Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser (cover)Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser is a book that’s been on my radar–and on my shelf–for years. Thanks to a nudge from Christina of the Ardent Reader, I’m finally tackling this long-standing TBR book. I’m listening to the audiobook, which is, I believe, slightly abridged, though I’m still getting plenty of information. The reader, Rick Adamson, isn’t particularly noticeable, which is the sort of reader I prefer for nonfiction!

The book is broken into two parts, and Christina and I are breaking our posts into two parts as well. Section one, entitled “The American Way,” tackles the fast food restaurant as an entity, detailing its creation, evolution, and current state, and is the section I’ll be discussing today. Section two, “Meat and Potatoes,” appears to get into the actual food part of fast food. We’ll share our thoughts on that part next Thursday.

When I picked up Fast Food Nation, I was expecting another book about how we should eat, something in the Michael Pollan area. I was surprised to find that, at least in the first section, Schlosser takes an entirely different track. He begins with the origins of the fast food industry in America, starting with Carl N. Karcher, one of the industry’s pioneers who went from running hot dog carts in Los Angeles in the 1940s to starting the burger chain Carl’s Jr. Schlosser introduces the McDonald brothers (yes, THOSE McDonalds) and explains how the new American car culture and system of highways presented the opportunity for a new kind of dining, which eventually evolved into the fast food establishments we know today. He wraps up the section by looking at modern fast food restaurants, who they employ and how they’re run.

The scariest part of section one was, for me, reading about just how heavily advertising focus has shifted to children in the past 50 years. Having grown up in a culture where everything from snacks to toothpaste has a kid-focused component, it’s never really occurred to me that it wasn’t always this way and that, at some point, advertisers realized that even though kids have no money of their own, the influence they exert over their parents is so immense that advertising to kids is highly profitable. Schlosser examines the role of the fast food industry in this fundamental shift, and his discussion was eye-opening.

I was also fascinated by Schlosser’s comparison of Ray Kroc, the man who made McDonald’s into the empire it is today, and Walt Disney. Kroc and Disney were contemporaries, born just a year apart in Illinois. They served in the first World War together, then moved to California. But the similarities went much deeper than that. Schlosser writes:

“[T]he two men shared the same vision of America, the same optimistic faith in technology, the same conservative political views. They were charismatic figures who provided an overall corporate vision and grasped the public mood, relying on others to handle the creative and financial details.” (p. 33)

And on top of that, both men were masters of selling to children. There’s more, much more, that Schlosser lists; I’ll let you read it for yourself!

Though I do enjoy a good statistic, I know the ones in Fast Food Nation are outdated. The paperback copy I have is from 2002, nearly a decade ago, and I’m sure the numbers have changed since then. Still, it’s interesting (and often horrifying) to hear where we were at the beginning of the 21st century, and of course the history hasn’t changed. What I’d be curious to know is whether any of the stats Schlosser cites have improved. Is the future looking up, or are we continuing to spiral downwards? I’m not too optimistic.

I have a feeling the second half of Fast Food Nation, “Meat and Potatoes,” will look a little more like what I’d expected, delving into the food side of the fast food industry. I suspect Schlosser won’t hold back, so I’m bracing myself for a potentially revolting ride.

Be sure to check out Christina’s thoughts on Fast Food Nation, and check back next week to see how it all turns out!

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  1. I had forgotten how much of the first section is devoted to the comparison between McDonald’s and Disney and a discussion of advertising. I found it really interesting to read about the addition of toys to the happy meal and how in several instances (particularly the Beany Babies) McDonald’s really sold the toy and the meal was a secondary conclusion. I remember wanting to go to McDonald’s all the time when I was younger so I could collect those toys. Really did not care about the actual meal!

  2. My husband (the non-reader) actually read and finished this book so it has been on my radar for awhile. I think I saw it was made into a documentary film as well…but I may be mistaken.

  3. I read this such a long time ago that I forget much of what the book actually said, so I think it’s time for a reread. I think you should also watch Supersize Me when you get finished with this book. It will really open your eyes.

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