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April 19, 2006

"Fast Food Nation," Part 1

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I was staring at a posting I'd been laboring over ...

I'd read Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation." While I have many reservations about the book, it had sure got me remembering, musing, and thinking -- to the point where the resulting blog-posting had grown much too long. Then it occurred to me: Why not break the posting into parts and run it as a series? So here it is: Part one of a series of postings prompted by "Fast Food Nation" -- the (whee!) thinking-about-myself part.

I divide the story of my relationship to food and eating into three chapters.

  • Chapter One: The Unconscious Years. The world of food-and-eating that I was born into was mid-America in the '50s-and-'60s -- a world of breakfast cereals, Cool Whip, packaged pancake mixes, Pop Tarts, Baco Bits, new supermarkets in new shopping malls, canned cake icing, Jello, Tang ...

    Funny how some of these tastes stay with you, isn't it? A for-instance: "Soft ice cream," no matter how suspicious I am of it these days, still makes me feel as happy to eat as it did when I was a kid.

    Despite the era, Western New York State offered some heavenly fresh bounty too, at least as far as produce went, and at least for some months of the year. Apples, corn, strawberries, lettuce, watermelons, and tomatoes were all plentiful and tasty. Farm stands were numerous, fun to visit, and a pleasure to patronize.

    The food-and-eating habits of my family had their own quirks. My dad was a congenial charmer, a salesman who enjoyed company, food, alcohol, and a modest expense account. His idea of the good life included plenty of beer, a big wooden bowl full of salad, steak with A-1 Sauce, and potatoes. He cared not a whit for sweets until he developed diabetes and was forbidden them. In his declining years, food-pleasure became even more important to him. Food and eating seemed to be -- by far -- his biggest remaining pleasure. During his retirement, it wasn't uncommon for my dad to spend a meal's conversation-time discussing past meals and speculating about future ones.

    My Mom was a different kind of creature. A loving person but also something of a robot, she was no fan of organic nature. If food needed to be consumed, then let it be as little trouble as possible. My mother dreamed of a day when people would subsist on astronaut food (pills, and paste in tubes, basically). She really did. Until then, as far as she was concerned, canned and frozen nourishment would have to do. Was it tasteless? Mushy? Oversalted? A small price to pay. Remember the restaurant dramedy "Big Night"? After the showpiece dinner, the camera tracks over blissed-out guests, groggy from rich food. One girl is whimpering and sobbing. She finally blurts out, "My mother was such a bad cook!" I can relate.

  • Chapter Two: The Awakening. Well, actually two awakenings.

    One was triggered off by the hippie years. What a shock to discover that there were additives in our food! Quel horreur to learn that the American food business was more concerned with making money than with delivering health, taste, and nutrition! I'm being a little mocking, and that's unfair of me. We take cynicism about corporations so for-granted these days that we can forget that these discoveries really did come as a shock to many people.

    My other food-awakening was triggered off by a high-school year in France. At first French food bewildered me. It was so simple yet so strict ... What was that about? And food-and-meals-and-eating were such a very big deal, culturally-speaking. How bizarre that the French didn't race through meals in order to go have American-style "fun."

    Yet at the same time, something about my immersion in French values did work some magic on me. I woke up, if dimly, to the importance of taste, of freshness, of ritual, and of sensuality. Taking your time ... Letting the moment permeate your system ... Food-shopping, food-preparation, and dining didn't have to be roadblocks on the way to something more exciting. Like sex, they could be the whole point and goal, and not just a pause for refreshment on the road to something better.

    It was in the '70s that I made my first visits to California too. California came as a food-revelation in its own way. I learned in Berkeley and L.A. that the French virtues could be relaxed. They didn't have to be strict, or a burden. Sophisticated, tasty and healthy food could be an informal pleasure. I took to what I encountered instantly. California-Mediterranean ruled, as far as I was concerned.

    My interest in food was partly anthropological during this stretch. I had no cooking skills of my own, and I certainly didn't have the money to indulge in high-end restaurant adventures. So I explored the food world by experimenting with "ethnic" and foreign cuisines: Japanese, Moroccan, Indian, African. Small, hard-to-believe historical note: As recently as the 1980s, sushi was an exotic treat that most Americans hadn't even heard of. Taking in that first mouthful of raw fish could seem as momentous an occasion as losing your virginity. Well, come to think of it, there are other similarities too ...

    It was also during this stretch that I met my first food critics and restaurant reviewers, and that I did my own first reading about food: a few books about health and the American food-processing machine, and a lot of nosing around in food encylopedias and travel/eating/anthro books. But also much essayistic writing about food -- Elizabeth David, MFK Fisher (I am not a fan, btw), and Margaret Visser all made their marks.

  • Chapter Three: The Mature Years. In a word, I fell in love. The Wife is a serious and devoted (though also charming and fun) California-style foodie, as well as an excellent cook. She's as enthusiastic about food as she is about any kind of pleasure -- which is saying a lot, given what a headstrong pleasure-junkie she is.

    She has a definite food-snob side to her. Like many foodies, she adores the high and the low: high-high-end food, first-rate junk food (California's In-N-Out burgers never fail to delight), and also folk cooking. But most middlebrow food strikes her as not worth the trouble to notice, let alone eat. (Recently, though, she has been going through a phase of marveling over the whole "neighborhood restaurant that's just good enough and lasts for decades, unlike stylish places" phenomenon.) In The Wife's eyes, food is beyond-central. It's an end in itself as well as a metaphor for everything else that matters: art, sex, family, life, friends, love, travel, money.

    Through her, I've learned how to experience food as art. Soul food can be as funky as the blues, Southern cooking as spiritual as roots-country music, and high-end art-cooking can be the equivalent of a visit to the Met. It took a few years and a lot of negotiating for the two of us to find a mutual equilibrium where food was concerned. The Wife could spend every waking hour thinking about food; I need a few breaks. Though she cooks a lot, she also enjoys spending big dough sampling restaurants. I'd rather spend a few of those bucks on media toys.

    The Wife has prevailed on all counts. Food is a constant in our relationship. We're as likely to take a cooking class together or to attend a wine tasting as we are to go to the theater. And, where expense is concerned, food is a major one. Yet that's OK with me now. A couple of years ago, for instance, I took The Wife for our anniversary to New York's Bouley restaurant. The bill: over $400. Yet the meal struck me as a bargain. It was one piece of exquisite poetry after another, orchestrated by an expert and enthusiastic staff into an evening as enriching and memorable as any cultural event I've ever attended. It was without a doubt one of the most transporting aesthetic experiences of my life. After it, I found myself wondering: Is there a greater artist working today than David Bouley? More important, of course, was the pleasure the evening gave to The Wife. For weeks afterwards, she was purring -- a very sweet sight to witness.

    I still manage to dodge 95% of all cooking chores. But I now participate in the general food-thing happily and eagerly. None of it's a chore. I'm happy to run out for bread or olive oil or wine. Cleaning-up and garbage duties have nothing onerous about them. And, more and more, I've begun to play sous-chef. A little slicing and dicing ... Some fussing with the garlic and the onions ... You want fresh salad dressing? I'm your man.

    A few months ago I took a beginning-cooking class at this good place. Loved it -- what fun! Main conclusion: Why would any sensible person with a full life want to pursue an art-hobby other than cooking? Talk about fun and rewarding ... To my surprise, I discovered that I was by far the most experienced student in the class. It turns out that, by simple virtue of hanging out with The Wife, I've picked up quite a lot. Hey, did you know that there are people out there who have no idea what a "roux" is? Can you imagine?

When you think about your own relationship with food, cooking, and eating, what chapters do you break the story into?

Next: Michael Blowhard visits a slaughterhouse.



posted by Michael at April 19, 2006


Sure, I know what a roux is. "A lecherous dissipated man."

Oops, that's roué, isn't it? And yet somehow, I'm not sure I'm completely mistaken...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 19, 2006 3:44 PM

I'm with your wife on this one. My husband and I love to cook, to eat out, to read about food--you have read Jeffrey Steingarten, haven't you?

Last fall, we ate at Cyrus Restaurant in Healdsburg, CA. I highly recommend. Extremely high-end, high quality dining presented in a casual, friendly manner. Not to say that they stinted on presentation or atmosphere, just that the experience wasn't presented as a Temple to Food, at which we must worship. If I think hard enough, I can still taste the foie gras in a cider sauce. Ummm.

Posted by: CyndiF on April 19, 2006 4:09 PM

FvB -- I think they *are* synonyms! Though I'm still curious to learn what the stages of your food-life have been.

CyndiF -- Foie gras in cider sauce? You're getting me all worked-up here, girl!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 19, 2006 4:23 PM

I'm curious why you don't like MFK Fisher, I am something of a fan of hers. Is it worth a posting on her?

I agree with you on food as one of the better contemporary arts. I think movies are perhaps the leading art form of this period (still), pop music is fading from the great heights of the half century from 1930-1980, food is up there, and so are professional sports. Both food and sport occupy a bit of a netherworld between art and craft.

Posted by: MQ on April 19, 2006 5:40 PM

Thanks to the folks at the Food Network, I know what a "roux" is as well as "blanching", "parboiling", and a lotta other culinary terms.

Apparently, though, most people don't and the cookbooks are being rewritten:

Posted by: Bryan on April 19, 2006 5:57 PM

Food is a constant in our relationship.

That's my kind of relationship. Appreciation of good food (which is not necessarily the same thing as fancy food) is a bit like appreciation of light and color: you can live without it but it makes life much better.

Posted by: Jonathan on April 19, 2006 7:51 PM

Did anybody else read all those Adelle Davis nutrition books in the seventies? "Let's Eat Right to Keep Fit," "Let's Have Healthy Children," etc. They were my Bible when I was a teenager.
Nowadays I'm a good veggie, but not a vegan.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 19, 2006 8:06 PM

Indeed, I can remember my first taste of sushi, one lunch hour about ten years ago at a low-end sort of place on 23rd Street. It was almost frightening, the sort of thing I had to more or less force myself into just to see what all the fuss was about. I put on way too much soy sauce, thinking that would make the fish more palpable.
While it would be an exaggeration to say that the first mouthful instantly converted me to a sushi-lover, before long I came to enjoy the stuff quite a bit, as I still do.

Posted by: Peter on April 19, 2006 8:54 PM

Interesting trajectory, which kind of mirrors my own. I grew up in the heart of the city with a 1960's mom who was ahead of her time in understanding nutrition but loathed cooking, along with proximity to roadside harvest (on trips to grandma's, who was a kick-ass cook) and a handful of good restaurants in the neighborhood (although they couldn't touch the freshness/inventiveness/authenticity of today's eateries).

Hurry up with part II. I can't WAIT to visit the sausage factory!

Posted by: communicatrix on April 19, 2006 9:06 PM

Yesterday while dropping off some shoes to be fixed at a shop here in the 16th district of Paris I witnessed this wonderful scene and was reminded of all the reasons I love living in France. As the cobbler was writing out my ticket a well-dressed but very rushed businessman came into the shop and asked if they could make him a duplicate key. Cobbler said, "Of course". "Fine," said the businessman, "I'll be back at lunchtime to drop it off." To which the cobber politely but firmly replied, "Sir, at lunchtime here, WE eat."
The sight of that cobbler in his dirty apron, smoking his cigarette, staring down that businessman and flatly refusing to give up his lunch hour, is one I will cherish.

And for those who might interpret this story as another example of how the French are not properly service-oriented, I will add that that day I brought in three pairs of shoes to be fixed but the cobbler only took two of them. The third, when I told him they were my favorite shoes, he fixed on the spot. For free.

Posted by: Victoria Férauge on April 20, 2006 1:21 AM

Reminds me of one of my fav films -- Babbette's Feast (especially all those different bottles of wine for different courses). To think of it: Babbette blew her entire lottery winning on one meal. Cooking as elevated artwork, eating as aesthetic, spiritual experience.

Posted by: Tim B. on April 20, 2006 7:11 AM

Nor am I a fan of MFK Fisher. MQ and I think the reasons you're not a fan are worth a blog. Thanks

Posted by: reese on April 20, 2006 10:10 AM

Ah, food. My mother was Italian, and married a man, my father (not Italian), who hated onions, garlic and cooked tomatoes. She abandoned Italian food altogether for him and cooked straight up American fare---meat loaf, broiled chicken, mashed potatoes, chocolate cake. She was a perfectly good cook, but she was working with a limited audience in my dad. All three of us kids were dumbstruck when we first tasted what we normally think of as "Italian food" in America---including pasta, lasagna, veal parmesan---and adored it, and realized we had a mother who could cook it and hadn't because of our dad. Then, of course, it true typical fashion, my parents took a vacation to Italy, where no meat loaf was available, and my dad...discovered he loved Italian food. This was of course when all three of us were nearly out of the house.

Then came the experimental and self indulgent years---trying out different cuisines, discovering that you had your own apartment and could just, y'know, any time you wanted! The forbidden pleasure!

Then came reality, a slowdown in the metabolism,and a discovery of Adkins. Now that's pretty much what I try to stick to, although sometimes with more success than others!

Winnifer--yes, I remember Adele Davis. My mother (the Italian who couldn't cook Italian!) discovered her and read a lot about it after her first cancer bout. But then Adele died of cancer...her reputation sort of took a hit.

Posted by: annette on April 20, 2006 10:21 AM

Sushi was the gateway food to a more expanded palette for me. Before that, it was either meat and potatoes type meals or just flat out junk food.

Posted by: the patriarchy on April 20, 2006 10:21 AM

P.S.---that was supposed to be "eat ice cream any time you wanted."

Posted by: annette on April 20, 2006 10:22 AM

MQ -- The borderline between art and craft is a nice place to be, isn't it? Art and craft often both seem to flourish -- art when it feels it can serve an actual purpose, and craft when it feels like it can get a little crazy. Cut art loose from a sense of purpose and many bizarreries result (some of them admittedly entertaining ...) I should give MFK Fisher a little thought, it was so long ago ... I remember hating the loftiness, the focus on her mouth-experience as though it was something religious and noble, and all that writin', writin' ... At the time, Calvin Trillin was much more my man, or (when I was in the mood for something loftier) Elizabeth David. Curious to know what you like about MFK!

Bryan -- You da food man, tks.

Jonathan -- Amen to both of your assertions.

WS - Funny to remember how big a figure Adelle Davis was, no? I wonder if she was finally a useful person (however crackpotty), just in terms of raising awareness a bit ...

Peter -- The sushi-initiation moment is/was a kind of scary, gruesome, voluptuous thing, no? I once introduced some marine biologist friends to their first sushi. They were giggling, I asked why, and they said, "Because we know what can go wrong with this stuff." Gave me a little pause, I confess.

Colleen -- I suspect that many Grandmas were once kickass cooks. I've been told (what do I really know?) that, hard though it is to believe, midwestern cooking was, once upon a time, often really fabulous -- that all those pies and casseroles, done right, were blissful. And I had a midwestern grandma who could indeed put on quite a yummy Thanksgiving show. Imagine that: good food, in the midwest. Somehow it all slipped away -- mostly in the post-WWII years. A funny era ...

Victoria -- That's a beautifully-turned (and telling) little anecdote. Some people and some cultures know how to get their priorities straight. I'm told that the same holds even in the French film industry. Americans are used to long hours and rushed meals, or meals on the go. French film people often dream up their films over lunch and wine, they always break for a long lunch, and do their best to go home at a sensible time. (Or at least they once did. I wonder if this has changed.) There's a Phd thesis in it: the effect of gastronomical habits on the national characteristics of films ...

Tim B. -- Babette was onto something, no?

Reese -- I'm much more eager to hear what you didn't like about MFK than I am to go back and re-look at her! I remember living through the rediscovery of her (in the late '70s? early '80s), giving a couple of her books a try, and being very put-off by them. The narcissism, the loftiness, the excessive literariness ... But she seems to mean a lot to a lot of foodies, particularly of the more self-serious sort, or so it seems (maybe unfairly) to me. One of the ways I knew The Wife was my kind of gal was when I discovered that, although a foodie, she hates MFK Fisher's writing too. Ah, the things we bond over ...

Patriarchy -- That's a great subject too: how/what/when you opened up to a more expanded palate. Interesting to learn that sushi did it for you. Something similar happens in the other arts too, don't you find? You're a musician -- what would you say first opened your ears/mind to a broader understanding of musical possibilities?

Annette -- That's a great -- sad, ironic, sweet -- tale. Too bad you had to live without all that potential first-class Italian cooking. Did your Mom give your Dad a solid clonk when he discovered that in fact he loved Italian cooking? I'm surprised he lived to see another day. Funny/wonderful how talking about food habits and experiences turns out to be a nice way to do a quick (but evocative) autobiography, isn't it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 20, 2006 10:44 AM

And now ... as the Pythons lads put it ... for something completely different!

Henry Luce, of Time magazine fame, is said to have claimed "food is just fuel" as he reached for his hot dog lunch.

And then there's me. I just checked on my World's Fussiest Eater ranking. My agent tells me I dropped to 9th place last month. Gotta do something about that.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 20, 2006 11:05 AM

My mother was a poor cook, but of course I didn't know it til decades later. Until college, dinner meant fish sticks or tuna casserole and lunch meant some combination of Velveeta and Wonderbread and Campbells tomato soup. She did make a nice potato soup and when my daughter's class had a project on family ethnic recipes I got it from her and it was a big hit.

My epiphany was during a junior year spent in France, but it came towards the end as I spent most of the time eating in student hostels where I lived on (to my corrupted taste) vastly undersalted potage. And cheese.

I hitchhiked from Paris to Rome with my girlfriend and a friend of hers and we were picked up by an old art dealer who was headed for Nice. We stayed with him for three days and he put us up in nice hotels and dined us in the best restaurant in whatever town we were in. We were sure he was going to make a play for one of the two women, but the dear man never made a move. But he did do the ordering.

Putting snails in your mouth made as much sense to me as shovelling down carriage bolts and cotter pins, but I could hardly say no. I didn't like them (still don't) but having actually gotten them past my gag reflex made me realize that eating for me had always been just acquiring fuel. I would find something I didn't hate and be content to eat it every day. It freed me to be more adventurous and even gave me a little curiosity about new foods. Which was a wonderful thing because the next day I was in Italy.

Posted by: Sluggo on April 20, 2006 11:26 AM

It's funny. I'm so the foodie: love cooking and discovering new dishes, pay more for quality on a rather limited budget, critically evaluate even the lowbrow stuff, etc. I'm also far more snobbish about beer than anyone I know.

Yet I can be a terrible cynic about food culture. I'm turned off by pomposity, for one, such that I often dislike aspects of the atmosphere at high-brow restaurants, presumably the very aspects which contribute to other patrons' enjoyment. But what really bugs be is claims about ingredient superiority or recipe precision that with fiber of my being I believe could never give statistically significant results in a double-blind test. I'm all for embracing expectation bias in other aspects of life; it's just that I reject the bombastic, false elitism that seems to motivate many of my acquaintances in their pleasure at high-end food. Plus, I often wish they could provide some really stimulating conversation. Yes, the food is of high quality. Take that for granted. I don't need to hear about how some sauce is "exquisite". Tell me something actually interesting that's on your mind.

Posted by: J. Goard on April 20, 2006 2:26 PM

Thank you, Michael. Lunch is sacred. But I'm not so sure about the "going home at a sensible hour" part. Perhaps in another era (or in another sector) that was the case. If I may explode another myth about the French (and the 35-hour work week), in all the French companies I have worked for, we engineers tend to work quite late. If my husband and I are home before 9:00 PM, it is unusual.

But, yes, food continues to matter here. Before I truly became part of my French family 15 years ago I had to pass two tests. The first was - is she Catholic? The second was - can she cook? The first meant that I was marriageable, the second ensured me an honored place in the family crypt in the Limousin. My French mother-in-law is still impressed that her American daughter-in-law from Seattle can make a truly sublime cheese soufflé without a recipe. ;-)

Posted by: Victoria Férauge on April 20, 2006 3:09 PM

J.Goard, we think alike (a rare case).

That's why out of all French cooking books/shows I prefer Jacques Pepin's: casual freedom with ingredients, no strain in following precision of a recipe, not a worshiping cult, in other words. I love it when he says-sometimes when I'm in the mood and depending what I find fresh on the market this morning I change this dish slightly.

And all the time he gives this impression that preparation of escellent dinner is just a prelude - a conversation perhaps...or something else of the daily pleasures of life.

Posted by: Tatyana on April 20, 2006 3:40 PM

I am of two minds about the French two-hour-lunch thing. On the one hand I think it's a colossal waste of time. On the other hand, if I work from breakfast to midday and then eat a big lunch, I subsequently become drowsy and have difficulty getting much done until after I digest. The only remedy I have found is to eat frequent small snacks and avoid lunch, but this is difficult to do in practice. Perhaps the French system is a reasonable alternative. I don't think Americans will go for it, however, even if many of them are barely functional during the hour after lunch.

Posted by: Jonathan on April 20, 2006 11:30 PM

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