Last week, Christina and I posted our thoughts on the first part of Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, entitled “The American Way.” This week, we’re discussing part two: “Meat and Potatoes.” I went the audiobook route with this one. The narrator, Rick Adamson, is a good fit for the text.
Part one focused largely on the history of the fast food industry. It wasn’t what I’d expected; I’d assumed there would be more exploration of the food. Turns out Schlosser was saving that side of things for part two. It’s been years since I’ve eaten fast food, and Fast Food Nation only reinforced my position.
“Meat and Potatoes” opens with a trip to the french fry factory and a brief history of the industry. Then comes the section called “Food Product Design.” I’d heard most of what Schlosser has to say about the taste and smell of modern food before, but the pages that followed provided a good reminder. This brief section was one of the most interesting to me. A few highlights:
- As of 2001, two-thirds of flavor additives (the ever present “natural flavors” and “artificial flavors”) sold in the US are manufactured in New Jersey.
- Because our olfactory systems are able to detect far more aromas than our tongues are tastes, the way a food smells can be responsible for up to 90% of its flavor.
- Flavors and fragrances used in food are often extremely complex. Schlosser cites a typical artificial strawberry flavor, such as might be used in a fast food milkshake, for which he lists all 50 hard-to-pronounce ingredients.
- Also important to developing a flavor is the food’s “mouthfeel”: the way in which chemicals and textures combine to create the overall flavor perception. That’s where additives like gums, emulsifiers, starches, and stabilizers come in.
To close out “Food Product Design,” Schlosser recounts his experience sampling artificial fragrances in a flavor lab: cherries, olives, shrimp, and then:
“Grainger’s most remarkable creation took me by surprise. After closing my eyes, I suddenly smelled a grilled hamburger. The aroma was uncanny, almost miraculous. It smelled like someone in the room was flipping burgers on a hot grill. But when I opened my eyes, there was just a narrow strip of white paper and a smiling flavorist.” (p. 129)
On the one hand, it’s pretty amazing that mixing a bunch of chemicals can produce such realistic fragrances. But on the other hand…ew!
Most of the rest of “Meat and Potatoes” focuses on fast food meat, with an emphasis on beef. I was repulsed to hear about lax regulations, diseased cattle, and all the nasty things that find their way into meat packaged for consumption. Schlosser also spends a long time looking at meat packing plants, from their conditions to their workers to their injury rates. At one point (I don’t know what I was thinking!) I was listening to a particularly gory description while eating lunch; I actually had to stop the audiobook and take a minute before I could return to my meat-free soup. Schlosser wraps up the book with an exploration of the terrible disease outbreaks that can occur (and have occurred) because of contaminated meat. There were moments when I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t go back to being a vegetarian before realizing not even vegetables are safe. E. coli in bagged spinach, anyone?
What struck me most about Fast Food Nation was its thoroughness. Schlosser examines the fast food industry from an impressive number of angles, taking into account cogs in the machine I’d never even considered. Instead of writing a book on why fast food is bad for you, he tackled the whole fast food beast, from its inception to its modern repercussions. As I said last week, the statistics are ten years old, and I wonder how (if) they’ve changed over the course of a decade. I don’t think this is the book you read if you’re particularly gung-ho about American fast food, but then, that much should be obvious from the book’s subtitle: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. I learned quite a bit from Fast Food Nation, even if Schlosser had an agenda (don’t we all?), and I’m glad Christina finally got me to read it!
Be sure to check out Christina’s thoughts on the second half of Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser as well!