxygen will result in a quick death, while sex is, after all, optional. But hunger is different. It can be lived and experienced over time as chronic deprivation. Just ask the billion or so people living on the planet for whom hunger is a basic fact of daily existence. Obviously here in fatty fudge land nobody — or a least nobody but the nobodies — has ever really experienced hunger in any way other than as something to be squelched with a burger at its first nascent appearance.
I've come to realize that this meal, this emblem of our age, exemplifies what the French sociologist Jacques Ellul called simply "technique" in his important book The Technological Society. Technique is characterized by the relentless pursuit of an absolute efficiency of means for achieving some narrowly defined purpose. It involves transforming what was unconscious, spontaneous, and natural into what is fully conscious and completely calculated. Technique creates itself as a self-augmenting system of necessary linkages of means and it remakes everything it touches in this image. In short, technique replaces all value with efficiency and all action with the one best way.
The McMeal is the one best way to end my hunger and it tastes good too. It efficiently consumes a cheap and abundant commodity — number two field corn — breaking it down and reassembling it in all its various guises. It employs titanic economies of scale that produce cost efficiencies. It centralizes and refines the means of production ever reducing the time from birth to slaughter. It prescribes a precise preparation plan executed on cue by interchangeable automatons beholden to timers and buzzers. It can be eaten and is intended to be eaten alone, with one hand, while driving down the highway on one's way to work. It gives us 2,000 calories for only six bucks in a form that we can quickly and enjoyably consume. It makes Ray Kroc smile in McHeaven.
This absolute efficiency is, however, a hollow achievement precisely because it systematically displaces all other possible relationships that humans might have with food or with one another for that matter. Food is reduced to something pulled out of a paper sack like a magician's bunny from a hat. The individually packaged combo-meal serves to obliterate the real magic of communally broken bread. It's just impossible to get a family of four to sit down together for an evening meal around the steering wheel. The sharing of food and the empathetic recognition of the common human experiences of need and desire, of laughter and tears, are willingly sacrificed on the altar of perceived convenience.
Pollan points out that the supermarket has become, in essence, only an extension of the drive-thru. A trip down the center aisles of any supermarket leaves carts filled with items our ancestors would not even recognize as food. These "meals" come encased in plastic, preserved for eternity with sodium and trans-fats, and ready for consumption before the glow of the most recent episode of American Idol. This system relieves us of the need to bake our daily bread or "meet our meat" and thus alienates us from our most basic life activity. Most tragically, it prevents us from sharing this activity, so central to human existence, with others.
Eating is an agricultural act, a social act, and yes, a sacred, sexual act. In the sexual act, the male organ of procreation enters the female vessel and produces a new life. Analogously, we create and recreate ourselves through the diurnal act of eating. The human hand placing food into the mouth imitates the procreative act of the species at the level of the individual. In the act of breaking bread we are both lover and beloved and that act is both the expectation and consummation of Eros. Eating well implies the care and veneration of the lover by the beloved. We therefore ought to pay at least as much attention to our choice of food as to our choice of lovers. Eating and sex share the same spiritual ground. A McMeal is to eating what a prostitute is to sex — efficient gratification, but a poor substitute for the real thing.
My burger reflects the deeper logic of its creation — the desacralized mechanism of the one best way endemic in our culture. It is just mystery meat without the mystery of life and renewal that define authentic eating. Its primary characteristic is the elimination of everything human like spontaneity, sociality, and spirituality from one of the most basic human activities. The very same mentality behind the creation of our industrial food system also makes possible industrial production, industrial education, industrial religion, and industrial war.
The mindset of absolute efficiency is enacted in mass-production and planned obsolescence. One of the primary products of our exquisitely efficient global economy is the piles of cheap plastic crap destined to become the other prodigious product of that economy — garbage. This system extends itself in a bad infinity of artificial desires where we make things we don't need for the profit of a few, only to send them to the landfill later. For example, there is the endless stream of super-sized plastic cups and paper burger wrappers resulting from our fast food fetish.
Our educational system, having embraced efficiency as the priority, has largely given up on the crucial project of the transmission of culture in favor of baby-sitting, job skills, football teams, and SATs. That learning can be easily quantified in the standardized examination — and, consequently, that all learning must be directed toward that examination — remains the presupposition of the efficiency paradigm. A university degree is now, more often than not, considered to be yet another commodity to be bought and sold rather than something arduously procured through perseverance and talent. Not surprisingly, the historically crucial skills of farming and food preparation remain virtually absent from our educational system.
Fundamentalism is the industrial form of religion. The formulaic salvation of the born-again Christian, or of the radical Wahabi suicide bomber, both reduce life's mystery to the certainty of the machine. Fundamentalism suppresses the attitude of wonder that is the true gateway to the apprehension of the spiritual. The television and the mega-church allow contemporary charlatans to take advantage of economies of scale in the salvation of souls but neither provides the space for true communion. The ethical efficiency of industrial religion exterminates uncertainty and forgets that breaking bread forms its own spiritual center.
The efficiency in killing other humans achieved in the twentieth century through the complete industrialization of war is unprecedented in human history. The machine gun and the smart bomb both exemplify the calculating rationality of technique through the economy of effort by which they achieve their macabre goal. Not so long ago we had to endure the blood stain of those we vanquished. Now that we've discovered “the one best way” to kill each other, it is possible to imagine self-induced extinction.
By replacing natural efficiencies with artificial ones, the industrialization of agriculture diminishes and destroys our basic relationship with the land, plants, and animals that nourish our bodies. More importantly, it serves to undermine the cultural relationships that make eating a sacred activity and thereby does away with one of the primary means by which we can nourish our souls. Every bite of that burger on the highway is an act that turns away from the ancient mysteries of Ceres and Bacchus, of revering the miracles of bread and wine. These mysteries lie at the heart of the human condition. While that burger may satisfy me for the moment, it will never sustain us in our calling to be truly human.