adventures in craft beer and real food

Thursday, April 06, 2006

What is food?

I recently finished reading Fast Food Nation and wanted to write about it. Not wanting to say more about something that has been written about exhaustively, I decided to see what other people had to say about the book. As I performed some (admittedly cursory) research, I realized that a lot of readers don't seem to know what food is.

(I thought I'd respond to some of the negative hue and cry surrounding the book.)

The most common reasonable criticism of Fast Food Nation is that the book doesn't talk about fast food. People rail against Schlosser for blaming everything on kids dropping out of school to BSE on the shoulders of the fast food giants. These people do have a point in one regard. Every kid has a choice to stay in school or not; Burger King doesn't have a say.

However, anyone who maintains such a view against the book is exposing a gross ignorance about food.

I won't adopt the attitude of the stern moralist who laments at how "people these days" have lost a sense of connection between the source of their food and themselves. I will say, however, that I lost that connection. Maybe as an American I never had an appreciation for where my food came from. And finding this connection again has been a wonderul discovery for me, even as I acknowledge that I have a long, long way to go.

That hamburger you get at a restaurant came from somewhere. The meat came from cows, each with personalities, each raised in a particular environment of animal husbandry. That cow was then killed and processed into neat little quarter pounders. At each step along the way, people are trying to make a living. In buying six tacos for $5, you're supporting minimum wage paying jobs that don't provide employees with training or transferable skills. You're supporting meatpackers getting injured on the job. And you're supporting honest ranchers losing their land as they are increasingly bullied around by the meatpacking industry.

Food is more than something you shove into your mouth. Food originates from a place. Food originates from a person and is conveyed to you by people. What we eat and how often we eat it has historical and ethical dimensions. Food is what connects us to the earth and to each other.

I'm not advocating vegetarianism (I like meat too much). Nor am I suggesting that everyone has to slaughter rabbits as Thomas Keller did to realize the fundamental inescapable truth of cooking. That the goal of cooking is to transform something that lived into something worthy of that life.

Fast food falls well short of that goal.

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