The Book Club

Where Are All the Old, Ordinary, Unpretentious American Places?

Ah yes, ou sont les drugstores, diners, restaurants d’antan? What about Lamb’s Pharmacy, where you could have a black-and-white soda at the polished, dark wooden counter and read the comics for hours without buying them? The proprietor, Mr. Lamb, was a nice, genial, slightly melancholy man who made easy, noncommital conversation with kids and parents alike, a bit like a teetotaling bartender. Today there’s a pretentious lobby–not even a CVS, just empty carpeted space–where that marvelous drugstore used to be. And what about the Prexy’s chain, where they sold “the hamburger with a college education” and the ketchup came in a squeezable plastic tomato? My sweetie says if he wins the lottery, he’s going to start Prexy’s up again. Where’s Schraffts, where’s the Automat? And the Famous Dairy restaurant on 72nd Street? And the restaurant whose name I forget on Montague Street where a toy train ran the length of the counter, picking up orders and delivering food? Oh it’s all too awful, Marjorie. The new ethnic cuisines are great, and the upscale diet is a million times improved. But I miss the old, ordinary, unpretentious American places, the ones that had a little sense of their own distinctiveness and where the waitress called out “whisky down!” when you ordered rye toast. Our kids will never know how exciting it was to glimpse an actual hand slipping the macaroni and cheese into its little slot at the Automat. Good thing they have Eminem to cheer them up.  

I don’t think Schlosser was saying fast food is the only thing happening in American cuisine–and least not yet! I think he’d be quite comfortable acknowledging the explosion of ethnic dining and the growing appreciation for whole and unusual ingredients. It’s a big country and a complicated culture. But some of his points are hard to argue with–the fact that 20 years ago most chicken was sold whole, and now it’s sold as nuggets (at McDonald’s, beef-flavored nuggets!), cutlets, or pieces; that 90 percent of the food we buy is processed; that consolidation in the beef and chicken industries (a telling word) and in agriculture has degraded the quality and safety of the food supply, and most people can’t afford to buy their way out of it. They have to drink regular milk no matter what hormones and antibiotics go into the cow. I thought his discussion of fast food restaurants as elements of suburban design was great also–the way they’re just plopped down with no consideration for anything but traffic flow and draw to themselves other fast food restaurants looking for the same customers, and so before you know it you have a whole convoy of ugly logo-laden buildings serving terrible food.  

At least I think it’s (mostly) terrible. Schlosser, interestingly, doesn’t. Although he often lights into the ingredients, he never criticizes the way the food tastes. In fact, he often says how much he likes fast food. After a long, meticulous description of the process of making French fries in a Pentagon-esque, state-of-the-art factory, he samples the finished product:

A middle-aged woman in a lab coat handed me a paper plate full of premium extra longs, the type of French fries sold at McDonald’s, and a salt shaker, and some ketchup. The fries on the plate looked wildly out of place in this laboratory setting, this surreal food factory with its computer screens, digital readouts, shiny steel platforms, and evacuation plans in case of ammonia gas leaks. The French fries were delicious–crisp and golden brown, made from potatoes that had been in the ground that morning. I finished them and asked for more. (Page 131.)

By enjoying the food, he inoculates himself against the faux populist critique that is so often used to dismiss any challenge to corporate culture: Who are you to quarrel with, the market? It’s only giving people what they want! (That is, what they want after the zillions of dollars in advertising, the deceptive pricing that makes people think they’re getting big bargains, the sharp business practices that drive out alternatives and omitttelling people that, for example, those chicken McNuggets that customers naturally assume are lower-cal and healthier than burgers have twice as much fat per ounce.) The thing is, nobody ever asks people if what they want with their fast food meal is nonunion meat cutters working under dangerous conditions for low wages, or environmental degradation, or farmers reduced to contract laborers for agribusiness. No one ever says, how about a heart attack or some diabetes to go? Or, mad cow disease! We’ve got a great special on that.

Schlosser presents himself as a regular customer (although you wonder that he’s not a vegetarian–or as big as a house–after all his research)–a regular customer who has figured out what the real bill for his Whopper is. He doesn’t ask people to look down on themselves or even to change their habits. He asks them simply to understand the world we live in and try to change it for the better. I felt I understood our world a lot better after reading Fast Food Nation. And I plan to change it in about 15 minutes by having dinner at Shun Lee Cafe.

Perhaps you’ll join me there sometime, Marjorie. This has been lots of fun.