This book is linked, in my mind, with two other books. One is Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals which I read in February after attending his talk at BC and the other is Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. This book is much more like that latter than the former but it is the differences between the former and this book that are rather compellingly defining the food landscape in 2010.
Fast Food Nation is nearly ten years old. There’ve been reprints, of course – there’s an added epilogue of sorts that deals with a few claims made about the book after its publication as well as some Mad Cow (“Denny Crane!”) stuff. Foer’s book was published less than a year ago. Foer’s book, interestingly, didn’t really look specifically at the fast-food market but rather the factory farm – which is, as we all know, an evil form of corporate domination that we can’t really shake off. Where Foer’s book was (and I’ve given a lot of thought to this slight change in tone from my original review) about the case for vegetarianism and secondly the case for eating locally/organically, Schlosser’s book is much more about society, government, corporations… and in that sense, it really is a 21st Century The Jungle. The sections about the slaughterhouses and the injuries that occur… I legitimately had to throw out the sandwich I was eating. Horrifying and, yes, if I still ate fast food (except on special occasions… and even then, I eat Chik-fil-a or Sonic and that’s about it) I’d probably give it up.
But I already gave up fast food quite some time ago. Part of that is thanks to my parents, part of it thanks to my own personal discovery. Regardless, this book shouldn’t have meant much to me – or at least that’s what I thought going into it. However, it isn’t just about the horrors of the fast food industry. Instead, it talks about how our society, our economy, our world has become what Benjamin Barker calls “McWorld” – the fast food mindset has entered into our collective subconscious and is now the dominant form of how we do things.
The book devotes a considerable amount of its first half to an exploration of how these companies that dominate the world today (like McDonald’s) came to be – and that’s fascinating. True triumphs of The American Dream and Capitalism – and as Schlosser points out at the end, none of those corporations still stand for the same thing. There’s a big comparison throughout that first half to the Disney Corporation, which is (without any knowledge) a seemingly strange comparison… but wow, are there a lot of similarities between the way Disney grew up and the way the fast food movement grew up.
Is Schlosser’s book well written? Yes. Different style from Foer’s book and that makes it stronger – there is a tone of authority here. (Notably, there were a fair amount of typos – HarperPerennial, I love your Olive Editions but… tsktsk) I think the most fascinating argument in this book is one that I’ve espoused for quite some time: that we have the power to change the way business is run. If everyone were to say “we’re not going to buy that Big Mac because of X,” then McDonald’s would trip over itself to fix X. Unfortunately, fast food and the lifestyle have become something of a drug – its cheap and it tastes good and so what? Well, the so what is the overwhelmingly obese populations of the world, the children who die of heart attacks, the unchecked food poisoning that comes about without any repercussions for the negligent companies that allowed their products to go unchecked. We are facing a major food crisis in the not too distant future – Schlosser saw that ten years ago and Foer sees it now. They both present interesting and rather different opinions on how to solve that crisis and I can say, without doubt, that I will follow Schlosser over Foer any day.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. The book is so well-researched that there are nearly a hundred pages of notations. The information he presents is done so in a non-biased and yet oh-so-biased way. To top it all off, he (as he says at the end of the book) “remain[s] optimistic” and the reader is left to believe that we should remain so, too. The typos took away from the experience, though, and some of the graphic realities were just… well, they were unpleasant to read (no matter how important we must consider them to be). Now, when can I get back to Borough Market to do some grocery shopping?