I fell asleep reading an article in a magazine I grabbed in the hotel lobby. The author crowed about how successful we Americans have become in exporting our ways of life – our basic cultural values. I missed my dinner.
In the early morning, with raging hunger pains stabbing at my gut, I broke a vow. First, I ascertained that no one I knew had seen me. Then, I snuck into the line at McDonald’s at the San Jose Airport, the only place open before 6 a.m. With my head down, hunger pains screaming, I did what I had sworn never to do: I muttered Egg McMuffin at the Spanish speaking server who screamed back to the serving area: “un huevo mamoofan.”
“Joo wan cofi?” she asked.
I declined and in less than 10 seconds she grabbed a package placed in its proper slot by an unseen hand behind the counter, slid it into a bag, handed it to me and motioned me toward the cash register, mumbling in heavily accented English “hah a gray one.”
Another Spanish speaking person extracted less than $3 for this hot bag and pointed to the condiments section when I asked for ketchup. “Senk you,” she said. She tried to smile, but the effort only accentuated the pain in her face.
I wondered how long she had been in the United States. According to Eric Schlosser, about “one out of every eight workers has at some point been employed by McDonald’s.” In his Fast Food Nation (2001), Schlosser estimated that some 3.5 million people work in the fast-food service industry, making them the “largest group of minimum-wage earners.”
Without looking carefully at the contents, I unwrapped and smothered the ingredients in ketchup and then picked a remote table in the “dining area.” I left the minimum wage area to sit amongst the higher paid “servicers” of the corporate world.
Around me men and women peered into their Wall St. Journals, which they had arranged aside the McDonalds’ wrappers. Not one person looked at the food he or she was eating.
Then, I stare at the contents of my fare: a grey slice of something, supposedly sausage, stares back. A gluey orange substance – cheese? — has sort of melted over part of it, covering what is probably an egg that looks as if it surrendered. The grease from the grey thing has soaked into the muffin. My hunger pains and my reason have begun a toe to toe battle. “Eat this untidy heap and you’ll never be the same,” screams Jean Jacques Rousseau from deep inside my head.
“G’wan,” try it,” shouts the hunger pain, “it won’t kill you. You haven’t eaten since yesterday’s lunch.” I tell Rousseau to go to sleep and slide the steamy apparatus into my mouth. I try to discern the nature of the elements I have put into my mouth, the constituents on which my teeth masticate. The fake cheese or whatever sticks to the roof of my mouth like peanut butter, but it has a non-food taste. What could it be? I ask myself.
It tastes as if it’s already been eaten,” I conclude. “Maybe this isn’t food,” I think. “Maybe I’m eating technology.” That’s it! I’ve failed to use my critical sensibilities. I think of the redneck joke: “Fast food is hitting a deer at 65 mph.”
I’ve just filled my mouth with taste-provoking esters, manufactured in bulk in labs along the New Jersey Turnpike. Chemists and other technicians inject this ersatz concoction into “food” that now oozes past my tongue and slides effortlessly down the hatch.
I have just swallowed modern technology, a commonplace for hundreds of millions of similar body parts 24 hours a day throughout the world. I have become one with people of all ages, races, ethnic persuasions and occupations. I have quit the slow and joined the “fast food” eaters of the world. Will the “slow food” eaters die off like dinosaurs?
The “fast food meal,” an oxymoron, promoted as “a complete” breakfast redefines eating. In Mexico, Europe, large parts of Asia and even Africa fast food operations have proliferated. Advertised as an exciting novelty, with new treats for taste buds, the ubiquitous burger, chicken, fries and taco “meals” have established themselves as part of the cultural landscape.
The Omaha family flies American Airlines to Paris, rents a Hertz car, which Daddy drives to the Paris Holiday Inn and then goes out for its first authentic French meal at the McDonald’s nearby. Mom does buy some gear to show her friends when they return, material proof that they actually went to Paris.
Indeed, fast food has become universal and has thus accomplished its “marketing” (corporate) purpose by aiding and abetting the cause of increased productivity without forcing a wage hike. It allows the work force to place calories and certain other ingredients into its collective body in the most rapid time possible at a minimum expense. The construction worker that had previously allotted thirty minutes or more for lunch can now stash a Big Mac and fries, washed down with a coke or so-called shake in fifteen minutes or less. He never has to leave his car.
The breakthroughs in technology of “fast food” allow the franchiser to order the standardized ingredients from a central production facility, use standardized cooking and cleaning instruments and of course, employ minimum wage teenage or foreign labor to keep costs down. The fast food servers make no tips, thus keeping the price down for workers who otherwise would have to add 15-20% to their meal expenses.
Fast food also contributes directly to economic growth. According to Schlosser, “Americans now spend more money on fast food – $110 billion last year – than they do on higher education. They spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos and recorded music – combined.” And most people can buy most “meals” for $5 or less.
Fast food “restaurants,” like microwave ovens, allow women, who once cooked every night for their families, to herd hubby and kids into one of the myriad of plastic places that smell of cooking oil being heated to high temperatures and mixed with other material. These impersonal sites serve a variety of products kept warm under lamps that the menu promotes as breakfast, lunch or dinner. The brightly colored signs inside claim that you can even purchase “extra value meals.”
Indeed, Schlosser argues that in addition the fast-food industry spreads the worst of capitalism. Among the bad values it promotes, he lists “hostility to workers’ rights, along with a dehumanizing emphasis on mass production and uniformity at the expense of meaningful worker training and autonomy.”
Back at the airport, an airline employee announces “pre-boarding,” a strange airport code that means disabled people or those with small children should get on the plane. At 6 a.m. my flight has no kids or disabled people, a fact that the airline employees had observed when the passengers checked in.
I stuff the remains of my McMuffin into the bag and push it into one of the ubiquitous waste baskets. Salesmen and tekkies natter into their cell phones asking about prices, quoting figures and exchanging tips with someone at the home office on the East Coast. The ubiquitous metal object held to their ear has become cruel life-prop.
How did we ever live without them? Like fast food and other wonderful gadgets and toys, the cell phone allows them to be more “productive,” or for someone to extract more labor from them. Hey, people can eat fast food and cut deals on cell phones at the same time they board a plane to cut another deal and have another fast food meal on landing!
On the plane, the pre-take off ritual begins with announcements from the head flight attendant. “I’ll call you from LA,” my seatmate shouts into his cell phone. He then attaches it to his belt and shuts down his laptop. I feel like an oddball, without phone or laptop, albeit I have shared an ingestion experience with most of the other passengers. The captain reassures us that everything is normal, the temperature is 61 degrees, the flight will take one hour and five minutes, flying conditions are good “so sit back and relax.”
Easy for him to say. He probably didn’t eat an Egg McMuffin. I wonder if what I just ate contained genetically modified material. How many Egg McMuffins would it require to develop stomach or colon cancer, with or without genetic modification? Is this Jewish neurosis or practical science?
The McDonald’s story didn’t end when the plane landed. My teenage daughter waited for me in her car. On the car floor lay several McDonald’s wrappers; some, by olfactory estimation, had been there for some time. I disciplined myself and said nothing.
McDonald’s has become standard teenage fare. It has shaped my daughter’s taste buds – at least until she is open to having them reshaped. How pernicious this technology becomes as it fashions food aesthetics while it prolongs work hours. Indeed, I can well understand why corporate executives eagerly export this kind of culture.
Saul Landau is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University. More than fifteen of his films are available at Cinema Guild 800-723-5522